Sandy Petrovic and David Petrovic — Autism: Learning Never Stops

Sandy and David Petrovic
Sandy Petrovic and David Petrovic

Each person is unique; and understanding a person’s differences and recognizing the innate potential in every individual is of paramount importance. Sandy Petrovic and David Petrovic are two such individuals who have not let their hearts be dimmed by autism. Instead, they have worked on creating a fulfilling life for David who is now a teacher, an author, a motivational speaker and a theater actor. This mother and son duo have co-authored a book Expect a Miracle: Understanding and Living with Autism that guides readers through the challenges they have encountered and the solutions that have helped them through their journey. ABILITY’s Priya Iyer met with David Petrovic and Sandy Petrovic to talk about David’s journey and Sandy’s determination and resolve to help him succeed.

Priya Iyer: David, what started you on this path of writing a book initially? In 2014, you, along with your mom, wrote the first edition of this book when you were in college. You then decided to write the second edition in 2020 that also encompasses your experiences in early adulthood. What put you on this path to writing the book?

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David Petrovic: The ultimate objective was to instill hope for those on the autism spectrum, but also for those with other differences, to validate the innate worth and dignity that lies within every single being. But in terms of the book, it was my father who kind of planted the seeds within my mother and me in terms of how we could potentially do this. You know, how he kept saying how we could give hope to so many people. We had such a great story to tell. And we finally agreed after so many times of him bringing this up.

Through this book, you are getting the perspective of someone who is living with autism and the parents who have gone through the long and winding road of trying to navigate the terms of therapies and accommodations and what works best. Our book is geared toward people with autism but is also for those with various differences and those going through any kind of hardship. The reader can hopefully learn from our journey and what works best for us, therefore finding some inspiration to pick and choose what works best for them—to recognize that they have it within them to achieve everything that they are capable of achieving. It’s all about recognizing that first and foremost all of us human beings in this world are a combination of strengths and weakness.

Iyer: Sandy, what would you say put you on the path of writing the book along with David? As a mother, you could have decided to write a book on your own experience with autism. But you decided to co-author this with David. How did you think about that?

Sandy Petrovic: Well, as he said, it was my husband who inspired us and kept encouraging us to go down this path, and we realized that David learned how to write. There were so many executive functioning skills and deeper issues that he had as a young child that we worked so hard on. Due to the fact that he could become a creative writer and the fact that he learned all these things, we started to feel like we almost had a responsibility to be a voice for people who couldn’t express the realities and potentials of living life with autism. There are so many books out there for professionals when you’re learning about autism, but they’re all very objective. We want to present the hard-core life with autism.

And when I say we would give a voice to people who can’t, I don’t only mean nonverbal autistic people. I mean those who just have a hard time expressing what’s in their hearts or expressing what their concerns are. David beautifully learned how to do that. We thought that the combination of us writing together would be great. So, I write, and he follows in italics. So, you see the different voice. Sometimes, we talk about the same incidents. Sometimes, we talk about something different, and we hit every developmental stage. At the beginning of the book, I write most of it, but, as he ages, he writes more and more until predominantly writing the last chapter. You see growth, not only in his thought process and his creativity, but in his heart, his mind, and his intellect. He has taken over and he can thrive.

Iyer: David, as the saying goes, when you see one person with autism, you see one person with autism. What is your unique perspective that helped you in writing the book but also helps you in the classroom, as a teacher?

David: It’s really embracing and feeling secure with my whole being, recognizing that I as an individual on the autism spectrum have a great deal of strength that comes along with it, as well as a great deal of persistence. Everything changed for me once I stopped dwelling on the challenges that my autism brought upon me and I instead chose to focus on the strengths. And recognizing that asking for help is the smartest and the bravest thing one can possibly do. To recognize how I learn best to comprehend certain things, and that if information is given to me this way point-blank I’m able to get the job done—and not just get it done, but get it done well.

I like to think that my autism also provides a major asset for me in the classroom as a teacher. Because of the way that I learn and the different ways I learned, I’m very much aware that the one-size-fits-all mentality of education does not apply. So, I try to make myself as open-minded and available to the student needs as I can, recognizing that it’s not about me trying to satisfy my needs or teach the way I know is best, or to teach this material because it makes me feel good. It’s all about what makes the students feel good, how the students learn best, what works best for them. I’m very big at giving them a voice in their learning and to open that line of communication to say, “Hey, if you’re not getting something, if this method is not the way that you roll, please let me know so that we can make adjustments.” Because it is all about–for me as the teacher–wanting to maximize their potential, to help them learn and solidify the material and help them see the real-world applications. And what really helps me is, like, when I was in school, how I had teachers in my life who let me put a creative spin on some academic assignments or projects.

