He couldn’t speak as a child. Now this autistic student is giving a commencement address

Teresa Watanabe

When Bruno Youn was 3 years old, his mother noticed something was off about her firstborn son. He could parrot what he heard. He could remember and recite poetry. But he could not string together words to communicate his own thoughts.

She brought him in for testing and learned the truth: He had autism.

“I could not cope with the idea,” said Josette Thompson, a Seal Beach physician. “I couldn’t have a child with autism. Never talk. Never have a job. Never get married. You lose all those dreams for your child at once. I couldn’t go there.”

She needn’t have worried.

On Saturday, Youn, now 22 years old, will walk across the stage to receive his diploma at Claremont McKenna College. But before he does, he will stand before an audience of hundreds and do what his senior class elected him to do: deliver the student commencement remarks.

In four years at the small, highly selective liberal arts college in the Pomona Valley, Youn has grown from a freshman who avoided people, spending most of his time holed up in his dorm playing video games, into a campus leader.

He majored in philosophy, politics and economics, and will graduate with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a 3.8 GPA. He worked on policy research at Claremont McKenna’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government. He was selected for a prestigious post as one of two student fellows to host and moderate panel discussions with high-profile figures for the college’s Athenaeum speakers program.

He has worked with political campaigns. He has had a girlfriend and made lots of friends.

“I have left behind me a trail of broken stereotypes,” Youn plans to say in his commencement speech.

Youn’s success in academia is rare. About 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism and, of those, about a third have intellectual disabilities, according to experts. Among those without intellectual disabilities, only about half pursue college, with most attending community colleges and having difficulty transferring to four-year universities, said Susan White, a University of Alabama psychology professor who specializes in studying autism.

“A lot of times they are dropping out early or struggling with mental health,” White said.

Soon, this will present a challenge for the nation, she said. In what specialists are calling an “autism tsunami,” some 500,000 teens with the disorder will enter adulthood in the next decade — and need more services to help them succeed in the way Youn has.

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