Kerry MagroClass of 2007
In late October 2016, Kerry Magro, Class of 2007, had just returned from Dubai, where he had delivered the latest of the almost 700 speeches he has given in the last six years as part of the National Speakers Association on subjects as diverse as bullying and autism to audiences ranging from small groups to TED talks:
When I was four years old I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, a form of autism. My parents were told I had a very low IQ and that kids with autism similar to my diagnosis would one day have to be institutionalized. In fact, there were some ‘experts’ who believed I was mentally retarded. My parents fought for me. They did not want me to have a limited future and, as much as I understood it, neither did I. I knew I was special, I always knew it. In school I had a difficult time keeping up. I was in special needs settings in Pre-K and kindergarten. I attended three different public schools in my first four years of grade school. I was bullied a lot, and I had challenges getting the academic support I needed. It was hard for me and I had severe issues with depression mostly because of the severe bullying. The loss of self-esteem is one of the worst consequences of a learning disability. Believe me, I know that. I experienced it, and it was terrible.
It was in fourth grade that I was mainstreamed for the first time, I was put into a mathematics class. Numbers have always come easily to me; math was my love and my passion. In math class I could do everything the other students could do, everything, and I could do it better than most of them. On a math test I got a 102% – and I finished it before anyone else. Some of the kids in my class were blown away by that. For the very first time I saw myself in a positive way. It was a feeling I had never experienced and it was wonderful.
My parents enrolled me in the Community School at the beginning of fifth grade. My life changed. The bullying disappeared to a great extent because everyone there had something special about them. For the first time I was accepted for who I was; The praise – and the criticism – I received was based on my performance. As I discovered, it wasn’t just a school, in fact it was a community; a community where there is acceptance for other people and a lot of love for each other. I blossomed there. Also, this was the first I was able to build on my academic abilities, rather than 25:1 teacher to student ratio in public school it was closer to 8:1, but even more than that my teachers had experience with students who learned differently, like me, and found the pathways I needed to learn.
Maybe most important, my self-esteem just grew and grew. I began to feel good about myself. I began to realize I could have dreams and fulfill them; even though to begin with they were small dreams. I also discovered that academically I could achieve amazing things.
As a child, no one had ever talked to me about the possibility of going to college. During those early years college seemed like it would be a real stretch. The first time I thought about it was during my sophomore year at Community High School, when I made the JV basketball team. I have always been a huge basketball fan and can quote a lot of statistics. I was overweight at that time, and I took it upon myself to lose sixty pounds. That feeling of succeeding at something that I had failed before made me realize if I worked hard enough, if I focused and was determined, made me believe I not only could go to college, I could succeed in college.
I didn’t kid myself, I knew how much hard work it was going to take, and I knew how important my therapy was going to be throughout the whole process. But now I had confidence in myself and my abilities, the focus and determination to succeed and an understanding of what I had to do to make it possible. I had learned the strategies that I would need. I graduated from Seton Hall University. And I began speaking in public about my personal struggle and what I learned. I was tentative at first, and certainly nervous, but I felt so strongly that if I could help other young people who were in a situation similar to mine, if I could give their families hope and even inspiration, then I would have to learn how to communicate my message.
My confidence just continued to grow. In 2011, after graduating from Seton Hall, the National Speakers Association awarded me a scholarship to attend graduate school. I received my Master’s degree, also from Seton Hall, and eventually began studying for my doctorate in Educational Technology Leadership at New Jersey City University.
I began working for the organization Autism Speaks soon after graduating from Seton Hall and am currently Producer of Social Media and Digital Content for that organization. Today I average about 100 speeches annually. In addition, I have written two bestselling books in the category of Special Need Parenting Defining Autism From The Heart, and Autism and Falling in Love, and contributed a chapter to a third College for Students with Disabilities: We Do Belong.
In 2011 I was asked to consult on the creation of the key character in the movie, A Joyful Noise, which starred Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. Three years later I did similar work for the movie, Jane Wants A Boyfriend starring Eliza Dushku and Louisa Krause. Also in 2011 I founded my own non-profit organization, KFM Making a Difference. Our objective is to help break down barriers for those with special needs, the same barriers I had to deal with, while also providing partial scholarships for adults with autism to attend college.
And I even began hosting a weekly cable TV program, Different is Beautiful Show. All of this became possible because of the Community School. They took a shy kid with serious learning difficulties and presented me with the tools and the opportunities – and maybe most important, the self-esteem and confidence to become the person that I am today.