Rowland Unified School District

Staff Only

Grad Meets Own Challenge

Grad meets own challenge

By Melody Chiu, Correspondent

San Gabriel Valley Tribune 06/15/2008

When most children his age were beginning to speak in full sentences, Christopher Mejia suddenly stopped talking.

Doctors diagnosed the then 2-year-old as severely autistic and told his parents he would never be able to lead a normal life.

But neither he nor his family ever gave up hope, and on Thursday, the 18-year-old graduated from Rowland High School with honors.

"I hadn't realized what I had been facing in my childhood," he said. "I didn't want to be around people until my mom explained autism to me. Then, I just wanted to challenge myself and face the real world."

His mother, Ana Mejia, said she cries every time she thinks about his graduation.

"I can't tell you how happy and proud I am," she said.

Christopher Mejia began talking again at the age of 4, but would often throw tantrums and become easily frightened. Teaching him about the world required patience and dedication.

His mother recalled his first haircut. What should have taken 30 minutes turned into a daylong scavenger hunt for a salon that would stomach his incessant crying and screaming.

"We went to five different salons until we finally found one that had the patience for him," she said. "Three ladies had to cut his hair at the same time to get it over with."

Both mother and son agree that it was this unwavering determination and an open line of communication that allowed him to make great strides in both his academic and social life.

Christopher Mejia said his perspective on life changed after his mother explained his disability to him at 13.

Stepping out of his comfort zone, Mejia began playing soccer and transformed from a "couch potato to someone active."

Challenging himself to meet people and become social, he applied for and became the commissioner of publicity for the Associated Student Body, using his talent and passion for art to design school-spirit-related T-shirts and posters.

"I accept who I am and I'm proud of all the obstacles I've faced," he said. "If you just let your time sit there and rot, 20 years later you'll look back and think, 'Why did I just waste my life?'"

Mejia's will to fight his disability is apparent to those who have watched him transform from an introverted child to an eager young man with distinct aspirations.

"In kindergarten and preschool, he was non-verbal," said Michelle Saldivar, Rowland Unified School District's inclusion program specialist. "But he's made the decision to not live in a bubble and has worked hard to fit in."

Mejia is open about his disability and said he yearns to help other autistic children and their parents. He has conducted several parent-oriented workshops at the Covina Developmental Center, where he shares his own experiences of dealing with the difficulties of autism.

And while his goal is to study art and film at Cal State Fullerton and work for the Walt Disney Company one day, he also wants to study communications so he can continue reaching out to others who suffer from autism.

"Autism may be a difficulty," he said. "But I'm a key. If I go out and tell people my story, people with autism can see that they can lead normal lives."

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