Expect a Miracle book coverIn the book, I talk about my freshman year high school English class and writing a rap report on Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I was able to freestyle rap it as long as I met all of the objectives that the project had. That got me my first good grade, which in turn led me to develop a passion for English language arts. Now here I am as a social studies teacher so many years later, and I tell the students, “Hey, for projects, for study methods, do skits or plays on different aspects of history. We could play games for study skills in order to review for the test incorporating the study guide.” Or allowing them to write songs or paint pictures or write poetry in order to bring what they’re most passionate about to the subject area. This could then in turn make the material come to life, make it real.

Iyer: That gives me so many things to think about and so many follow-up questions. David, you mentioned that at some point there was a turning point in your life where you started to dwell on your strengths rather than thinking about your weaknesses. What would you characterize as that turning point in your life?

David: It was in my junior year of high school, when I kind of hit bottom in a lot of ways. I mainstreamed from the special needs elementary school to a typical middle school in eighth grade and I began going through the stages of grief in regard to my autism. That’s when reality hit me in terms of my diagnosis, how it affected me, and how it set me apart from the rest. Going through those stages of denial and anger, but then eventual acceptance.

There came a time when I had to swallow my pride and resume therapy to learn about my autism and how it affected me. When it came down to it, I had to understand it to accept it, and accept it to explain it to others and be able to advocate for myself. I went to a Catholic high school, and I found myself volunteering my junior year at a retreat for the freshmen. There was a time when we all had to share a testimonial about what we’ve been through. In a way to keep the ball moving and to get the kids to open up, I got up and shared briefly, not even a minute, about my hope for the kids and how they could all be welcomed and heard and understood and be treated with the utmost kindness and respect.

When we get back to school, my campus minister approached me and relayed the impact that I wasn’t even aware that I had had on those students, as well as on some of the faculty who were there. And she encouraged me to try to see this speaking thing through and take it to the next level. Which then–going into senior year–she invited me to speak at the freshman retreat. This was strategically placed at the beginning of the school year, so I was able to speak to the incoming freshman class and share about my autism, the difficulties that it brought upon me, but having come to a place where I was beginning to love and accept myself for my entire being, share my hope to lift up others.

With treasured acquaintances at school that I had longed to be friends with, I had found myself at a standstill of, “How do I do that? How do I say that?” Once they learned about my autism, how it affected me, and why I did the things that I did, those acquaintances, those peers, became my friends. They were finally able to accept me for me, which just propelled myself into this world that I never would have seen myself doing, but which led to the motivational speaking. This led to, especially in college, having the ultimate realization that I not only live a happy life because of who I am, but I live a fulfilled life.

And it all stems from not trying to fit in with certain groups of people as I attempted to do back in high school—not only focusing on the drama kids, but making myself available to everyone: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the student council.—By opening myself up to everyone, that’s when I came to know myself, and where I found my place and made my presence known. I realized that as human beings, we all go through struggles, and a lot of times we don’t even see it in others based on the physical.

That’s also what inspired me to become a teacher. When I was going through my “rock bottom,” teachers and staff, including my campus minister, stepped up and listened to me, supported me, and comforted me. That led me to think I could do that for others as well. Recognizing that it’s all about embracing and loving myself, recognizing that I’m more than just my autism. I realized that I have all these traits that need to be adjusted and I have stuff to work; I made mistakes and I am learning from them, but it’s all about me moving forward. I’m inspired to help others move forward as well, to help them be the best that they’re capable of, whether it’s autism they are dealing with or other special needs.

Iyer: I guess acceptance is the hardest part, acceptance by the parents, and by the individuals themselves. You accepted it and then you decided to work on it. Is that what has helped you?

David: I think there’s a reason that “acceptance,” whether of grief or anything else, is the last of the Kubler Ross stages—because there’s so much to get to before that.

Iyer: True. And I’m sure as a mother, Sandy, you went through those stages, right?

Sandy: Absolutely.

