Patricia Yollin, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
When their son was in middle school, the district's director of special education told them that it might not be important for their son to graduate from high school.
"To our credit, we didn't accept that answer."
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 - Joel Sidney is graduating from UC Berkeley today with an almost perfect grade-point average, a bachelor's degree in American Studies, an honors thesis on Bay Area bluegrass music and the certainty that having autism is not going to limit his expectations.
"It's been tough," he said. "But I've gotten a lot of help."
Sidney is among 700 or so undergraduates served by Cal's Disabled Students' Program. Of the six who have autism spectrum disorders, he is the only one who will be receiving a degree this spring.
"We're astonished," said his mother, Carolyn Schuman.
Sidney, 26, lives in Piedmont with his parents, who are physicians. When their son was in middle school, the district's director of special education told them that it might not be important for their son to graduate from high school.
"To our credit, we didn't accept that answer," said Steve Sidney, 59, associate director for clinical research at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland.
That's how it's been for this family. Joel, the oldest of three children, seemed unusual early on, was nearly deaf in his right ear by age 3 and was diagnosed with autism when he was 12.
"It wasn't being diagnosed every 20 minutes back then," said Schuman, 58, an internist who works with substance abusers.
Autism, a complex developmental disability caused by a neurological disorder, interferes with the normal functioning of the brain and affects a person's ability to convey thoughts and interact with others.
"Joel has never really said the word," Schuman said. "He usually doesn't want to talk about it."
However, at home with his parents on a recent afternoon, he discussed his triumphs and tribulations. Asked if he felt different from his peers, he nodded.
"I think maybe yeah," Sidney said. "I have a hard time communicating sometimes. And sometimes it's hard for me to say what I really want to say."
His struggles are not reflected in his prodigious senior honors thesis, "Innovation and Tradition in Bay Area Bluegrass: Historical Review and Analysis of Distinctive Regional Features," for which he also produced a CD with 20 songs, including pieces by Laurie Lewis, David Grisman, Sandy Rothman and Rich Wilbur.
"My fanatical interest in bluegrass began when I was 9 years old," he wrote. "In 1991, my obsession was initially sparked during a concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley. ... We sat in the front row and I still recall that the band members appeared immense and seemed to be performing right in front of me for my own benefit."
Christine Palmer, Sidney's faculty adviser and chair of his thesis committee, described his academic finale as "an impressive piece of Bay Area bluegrass historiography and music criticism."
When he was 13, Sidney took his bar mitzvah money and bought a lifetime membership to the Freight & Salvage music spot - one measure of an underlying fervor that his stiff outward manner does not convey.
"Spontaneous interaction is not his strong suit," said his father.
Schuman said her son's way of talking and moving sometimes reminds her of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," a 1988 movie in which the actor won an Oscar for portraying a man with autism.
Although the disability affects Sidney's speech, social and motor skills, he has refused to be stereotyped as a student with special needs. Overcoming the doubts of others - including his parents - he memorized the Hebrew songs and prayers required for his bar mitzvah, learned to play the flute and joined his high school band, ran cross-country and track, and now excels at the guitar.
"I didn't really like special ed," said Sidney, who insisted on being mainstreamed. "It didn't seem like what is normal."
He loves Cal sports, especially rugby, and enjoys fraternity parties. He runs through the streets of Piedmont every morning and walks a mile to catch an AC Transit bus to campus. Before he started at Cal three years ago, he endured a 90-minute commute each way to Diablo Valley College.
"Joel is certainly one of the brightest students that I've ever encountered," said Bruce Cook, director of that college's world music program.
In his letter supporting Sidney's application to Cal, Cook described him as an extraordinary student who "proved time and again the ability to grasp and apply difficult concepts from cultural studies, anthropology and gender studies to music" and overcame "enormous difficulty" to succeed academically.
How did he do it?
"At some point I realized I needed to work more or give up," Sidney said.
As a result, he adapts, compensates and labors fiendishly. For example, he taped his classes and listened to the recordings afterward, taking notes along the way.
He also relied heavily on Cal's Disabled Students' Program, which he said has been invaluable - offering everything from weekly counseling to a place like the Assistive Technology Center, where he could get extra time to take tests and use a computer because handwriting was difficult.
"I attribute Joel's success to having the characteristics of any scholar - being passionate about his major, willing to work hard, knowing the resources that he needs to use to succeed, and to being bright and motivated," said Connie Chiba, the program's disability services coordinator.
Sidney's 23-year-old sister graduated from Mills College on Saturday and his brother, 18, will graduate from high school in early June.
His parents - who wish everything wasn't happening at once - might celebrate their oldest son's 3.92 grade-point average with a trip to the Southeastern United States, a bluegrass stronghold.
When things settle down, Sidney wants to find a job - maybe on campus or perhaps involving music. Meanwhile, he's gotten one task out of the way: He's already acquired football tickets for Cal's fall season.
by the numbers:
10,000 At least that many students are expected to receive diplomas at UC Berkeley this spring, including about 6,800 bachelor's degrees and more than 3,000 master's, doctoral and professional degrees.
700 Undergraduates in Cal's Disabled Students' Program, of which 125 are graduating now.
430 Students graduating, along with Joel Sidney, at 9 a.m. today at the Greek Theatre at the commencement of the Office of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies.
80 The percentage of students in the 38-year-old Disabled Students' Program with nonvisible or less apparent disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.