They said he couldn’t do it. They tried to marginalize him. They didn’t know what to do with him.
He has proven them wrong, three times over.
Alan Schulze, 27, of Douglassville, graduated from Daniel Boone High School, Kutztown University and Shippensburg University – with each school, life got easier for him. And each time he was at the top of the class, graduating in the top fifth from Daniel Boone and with honors from both colleges.
His school life was difficult because he didn’t fit the ‘normal’ profile. “November 1999, his sixth diagnosis, they finally got it right,” Alan says, recalling that day as when he received the correct diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Up until then he had been incorrectly diagnosed with a variety of problems such as attention deficit disorder, defiance disorder, bipolar.
However, his mother, Colleen, didn’t believe any of these diagnoses were correct and kept pushing for an accurate assessment and better treatment of Alan in the classroom. We don’t want to upset the school or make them look bad. Some teachers and students bullied him. The district put him in emotional support even though he didn’t have a behavior problem.
Colleen’s tenacity led her to a small article about a relatively new condition called Asperger’s. She showed this article to Alan’s doctor Hershey Medical Center and in a 15-minute office visit the doctor confirmed that Alan had classic Asperger’s.
Before Alan was properly diagnosed, he was on a cocktail of drugs: “In two years I was on four or five medications,” he says. These medications made him feel out of control because of the side effects which couldn’t be controlled. He says Ritalin made him focus on everything, including the ticking of the clock. The drug Adderall caused his aggression to go through the roof and after two weeks, he discontinued it.
While Asperger’s seems more common today, in 1999 it was still new and misunderstood. There were few autistic classes in schools, Colleen recalls. And children with Asperger’s were not included in those classes.
Alan’s take on the condition was, “Couldn’t you diagnose me with something with a name harder to make fun of?”
Alan explains that his form of autism takes away social skills, but it gives a super power. His ‘super power’ is an amazing memory. He first realized this ability when discussing a seating chart from a class years earlier and he was amazed that none of his friends remembered it. “It took me awhile to learn how to spin it.”
His amazing memory is what helped him to discover his passion, that and his mother’s insistence that he and his sister, Rebecca, never say they were bored. To keep them from being bored, they would visit local attractions and in 1996 the family visited Hopewell Furnace in Elverson, located 15 minutes from their home.
While Colleen was talking to the re-enactor using the spinning wheel, Alan wandered into the kitchen, joined a tour and by the end of that week he was giving the tour himself, at age 7, because of his ‘super power’. He and his sister volunteered at Hopewell as costumed re-enactors. Alan would master different areas and grow into new areas. He started volunteering in the charcoal demonstration area at age 12. When he wandered into the casting house he was mesmerized and peppered the molders with questions. By his seventh year volunteering, he was the most experienced people in the molding and casting area. He started doing molding and casting demonstrations when he was 20, by then he had been volunteering for roughly 13 years. He recently completed his 19th season at Hopewell.
Hopewell was his summer oasis, but high school was “brutal.” Because of the lack of understanding of autism, teachers would put students with autism in resource rooms. “I spent most of seventh and eighth grades in a resource room until my mom made a stink,” Alan recalls.
Doctors, teachers and others in authority told him he would never graduate or drive and likely live in a group home. “They treated me like someone they were pushing through the system,” Alan says. Some teachers were encouraging, like his history teacher.
When he wasn’t encouraged to go to college, or even take the SATs, Alan went to votech, graduated with a degree in diesel mechanics. “I passed, but broke everything I touched. Clearly I was not cut out for that. That’s when I decided to try college.”
Colleen believes that failure is an option for her children, as long as it’s their choice and not because of labels. She believes that if he hadn’t quit/been fired from two jobs, he never would have tried college where he found his true calling.
Ultimately, after his parent’s subtle encouragement, Alan chose Kutztown University. Kutztown was close enough to home if something went wrong, but far enough away that he could justify staying on campus. Even though he was a freshman, he was able to get a single room, without roommates. This allowed him to focus and study quietly.
“By this time I had learned to use my brain power. I had teachers that encouraged me and I actually had a social group,” Alan recalls. He was able to be a ‘normal’ student and graduated with a 3.96 grade point average and magnum cum laude honors. He then pursued and attained his master’s degree in history from Shippensburg University, graduating in May of this year with a 3.96 GPA and a Master’s degree.
His turning point came at age 18. Despite all the experts, Alan helped himself the most in pursuit of ‘normalcy’. “When I went to Kutztown you could still see that I was blatantly autistic. A friend asked me what the meds were doing to my personality.” So after being on up to 14 different medications since age 6, he removed all medications, gradually and under a doctor’s supervision. “You can’t medicate Asperger’s. You can’t give pills to fix it, it’s deeper than that,” he says.
Alan’s goal is to make a career in the Park Service, public history. His dream park isn’t a reality, yet. There are plans for a park in Pittsburgh known as the Rivers of Steel Heritage Park which would dovetail perfectly with his expertise in iron and steel making technology. His passion for steel making started at age 10 when he drove through Bethlehem Steel with his father, Richard. He was hooked; he just had no idea where it would lead or the many detours that would happen along the way.
Right now, he is looking for a seasonal position for the winter session and hoping one of his 50 plus applications for a permanent position comes through. While waiting for these applications to come through it seem impossible, due to; the difficulty of the application process, lack of positions to be filled, economic hardships on the Park Service, and the high number of applicants interested in working for them. Though his qualifications are above average, it seems like an uphill battle to reach his major goal.