Iyer: Sandy, how did you accept it? How did you work on it? And when did you see the turning point come about? That’s a lot there!

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Sandy: Yes, there is a lot there. That could be a whole discussion in and of itself. I’ve always been the type of person who takes action. If there’s a problem, I’m on it. The acceptance came immediately when he was a young child, and I realized he had autism. In his preschool years is when they started using the then-term “high-functioning autism.” I began actively seeking therapies and seeking different niches such social skills, play groups, and anything that I could do to help him.

David, I have to say, was a wonderful person to work with because he was so open to anything. He was very easy to coach. He never fought anything. He wasn’t resistant. He had tenacity, trial and error, “Let’s try this. Let’s adjust. Let’s re-try this.” He was amazing. This was through our whole journey together in what we did.

I guess there are different times in our lives when you accept things, but then in a different frame of reference and a different set of circumstances, you go back and think about it. I went through that as well. For example, when we mainstreamed David in eighth grade, he did very well with my coaching and with less accommodations than he had in the special-needs school. So, when we got to high school, I had this false sense of, “Maybe he’s “fixed.” Maybe academically we could just go in like everybody else.” And that’s what he desperately wanted to do as well, come in where nobody knew him, start fresh. But everything pretty much fell apart by October, and for me, I finally realized total acceptance: that accommodations are always going to be needed and that autism doesn’t go away. Maybe he learned better academically when he learned what accommodations worked for him, and maybe it gets a little bit easier to know what is needed to thrive, but David’s always going to be autistic. That was my reaffirming acceptance, and from then on, we went full guns all the time. If we ask for accommodations, we can always back down on them when he gets more self-sufficient. But we’re not going to go in and blindly pretend that he doesn’t need help.

David PetrovicIt took him a couple years longer than that to accept it. He did go through a period of isolation and had been bullied for a few years by then. He desperately wanted friends but didn’t know how to get them. So that was all difficult. He went back to the pediatric psychologist to renew social skills therapy and learn more about his autism. He knew by diagnosis that he had autism, but he didn’t really understand what it meant for him on a personal level. Those are two different things, accepting it intellectually and in your heart.

Iyer: Once you started working on these aspects, how long did it take for you to see the difference? And what did you start working on next?

Sandy: We always work on something. We didn’t ever just let things go. But the focus kind of shifted. Over that junior year, when he was really down, something had to happen. It was actually during the prior summer that we started to give him more therapy in terms of what autism is and what it meant to him. He then thought to himself, “Let me try to get a little bit of help academically. Let me reveal my autism to one person and see what happens.” And one success led to another success, and it got him more and more motivated. And I would say that the change occurred over several months. It’s not like one day things improved. It was an evolution. It was a journey. I know that word is overused, but it truly was. Would you agree with that, David?

David: Yeah, like sophomore year of college I remember specifically that Mom and I were sitting in a car, having our regular meet-up, and I used these exact words, “I realize, Mom, that I not only live a happy life, I live a fulfilled life.” Everything I’d gone through, especially the hardships, had helped mold and shape the person I am today, who I aspire to become.

Sandy: And this is the more mature David in college. These acceptance levels changed with his developmental stages of life. In high school, when we’re talking about sophomore and junior year, he’s all of a sudden starting to have friends and he’s going to parties and he’s in theater. Suddenly, he’s getting a 4.0 and he’s doing amazing things, and we’re realizing, “OK, we can think about college if that’s something you want to do.” In our early years, we never thought that was in the cards.

Iyer: David, you’re an inspiration. You give a lot of hope. Obviously you’ve had your challenges. We wanted to show people that there are challenges along the way, but there will be turning points, there will be changes that come about gradually. Be patient, welcome challenges, and as we move along, you definitely can lead a very happy and fulfilling life. To come to the profession you have chosen, David, what was it that inspired you to be a teacher? Because a teacher has tremendous influence on the lives of children, and can actually make a difference in a child’s life.

