Like thousands of other young adults, Travis entered a university classroom for the first time last month. What few (if any) of his professors and classmates at the University of Montana -Helena know or appreciate is the remarkable path that brought him this far. When Travis was born, his hands were closed tightly, his arms and legs were hunched up, and his head tilted to one side. He was diagnosed with diffuse cerebral atrophy - part of his brain was missing. Doctors predicted he would never walk, talk, or show any emotion and they advised Travis's parents to institutionalize him. But his mom's gut instinct told her he could learn. When Jill looked into her baby's eyes, she saw something that convinced her not to give up. Instead of investigating the intake process for the state institution, his parents asked for resources that could help their son grow stronger and learn. Still certain he would never progress, the physicians refused to prescribe physical therapy and therefore the insurance company would not cover the treatment. Undeterred, Jill paid for his physical therapy and had the therapist teach her how to work with Travis at home. Against all professional predictions, he walked at age one...right on schedule.
Speech would not come until age four, when Travis uttered his first words. A few years later, he was identified during the annual Child Find as eligible for special education preschool on the basis of "speech-language impairment" and began speech therapy work that would continue through his elementary school years. However, it was clear from his aggression, discomfort with social situations, and other behaviors that Travis was dealing with more than speech and language difficulties. By the end of his first year of preschool, "cognitive delay" was added to his special education file. (He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.) Based on this label, some members of his IEP team recommended the school not try to teach Travis math. His mom insisted he could eventually grasp the concepts, and he did. Travis has consistently made the honor roll since seventh grade.
Travis and his mom give lots of credit to the Helena school system, especially to his teachers Elly Driggers, Deb Johnson and Charla Kempa-Rice, who were patient, creative, and "integral parts of his development." Central Elementary School's Montessori program was the "perfect fit" because he could learn at his own pace. About two months into first grade Jill wanted to pull Travis out of school and start homeschooling him. Mrs. Driggers asked for one more week. She set up a video camera in the classroom and taped Travis each day. At the end of the day, she would show Travis the tape so he could see his behaviors. Jill was impressed at the positive changes she saw and decided to keep Travis in school. (Over time, Mrs. Driggers decreased the daily filming time to the point where she wasn't recording at all. Travis wasn't having any more problem behaviors by the end of first/start of second grade.)
Jill still wanted Travis to learn to get along better with others. Mrs. Driggers used a "Walk and Talk" exercise to increase his comfort level with social interaction. Travis and an assigned peer would walk together and take turns asking one another questions. Travis says it was "scary and hard and I mainly wanted to talk about things I was interested in at first." Over time, the exercise became less difficult and Travis's ability to converse with other people dramatically improved. Still, kids can be cruel. In elementary and middle school, peers would sometimes be mean to Travis. He learned to tell an adult he trusted. (Now many of the same kids who used to pick on him have become his friends.)
Fast forward to 2011. Not only did Travis learn to walk, talk and show emotion, he became an active, contributing, valued member of the Helena community. He was heavily involved in Helena High School drama prior to his June 2011 graduation, and has been part of the Grand Street Theater School (GSTS) since 2002. GSTS faculty chose Travis to receive a $300 "Living the Dream" scholarship at one of their banquets. This summer he volunteered five days a week for two weeks as a Summer Grand Street teacher. His activities included directing his own five-minute scene, assisting another teacher in directing a showcase, and teaching his own elective called "How to Survive a Zombie Attack." Travis says Grand Street is his favorite part of the community because, "You can be yourself and you won't be judged." He also finds that his amazing memory for facts is an asset when it comes to learning his lines for plays. (In May 2011, he was studying lines for two plays simultaneously - "The Foreigner" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")
In the summer of 2009, Travis worked as "Clark the Cougar," one of two mascots for the semi-professional Brewer's baseball team. He didn't apply in 2010...the paychecks and free soda weren't adequate compensation for wearing the "extremely hot" costume and for putting up with kids continually pulling his tail!
Travis earned his driver's license his sophomore year and has his own vehicle so he can drive to and from his many activities. In addition to school, various jobs, volunteering, and theater, Travis participates on a youth speaking panel called the Kids Mental Health Advocacy Group fighting to end the stigma faced by teens and young adults with mental health challenges. The panel has presented about living with mental illness at Carroll College, the Integrated School Mental Health Initiative conference, the Montana Behavioral Initiative, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and other venues across Montana and the U.S. Travis also developed a digital mental health story [video] about himself and chose the song "No Boundaries" for his background audio. He says to him the song means "don't give up; believe in yourself, especially if someone says you can't do something." As part of the Youth Connections Coalition, Travis and other young people from the Rocky Mountain Development Council-Kids Mental Health Advocacy Program wrote an ad called "Get to Know the Kid, Not the Label". Travis was the lead actor in the commercial, which appeared on television and at the Cinemark Theater for a couple of months. A still photo from the commercial was used as a magazine advertisement.
For fun, Travis likes to write stories, especially science fiction, and movie screenplays. According to Jill, "Travis has a huge imagination and he likes to express it." For now, his friends and occasionally his mom are his readers but he is currently writing two novels and hopes to get at least one published. Over the summer, Travis and a few friends filmed a horror movie for which he had written the storyline. After he edits the movie, he may send it to the Myrna Loy Theater in Helena for their annual film festival. Travis also enjoys watching and reviewing movies (again, science fiction is one of his favorite genres).
In addition to tireless advocacy from his mom and persistent creativity from different teachers over the years, supports that have been helpful to Travis include transition preparation with a mental health therapist from the Center for Mental Health, and self-advocacy skills training so Travis knows what supports and accommodations help him to be successful and he knows how to ask for them. For example, he needs time to read, digest, and prepare responses to new information; extra time on tests; and seating toward the front of rooms because he is deaf in one ear. He likes to enter new situations prepared, so tries to find out ahead of time what he should do to get ready.
Always one to dream big and then work to make those dreams come true, Travis plans to become a well-known story writer, director, and movie actor. In order to meet his goals, he'll start by concentrating on his university classes. If everything is going well during the fall semester, Travis hopes to apply for a paid position at Grand Street in early 2012. Next year he wants to transfer to MSU Bozeman and study filmmaking...he's heard they have a strong program. Travis tells other young adults with disabilities, "No matter what people tell you, don't give up. If you wish to accomplish a goal, go for it." He definitely follows his own advice.