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Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Earns College Degree, Proving All the Experts Wrong

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katie gallagher
Image source: Gina Gallagher

Don’t tell 22-year-old Katie Gallagher she can’t accomplish something. She’ll prove you wrong every single time.

Gallagher was diagnosed in kindergarten with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Each doctor’s visit left her family with a bleak prediction — that the young girl would spend her entire life struggling with basic learning functions. This meant that graduating from high school would be unlikely at best. And college? Well, that was entirely out of the question.

But that didn’t stop this amazing woman from dreaming big. On May 17th, Katie will walk across the stage of Westfield State University, where she’ll proudly receive her Bachelor’s degree!

“My whole life, I felt like people have doubted me and [believed] that I wasn’t smart enough,” Katie tells Babble. “I worked so hard to get this degree, and I am so proud. And I’m glad to show the people who doubted me that I can be successful.”

Gallagher’s not the only one celebrating this extraordinary milestone. Her mom, Gina, has been cheering her on for years, and she couldn’t be happier to see her daughter graduate. In a moving tribute on Gina’s Facebook page Shut Up about Your Perfect Kid, the mom shares her daughter’s victory with other parents of special needs children.

And the achievements don’t stop there! Katie also owns a car, lives on her own, works a part-time job, and even backpacked through Europe with her friends last year.

“She’s grown into a smart and responsible young woman,” Gina shares with Babble. “She manages her own money, work schedule, and social life, [and] she has formed relationships with incredibly supportive friends who would do anything for her.”

Pretty darn inspiring, if I do say so myself!

Gina’s family has become used to rising above obstacles, since both Katie and her 19-year-old sister Emily have special needs. They’ve been bullied by peers, doubted by experts, and encountered overwhelming learning struggles. But these hardships have been no match for the girls, who have both grown in enormous ways since their initial diagnoses.

“As a child without learning disabilities, things came pretty easy to me – making friends, playing sports, getting good grades,” Gina explains. “With both my daughters, those things have been extremely difficult. Despite this, I have realized that my daughters, with their disabilities, are happier, stronger, and more resilient than I was without disabilities.”

Asperger's
Image source: Gina Gallagher

Their resiliency is in large part due to Gina’s parenting, which has emphasized loving her daughters as they are, not as she expected them to be. The mother and advocate spent many years learning exactly how to embrace their unique dispositions, and it was a humbling experience for her.

“Experts have likened the process of learning your child has a disability to the mourning process,” she says. “It’s the loss of the ‘perfect’ child or dream. I experienced that when we first got [Katie’s] autism diagnosis, and I realized that my plans for my child’s life were going to have to be changed.”

Gina put that realization into practice when Katie decided she wanted to attend college and live away from home while she studied.

“I didn’t think she was ready or could handle living independently. In truth, I was so afraid to let her go for fear that she would be hurt and I wouldn’t be there to pick her up,” Gina shares.

But when Katie expressed how much of a dream it was for her live on her own, her mom remembered how important it was to cultivate her daughter’s independence.

“That’s when I realized that it’s her life to live, [and] I just had to be supportive. I think that was the hardest lesson for me as she got older — to learn to let her live the life she wants, not the one I wanted for her,” she tells Babble.

Asperger's
Image source: Gina Gallagher

For parents of children with special needs, Gina wants to make one thing abundantly clear. Test results should never be the source of discouragement for families.

“They cannot measure a child’s heart or desire to succeed,” she says.

Seeking out community meant all the difference for Gina, who found great support and encouragement beyond those test results. One of the family’s most uplifting communities was Willow Hill, a Massachusetts private school Katie attended which specializes in helping students with learning challenges.

“From the first day I went there, I knew I belonged. The teachers understood me and the other kids had gone through some of the same things I had,” Katie says.

Gina has also taken community to an entirely new level by joining her own sister in co-writing Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid  — a book designed to provide support to families just like hers. That, coupled with her Facebook page, has allowed Gina to help parents celebrate the humor and triumphs of raising a special needs child in a world that constantly seeks perfection. The page boasts over 900,000 followers, who all come together from different countries to lift each other up.

“They helped me see my daughter in a different light,” Gina shares. “To stop holding her to society’s standards of perfection, and my own standards of perfection, and to see her through her own eyes. What I saw changed my entire life.”

Congratulations, Katie Gallagher!

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