CINCINNATI -- The day Lauren Ziegler first set foot in The Children's Home of Cincinnati, she was afraid. Her previous school experiences had left her with a fear of bullying and an intense anxiety surrounding her education; her autism meant she sometimes struggled to understand or get along with her classmates.
She wasn't optimistic.
On Wednesday, Ziegler graduated from Children's Home's high school program with a smile on her face. She plans to become a firefighter EMT, she said at the ceremony.
"It feels absolutely wonderful," she said. "Here, with the support of my friends and the support of my amazing teachers, I've been able to overcome a lot of the stuff that I was facing years ago. Now, I'm a whole different person."
Ziegler and her classmates represent a growing population of American youth diagnosed with autism, a developmental condition that can result in differences of social, cognitive and sensory function. (An important note: The fact that more people are being diagnosed with autism recently doesn't mean more people have autism, just that there's more access to treatment.)
Without help and understanding, these differences can compromise the ability of people with autism to lead independent lives and feel accepted into society.
That's why The Children's Home's high school program, in which over 100 local teenagers with autism participate, focus on building social skills and creating a comfortable environment for its students in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic.
"It's a huge need in the community," Children's Home president and CEO John Banchy said. "We worked with the University of Cincinnati on a study here in Cincinnati … and what we found was shocking. There's so many kids that need our service."
The good news is more of them are finding it each year, he said. When the program first started in 2011, it had just eight students. In 2018, it has over 100.
Organizers such as Banchy plan to expand by 2019 to serve an even larger student body and help even more students with autism achieve dreams that might never have seemed possible.
"I never thought I'd get this far," commencement speaker Joseph Gigax, who has autism, said. "Just next month, I'm moving into my own apartment. I have two different jobs, my own car, self-sufficiency."
His advice to the graduates, who might still face obstacles because they have autism, was simple: "Never give up, even when you feel your absolute lowest.
"If you're patient, if you're understanding, it can go a long way in life," he added. "You'd be surprised at what we can do."