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David: Going through bullying and hitting rock bottom in high school. Like I talked about before, seeing teachers step up who allowed me to talk with them in their offices on their break time, so that they could be assured that I was doing OK. I had been through bullying, so I understood the ins and outs and the inner workings of when and how the bully works, which maybe some teachers do not. So I could literally have one foot in my classroom and one foot out in the hallway to detect if a bullying situation was coming about so I could then intervene immediately. That was the main source of inspiration for why I wanted to be a teacher. And currently I’m a middle school teacher. I would eventually love to teach in a high school setting. I love that I can incorporate all my passions of theater and of my faith in being a teacher. I can show my students, especially those on the autism spectrum and those with differences, that if a nonverbal autistic three-year-old could end up becoming a teacher, who’s to say that you all can’t do the same in terms of how you learn, or what you are passionate about, or what you can do? It’s all about finding your niche in life. It’s all about students finding what their interests are and helping to guide them in figuring out what their passions are. To encourage them to say that they have it within themselves to be all that they’re capable of being and to not compare themselves to others.

We are all on different paths in life. I know for me, at this point in my life, so many of my classmates and friends are getting married, having children. Me, I’m still very much single. Never even had a girlfriend. But again, I’m doing so much, like this, speaking, and with my book. I’m trying to relay to my students that they shouldn’t compare themselves to others. That if they find what their gifts and passions are, they can go forward and turn that passion into a very successful livelihood. It wouldn’t be just a career, but it would truly be like a calling, as I believe teaching is for me.

Iyer: I’m not sure there are many people with autism in academia. I’m not sure there are many teachers with autism. How do you think you would want to encourage more people with autism to start teaching younger children? Because I think they could make a huge difference in children’s lives.

David: I think parents, first of all, are the first teachers. They are the ones who instill the certain values that their children will carry on in life.

Sandy: In answer to your question, I think it would be wonderful, incredible to have more teachers on the autism spectrum if that is something that the person is passionate about pursuing. I see that in my role as a college tutor. It’s not just a decision of looking at majors and saying, “I’m going to try this one,” because teaching encompasses so many skills other than just the teaching piece. You can have all those hard skills, but you need a lot of soft skills as well. And I think David is so incredible at it because it IS his passion. If a student really wants that, by all means, that’s amazing. But it’s got to be something from the heart that you’re passionate about. And I think also that no matter what job or profession autistic people go into, they are educating. Every time you interact with someone with autism, whether it’s somebody in a trade or somebody in a different position, it teaches people. It changes their perspective. They might think autistic people certainly can’t be in the business world or have people work under them. But no, not true.

Autistic people can do anything neurotypical people can do. And the beauty of David being a teacher is that he comes to his class saying, “If I can do it, if I can follow my dream, so can you.” And that’s the huge message. I’m sure that even the community and the parents, without him saying anything, are all learning about autism in a different way.

David: On social media, there is much more publicity in terms of people on the autism spectrum going to the Olympics, being artists, making comic books, working in bakeries and creating such confectionary creations that are pathbreaking the culinary world, being onstage or in the movies, being represented on TV, being doctors etc. I try to encourage my students in all aspects. Some people are built for college, some are not. But there’s great value in learning a trade. I’m a major advocate for getting a trade, for going to vocational school, for art school, for any aspect. The world is truly our classroom. The learning never stops, and so that being said, asking for help never stops. It is the smartest and the bravest thing one can possibly do to acknowledge that one needs help in any aspect of life, professional or personal, which will lead to maximum results and the most positive potential. And this is not just for the benefit of those seeking the help, but also for the employers, for the coworkers, and for the organization itself, since this can help to build the organization up instead of tear it down.

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Iyer: I think a number of individuals make assumptions about children with autism when they’re very young. They just say, “Oh, this child will not be able to go to college.” You can never assume. I think with the right support, resources, therapy, children can bloom, can soar.

David: Especially when they’re so young, too. You don’t slam down the options, that’s when you’ve got to pull out all the stops. You’ve got to get all the cards, all the options out there, every single one you can think of. There must always be expectations, never assumptions.

Sandy: Exactly. The coaching and the encouragement is crucial, because it’s scary for anybody to step out of their comfort zone. But then once you do it and good things happen, you want to try again. I think one of the big reasons I wrote this book was to give people that crystal ball that I always wished I had: where David would be in 20 years. Not that we are all on the same path, but just to give the hope that with the right support and exploring all your options, progress is possible. And also to see that there is a lot of joy in raising a child with autism. That is so important, and not to worry about what you cannot control. You do your best.

Iyer: David, I’d like to touch upon your experience as a theater artist or an actor as well. Many people on the spectrum find something else that really bolsters their self-esteem. Was theater something like that?

