PHILADELPHIA — After a doctor diagnosed 8-year-old Kate Jones with autism, a member of Kate’s child study team at her New Jersey elementary school told her mother to forget college.

“Lower your expectations,” Laura Jones recalls being told at the time.

Both mother and daughter celebrated a hard-fought triumph when Kate, now 18, moved into her dorm late last month at the Manhattan School of Music, where she’s studying musical theatre.

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“She’s following her dream. It’s joy. It’s just joy and pride,” Jones said. “How could I feel any other way?”

The number of children diagnosed at age 8 with autism spectrum disorder has increased dramatically — from roughly 1 in 88 in 2008 to an estimated 1 in 44 in 2018, according to data analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows that students on the spectrum are just as smart as their peers, but far less likely to attend college.

When Kate Jones started grade school, her teachers noticed she was struggling to read. They suspected a learning disability. Psychological and educational evaluations soon revealed she had autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges.

“Social situations are very stressful for her,” said Jones, explaining that her daughter has trouble processing information.

Acting and singing — two of her coping mechanisms — became an outlet for Kate’s talent. She was routinely cast as the lead in her high school’s musicals and in community theater. In 10th grade, she appeared in “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J.

In addition to Kate, the 54-year-old mom from Lambertville, N.J., has two boys, ages 16 and 15. They’re also on the autism spectrum, she said.

Early childhood educators repeatedly told her that her children would struggle to succeed in life; she should just “learn to accept that.” When she dropped Kate at college recently, Jones said she thought back to the naysayers.

“Ever since I was told, ‘she’s not going to,’ I got in my mind, ‘Oh, yes she is.'” Jones said.

She made it her mission to enable her daughter to reach her potential. Looking back, Jones said she had no idea what the future would hold for Kate, but even if a traditional high school track proved too difficult, Jones said she was determined to help her daughter succeed.

“Not only is my daughter going to meet her potential — whatever that potential is, and that time I didn’t know what it was going to be. If it meant that she would only get her G.E.D., fine, but she’s going to have options,” Jones vowed at the time. “And when she has options, I’m going to be the proudest parent and I’m going to happily let her go.”

Jones said she initially worried that her daughter would have trouble socializing with other college students. But that’s hardly the case so far.

“You know what her communication issue is right now? Forgetting to call me because she’s having so much fun,” Jones said, laughing.

© 2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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