Monday, June 4, 2007

Top of the class: Santa Rosa student overcomes autism to graduate with honors

By CLARISSA MARTINEZ SANTA ROSA — Danny Canales is a role model.

Diagnosed as autistic at 2, Danny grew up during a time when autism was not well known in the Rio Grande Valley, his mother, Janie Canales-Cabrera said.

But with guidance from his family and members of the education community, Danny graduated — with honors and among the top 10 in his class — from Santa Rosa High School on Friday night. “It’s a lot of feelings at one time,” Danny said. But graduation didn’t come without overcoming struggles.

Danny, 19, began an Early Childhood Intervention Program when he was 3 years old.
“At the time he was severely autistic,” Canales-Cabrera said. “Children with autism, they live in their own little world, they build a world around them.”

Instead of separating Danny, Canales-Cabrera worked with his teachers and speech therapist to try to help Danny learn how to cope in a regular classroom. “He spent two years in kindergarten in the hopes that his social skills would improve,” Canales-Cabrera said.

By first grade, Danny was in the classroom, without any academic assistance but with behavioral modification. “Basically, every year I would speak to teachers and explain what to expect from him,” Canales-Cabrera said.

While in high school, Danny was involved in the high school band, 4-H and student council.
It was his interest in extra-curricular activities that surprised his mother. “Autistic children do not become cheerleaders,” Canales-Cabrera said. “Danny made it to All-American Cheerleaders.”

But Canales-Cabrera said she had to explain to coaches, teachers and even cheerleading judges about Danny’s autism so they could understand his behavior.

She compared it to building a bridge between his world and the rest of society.
“That bridge may break down a couple of times, but you go back and rebuild,” Canales-Cabrera said. “And in the end there is success.”

A success she was told couldn’t be reached.

When Danny was first diagnosed, a doctor recommended that he be institutionalized.

“I made up my mind that day that I would never give up,” Canales-Cabrera said. “I guess I have to thank that doctor for telling me that, because I did totally the opposite.”

Danny’s sister, Kassandra, a junior in high school, said her brother is a role model who carries his enthusiasm for school with him every day. “He actually likes coming to school,” Kassandra said. “He’s always doing something.”

Kassandra is often involved in the same activities as her brother.

“It makes life so much easier,” Canales-Cabrera said.

But Kassandra said Danny has his own interests, like his love of the Weather Channel and architectural design. “It’s just that I’m a very creative person,” Danny said about enjoying architecture. Danny has been accepted to Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, something that the family is addressing both financially and logistically.

“His autism is never going to go away, but yet he appears normal that society has forgotten,” she said. “My biggest goal is for people to understand that autism is not a disability unless you make it so.”

“I have hope someone will read Daniel’s story, and have faith that this can happen,” Canales-Cabrera said, trying to hold back tears. “Because we went through a lot.”

When asked by his mother if he had a message to other autistic children, Danny spoke about hope and persistence.

“There’s hope,” Danny said. “No matter how dark the tunnel is, there is always going to be some sort of a light.”

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