Wayne grad navigates autism in pursuit of college goal

Huber Heights man developed interest in graphic arts as a child.

Hunter Garrett of Huber Heights was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and according to his mother Kelly, his delay in speech and language is what first alerted his preschool teachers that he may be autistic.

ASD affects about 1 out of every 44 children in the United States and refers to a broad range of disorders that can be as different as each child with a diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Hunter was in Huber Heights schools from pre-school to high school graduation,” Kelly said. “He had an IEP (Individual Educational Program) all through school.”

That plan included specialized services that supported Hunter through high school. But as he approached his senior year, he started talking about attending college to study graphic design, which had become a passion of his.

“I always like art and animation,” Hunter said. “I thought graphic design seemed like a nice fit for me for college.”

With his graduation from Wayne High School set for the spring of 2018, Hunter started applying to and visiting colleges.

“I looked around at schools in Ohio but then visited Western Kentucky University (WKU),” Hunter said.

The thought of having her son away from home attending college made Kelly uncomfortable. She encouraged her son to apply for services from Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD), a state agency that provides vocational rehabilitation programs to help adults with disabilities attend school, develop job skills, and find employment opportunities.

“It was determined that Hunter qualified for services,” Kelly said. “They helped him decide on a career path and set goals.”

It turned out that WKU has an exclusive program for individuals on the autism spectrum. The Kelly Autism Program (KAP) provides an educational, social and supportive environment to help those diagnosed with Autism navigate campus life and achieve their potential to become independent and productive members of the community.

KAP provides counselors to qualifying students that offer help organizing schedules and calendars, keeping track of exams and working to build in plenty of time for studying. The 18-year-old program is separate from the university and has an additional fee of $5,000 per semester.

“We asked OOD to help us pay for the program because they did agree to pay for things like books and a computer,” said Hunter’s dad, Nolan. “But they turned us down.”

Hunter and his family decided that KAP was going to make all the difference for him in college as well as give his parents peace of mind with their son more than four hours away from home. So they opted to pay for it themselves.

“Hunter’s counselors from KAP helped him all along the way in college,” Kelly said. “They acted as facilitators and helped students and professors work through any issues and they also had a mental health counselor on staff.”

The program also offered Hunter activities so he could work on his communication and social skills with other students.

“It was a big change for me, being that far away from home,” Hunter said. “But I had to get used to it. It was just a lot to get my head around at first.”

Hunter graduated from WKU in May of 2022 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design. A federal judge decided in August 2022, following a lawsuit Hunter filed through Disability Rights Ohio, that the Wayne graduate and other disabled adults should get help with funding for programs like KAP.

“This started because I asked if there was something we could do about OOD not paying for the program,” Nolan said.

After the lawsuit was settled, Hunter’s family was reimbursed for the money they paid for KAP. Hunter landed a full-time job with HVAC Direct in Troy, after working with a job coach provided by OOD.

“We knew Hunter always had high test scores and good cognitive abilities,” Kelly said. “We wanted him to try otherwise we’d never know how far he could go.”

But without KAP, Kelly admits that her son might not have been able to attend college, let alone graduate successfully.

“It was a huge game changer (KAP),” Kelly said. “It helped him learn to be independent and work with other people than just us. He learned to navigate the adult world on his own.”

Now 23 years old and “enjoying my job very much,” Hunter’s Individualized Employment Plan with OOD is winding down. Now he has set his sights on his future with a few personal goals.

“I hope to find my own apartment and maybe one day work for Pixar (Animation Studios),” Hunter said. “WKU and the KAP program helped me get to where I am today.”

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