David: It was a major form of therapy, and I didn’t realize it at the time. Theater helped strengthen my compassion and my sympathy and my efforts through the plays that I did, the characters I portrayed, the dances I danced, the songs I sang. And more than that, it helped me recognize the facial expressions and the emotions of others, not when they were characters, but when they were truly being themselves. It helped me embrace all this beautiful diversity that exists in this world and it helped me find a sense of belonging. I’m in an environment where my quirks or what I consider weaknesses or inhibitions are not only acknowledged but they’re celebrated, and I’m encouraged to dive even deeper into them because that’s what makes me, me. That’s what I love about musical theater especially. I mean, life is portrayed onstage. When an audience member goes to see a performance, they get a greater perspective about which certain groups of people are maybe marginalized in society or are not really given the spotlight. That’s why I’m also a major advocate for arts in our schools, whether or not you want to become professional actors or actresses. Because, again, to get that encouragement, and to learn about people from all walks of life and especially people with special needs, it will truly help everyone involved (from the director to the actors and actresses) to recognize that it’s not just about becoming better performers, but better people. And how we can all help to do just that, regardless of our abilities.

David Petrovic Ted xSandy: Truly, theater saved him. When he was at his lowest low, to have a group, an acceptance, somewhere to go that brought him joy made all the difference. David actually presents a whole talk on theater and the role of it in his life. He’s come up with over 20 ways that theater has impacted him, including how to learn social skills and how to accept critique.

David: And being in shows instilled in me confidence, not just when I’m cast in a show, but when I go to see a show. Because the theater is such a small community, I can now go up to an actor or actress and say, “You did a phenomenal job.” And because of who I am and how I convey myself, they can respond, “Oh, thank you so much! What is your name?” I tell them, and it’s like in the first minutes that we’ve been friends for the longest time. Again, it all stems from the confidence and the comfort in oneself and to hold your head up high, which I can now do.

Iyer: What’s next, David? You’re an inspirational speaker, you’re a teacher, you’re a theater actor. What are you setting your sights on next?

David: Find me a wife. (laughter) Mom’s already given a book to my boss, so now she just needs to find a future daughter-in-law to give the book to. (laughter)

But seriously, I plan to continue teaching, speaking, performing, promoting the book, and putting forth the greatest amount of effort to be the best person I’m capable of being. That is, being able to lift others up in their efforts, regardless of their predicaments or their special needs, diagnoses, or circumstances. Just sharing that there is potential and value, I believe, in every aspect of lives.

Iyer: Sandy, what do you think? What are you setting your sights on next? I’m sure you’re very proud of where David is today. What do you think?

Sandy: I’m very proud of where he is today. David’s very humble in his aspirations, and that’s because he’s learned that if you set your sights as a very concrete thing, you could be disappointed. We’ve worked on transitioning, preparation, and having goals, but also to just kind of go with the flow and see what happens. I know he has mentioned maybe teaching in a high school. To his comment about finding a wife, he is exploring all options. He would love to experiment more with dating, but he is also considering being a clergyman within our Catholic faith. He’s considering a position where he could mix all his passions. So, for example choosing a teaching order. He’s never stagnant. He’s always thinking ahead.

As for me, I have co-chaired the Milestones National Autism Conference for the last few years. We’ve been asked to write a chapter in another book that’s coming out on reintegration for autistic people after lockdown. So again, like he said, being open and just seeing what life is inviting us to do.

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He moved out into an apartment during the pandemic, which was a huge step for him. One of the hardest things for me was learning to let him go, just like when he went to college and started traveling by himself to speak. It was so difficult. I wanted to do for him, I wanted to make sure he was safe.

Iyer: That’s the tough part, but you’ve accomplished that.

Sandy: Right. I advocated for him for two decades, and then turned it over to him. I would teach him the steps, let him practice with me overseeing to make sure that he does have what it takes. And then, that letting go part is really difficult, but really necessary or I am really not helping him. I’m hurting him more by hanging on to him when he could do for himself.

I finally recognized that his way of doing things isn’t going to be my way. For example, in moving out, he is not going to be ironing his shirts for school and making three-course dinners. But he’ll go to the dry cleaners, and he’ll figure out a safe way to eat. I realize that my way will not be his way, but it is not that one is right or wrong. His approach will work with him, and therefore it’s right for him. I learned to let him go and let him fly.

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