Grad with autism earns long-awaited diploma

Published in the The Coast News
by Lillian Cox

DEL MAR — Among 632 seniors graduating from Torrey Pines High School on June 18, no one could be happier than Jeremy Sicile-Kira. And this isn’t the first time Jeremy has walked with his graduating class.

Three years ago Jeremy, who is severely autistic, completed the functional life skills track at Torrey Pines. For his efforts, he walked through the ceremony but he did not receive a diploma.

In the fall he proceeded to an off-campus transition program to learn living and job skills.

“He didn’t do well,” said his mother, Chantal Sicile-Kira. “He was noncompliant and didn’t want to do anything. He was bored.”

Jeremy was educated through a combination of home schooling by his mother and special education that included taking mainstream classes at Torrey Pines in marketing, economics, social sciences and psychology.

Because he was unable to speak, Chantal Sicile-Kira taught Jeremy how to communicate using applied behavior analysis. The technique involves a laminated, paper keyboard, which Jeremy uses to spell words by pointing.

Frustrated that Jeremy was doing poorly in the transition program, Chantal Sicile-Kira spoke with Bruce Cochrane, executive director of pupil services at the San Dieguito Union High School District.

“Bruce said, ‘Why didn’t you have him go for his diploma?” she said.

Chantal Sicile-Kira learned that in order to graduate with an academic diploma, Jeremy first needed to pass a high school exit exam and earn credit in required subjects.

“The school looked at Jeremy’s transcripts,” she said. “Since he was allowed to be in the educational system until the age of 22, he had enough time to earn credit if he took two classes a semester.”

Another thing that worked in Jeremy’s favor was that students are given six chances to pass the California exit exam.

“We thought we’d have him take the test and use it as a baseline,” she said. “He passed it the first time.”

This fall Jeremy will start college the same time as his younger sister Rebecca, who graduates from Canyon Crest Academy on June 18. She is entering UC Davis as a freshman.

Jeremy will embark on a degree in journalism

or communications at MiraCosta College. This semester he got a head start by completing a course in intercultural communications.

Jeremy is already a published writer. He’s written a column titled “Life As I See It” in the school newspaper. In April he published an editorial in the North County Times. Currently he’s working on a book about his life.

In addition, he collaborates with his mother, who is an award-winning author, speaker, and president of Autism Making A Difference, Inc.

A few years ago Jeremy was featured in MTV’s documentary series “True Life,” for the episode titled “I Have Autism.”

Since then he has become a popular speaker who offers these words of advice to the graduating class of 2010 in a speech he’ll be delivering this afternoon.

“My real message to you today is: Teachers, never underestimate your students no matter how disabled they may appear or what difficulties they face.

“Parents, believe in your children and encourage them to fulfill their dreams.

“Students, give yourself the power to hear the voice inside telling you that you can create the life you dream of. Believe in yourself, and never allow anyone to discourage you.”

Chantal Sicile-Kira has always believed in her son’s potential, even when she was advised to “find a good institution for Jeremy” when he was growing up.

“He is heading to a good institution now,” she said. “It’s called ‘college.’”

This summer Jeremy was invited to address the Staten Island and Manhattan chapters of the National Autism Association. He has secured a donation of $500 for travel costs for his mother and him but needs an additional $300. To make a donation or to contact Jeremy, e-mail

Chantal Sicile-Kira has just released a new book, “41 Things to Know About Autism.” For more information visit

SOLANA BEACH: Nonverbal autistic student to give commencement address

Torrey Pines’ Jeremy Sicile-Kira clears big hurdles on road to graduation

Published on the front page of The North County Times


Most people would consider scaling Mount Everest or winning a Nobel Peace Prize an impressive feat, but Jeremy Sicile-Kira —- who was diagnosed at age 3 with severe autism —- is scaling heights that are equally impressive.

On Friday, the 21-year-old is set to become the first nonverbal autistic student to receive a full academic diploma from Torrey Pines High School, San Dieguito Union School District officials said.

He will also give the school’s commencement address, which has been prerecorded using a computer voice generator that translated his typed speech into an audio file burned onto a CD.

Sicile-Kira communicates by using what is known as Rapid Prompting Method, a system that requires intense focus and participation by aides or other caregivers to keep him on task.

In Sicile-Kira’s case, his mother, Chantal, and aides use prompts —- snapping their fingers or pointing at familiar objects —- as they ask questions.

He then points with one finger to a letter board or keyboard to spell out his answers.

“My mom tells me that no one is better than anyone else,” Sicile-Kira said in an interview last week, using his laminated keyboard, and assisted by his mother. “We know that we should try our best.”

Autism is a range of complex neurological disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive behavior patterns, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Many people with autism are diagnosed as toddlers. In severe cases, children with autism appear to be locked in their own worlds, unable to communicate.

Chantal Sicile-Kira said her son began showing signs of autism when he was 9 months old.

“He didn’t move. He didn’t develop right away,” she said. “I had to fight to find out about Jeremy’s condition.”

In the years since, she said, her son has gone through home schooling, special education and many different therapies, but couldn’t spell out words until he was 14 years old and began learning RPM.

“I really believe in the impossible,” she said.

At Friday’s commencement ceremony, Sicile-Kira —- decked out in cap and gown —- will deliver his speech to 619 fellow graduates.

His sister, Rebecca, 18, is graduating earlier Friday from Canyon Crest Academy and will be in the audience during the 4 p.m. Torrey Pines ceremony.

“The staff and the students know him so well —- they’ll be encouraging him,” she said about her brother’s participation in the event. “I think people will be proud of him when he delivers the speech.”

Bruce Cochrane, executive director of student services for the San Dieguito Union High School District, has worked with Sicile-Kira for the past three years and is just one of the many people who helped him reach this goal.

“Jeremy is an incredible young man,” Cochrane said. “I think as he has matured, his skills and talent have flourished. (He) has been able to communicate at a greater level and really show people his intelligence.”

Sicile-Kira is able to earn his diploma under a state law that gives special education students until age 22 to do so.

He completed the necessary course work and passed the California Exit Exam on his first try.

Sicile-Kira’s mother said she never believed the naysayers who told her when the boy was young that he would have few options in life.

“Once they diagnosed him, I was told to find him a good institution,” she said. “And I have —- it’s called college.”

In the fall, Sicile-Kira will enroll at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, with an interest in journalism; he hopes to write for the college newspaper.

Until then, his summer plans include financing a two-week trip to New York City. He also plans to publish his first book and establish an online newsletter geared toward helping families understand children with disabilities such as autism.

“I think I greatly inspire others by my ability to continue to learn and not give up on my dreams,” he said.

An author, speaker and autism expert, Chantal Sicile-Kira is working on her fourth book on autism and says she has learned much from her son in the years since his diagnosis.

“We raised him to never feel sorry for himself,” Chantal Sicile-Kira said. “He’s a big inspiration to me. He has taught me patience and has actually made me into a stronger person.”

The message Sicile-Kira wants to convey to the class of 2010 is to focus on a goal and never give up on yourself.

“When I first arrived, I had no way to communicate,” he said. “But over the years, I learned how to spell, and my life changed from one of loneliness to one of having great teachers and an education.”