Graduating with special purpose


by Martha Graham


When Laurie Weese graduates from James Madison University on Thursday, May 7, with a master’s degree in school counseling, it will be one more milestone for a family where milestones are hard fought and precious.

A full-time graduate student for the past three years, Laurie, and her husband Robert, who is planning and schedule supervisor for facilities management at JMU, are raising three teenage sons.

Two are challenged by autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by communication difficulties, both verbal and social, and often by repetitive behaviors. Presentations of autism range from severe to so mild they can be undetectable. Garrett Weese, 14, falls along the severe end. Nathan, 16, is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

After the couple retired from the military seven years ago, following a combined 40 years of service that included a tour in Iraq for Robert, they looked for a place to settle down. After scouting out multiple states and communities, they choose the Shenandoah Valley when they found an inclusive school system that was a good fit for their sons.

The Weeses also found multiple services through JMU’s Inter-professional Autism Clinic, where, Robert says, “They treat us like family.”

IPAC is part of JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services, which merges the educational process with community needs by coordinating specialists, such as occupational therapists, speech therapists, applied behavioral analysts and students for the benefit of children with autism.

When the Weeses first moved to Broadway, Garrett was nonverbal, could not dress himself, and exhibited autism through hand flapping and loud humming. With regular therapy and a supportive family, Garrett has made progress, measured slowly but steadily. He makes eye contact now, Laurie says, and with the help of occupational therapists, he dresses himself and does family chores, like vacuuming. Years of speech therapy and consistent encouragement from all involved in his life have also greatly increased his vocabulary.

When their boys were first diagnosed, Robert says: “My wife did ungodly amounts of research. She’s the founder of the cause in our family. She’s taken it head on.”

“One of the best courses I’ve taken here at JMU is the play therapy course,” Laurie says. “That’s what got me more interested in working with kids. They say that for kids whose vocabulary is very limited, play is their language.”

Rather than be discouraged by Garrett’s challenges, Laurie feels blessed: “He’s a great kid.” He’s clever and communicates his way, she says, relating a time he wanted a cookie. “He got my car keys and set off my car alarm.” She found him standing in the kitchen, grinning. “Cookie?” he said.

Despite autism’s challenges, the Weeses are a typical family in many ways. Their busy life includes soccer games, homework assignments, high-school events — and many hours of speech and occupational therapy.

Connor Weese, 13, attends J. Frank Hillyard Middle School and is an enormous help to the family.

“Connor is a wonderful kid,” Robert says. “He’s had to help a lot, especially with Garrett. He interacts with him nonstop. It’s easy for Laurie and me to forget he’s the youngest because we rely on him. I thought it would be a problem, but he’s enthusiastic. If we go rolling skating, he says, ‘I’ll go with Garrett,’ and he loves doing it.”

Nathan, a freshman at Broadway High School, is also diagnosed with autism but to a much lesser degree. His range of ASD is attributed to such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Nobel laureate John Nash. Often individuals in his range of ASD are highly intelligent.

“Nathan will be fine,” Robert says. He would like to go to college and is also interested in the military, two of many options he’ll have.

College is indeed an option for some students with autism, says Dr. Brett Tjaden, professor of computer science, who advises JMU students diagnosed with ASD. “With most differences, there are strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “Very often we focus on the weaknesses that come with a particular disability and not enough on the strengths. There are some obstacles, but there are also some real strengths.”

Much of Laurie’s decision to pursue a graduate degree stems from her desire to help her sons and other children. Counseling was also in her background. In the military, she had worked as a certified drug and alcohol counselor.

In addition to raising three boys, Laurie plans to work toward another milestone: licensure, which requires 4,000 hours of clinical work. Eventually, she would like to become a Licensed Professional Counselor.

In the meantime, there are more soccer games to make and more milestones to meet.

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May 4, 2015

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Published: Monday, May 4, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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