"The main goal that Dena has set for Patrick is for him to become as self-sufficient as possible."

About: Patrick (23)

Age Range: 22 to 35 years

Perspective: Student interview of parent

County: Williamson


Dena has two children. Her oldest daughter is 28, and her son, Patrick, is 23. Patrick was first diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 3. He was later diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). After further testing, his final diagnosis is Asperger's Syndrome with significant learning difficulties and processing issues.

Patrick has worked hard in school. He graduated from high school with a GPA of 3.1 and an honors diploma from the state of Tennessee. Currently he is in a college program at Marshall University specifically designed for students with autism. Because of his diagnosis, it takes extra effort on his part and he needs intensive academic support. His perseverance, however, helps him to work through all the difficulties he has in learning and adapting. Patrick takes nine credit hours at Marshall University, with an extra twenty hours of tutoring per week, and two hours of weekly social skills meetings. Patrick is able to work through all of these things, and do it with a smile on his face.

With support from family, tutors, and friends, Patrick is gradually making progress toward his goal of being self-sufficient. However, he was not always so lucky. Although he had some teachers who were very supportive and had high expectation for him, most of his teachers significantly underestimated his potential. These teachers would simply excuse him from school work without making an effort to help him understand. Dena mentioned that the teachers who have the skills to accommodate students’ special needs not only lessen the students’ frustration in school; they also help them acquire the knowledge that is so vital to their education.

Many children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome often express a particular interest in certain topics. For Patrick, that topic is history, particularly that of Marshall University. Through the movie, We Are Marshall, Patrick was able to identify and then independently meet one of the surviving coaches of the plane crash of 1970.  Invited by the coach, Patrick now meets with this group for lunch on a regular basis. The crash, which occurred at Marshall University, resulted in the loss of the whole football team. Most people, when hearing about the crash, or a different event like it, would respond with a real, but nonetheless detached, sorrow. Patrick, however, feels it much more strongly. Dena described this by saying, “he feels all the same passion, and all the same grief, and all the same emotion as someone who actually lived through the process of losing those kids and rebuilding their lives. And he feels the parallel journey with that, so that’s been a big motivator of why he’s there at school.”

Although it may seem unusual for a young man to spend his time with a group of seventy year old men, the relationship has been very good for Patrick, as it allows him to get out and socialize, while also being able to fuel his love of history. In many social situations, Patrick is very on edge. However, when given the chance to talk about something he loves with people he has grown close to, Patrick excels.

Dena has been Patrick’s greatest support system. She has made a lot of sacrifices for him and has devoted herself to promoting the advocacy and empowerment of families that have had and are having similar experiences. During the first few years, Dena did not receive much support herself, and she had to navigate the system on her own. She expressed the wish that she had had a group of friends with the same experience so that they could “go along the journey” together; to share experiences and receive emotional support. Young mothers with children who have special needs will have special needs themselves, as taking care of their children is a highly demanding job. Sometimes the frustration of not improving and the confusion of the system can make the mothers feel helpless. This is the time when parent support groups are needed the most.

Dena founded The Center for Understanding in Franklin, TN. It provides the kind of support that Dena wished she herself had had when Patrick was young. She is now trying to provide this support to other parents, so that they will not have to experience the same hardships that she experienced.

The main goal that Dena has set for Patrick is for him to become as self-sufficient as possible. She hopes that he will be able to work half-time, maybe even full-time. Patrick would like to work in a History Museum, which would utilize his great love of history. Dena said, “Our goal is for him to be as self-sufficient as he can be so that we don’t leave behind after we’re gone, a young adult who needs help from his sibling beyond something that is reasonable.” Although there have been many bumps in the road, Patrick is on track to achieve these goals.

Updated on Friday, March 1, 2013