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Eagle Scout honor one part of autistic success story

Oct. 10, 2012

Glendale - On the surface, Jeremiah Swisher is your average 22-year-old. He is a Nicolet High School graduate. During the week he attends school at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. On the weekends, he returns home to Glendale and works at the local movie theater while balancing his homework so he can double major in business administration and political science.

All is not as it seems, however. Day-to-day tasks simple to most can be insurmountable for Jeremiah.

For him, simply having the ability to speak is a miracle his parents, Glendale residents Peter and Joyce Swisher, are thankful for every single day. That skill set many of us take for granted, was a battle for Jeremiah, who didn't utter his first words until he was 5-years-old.

Jeremiah is autistic. Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. It affects each child differently.

"Why we were blessed I don't know, because many of them never do talk," Joyce said.

Because of autism, Jeremiah's whole life has been riddled with barriers he has worked to break down, never letting an obstacle stand in his way.

Highest level in scouting

Most recently, Jeremiah achieved a goal that was six years in the making. After numerous attempts, Jeremiah was awarded his Eagle Scout badge last spring, a feat his parents did not always think possible.

"Every time I think he can't do something, he goes clear in the other direction," Joyce said.

Not one accomplishment ceases to amaze and shock Joyce as her son overcomes all odds.

For his Eagle Scout project, Jeremiah built book shelves, which he filled with books and donated to Wisconsin Family Assistance Center for Education, Training and Support, an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities receive an education.

This is a cause close to his heart.

"I wanted to give back to Wisconsin FACETS because of everything they have done for me," Jeremiah said.

Jeremiah planned to obtain his Eagle Scout badge at 16. However, the project became increasingly challenging and took much longer.

"When I tried to get the Eagle Scout project done, there were a lot of challenges and barriers, and luckily, I was able to get an extension, but still it wasn't an easy task and it was harder than a college assignment," Jeremiah said.

Jeremiah said becoming an Eagle Scout has taught him that sometimes life is not fair. His project design was sent back to the drawing board on numerous occasions.

Jeremiah stuck to his motto "always finish what you start" and achieved his goal.

Breaking down barriers

Throughout his youth, Jeremiah's parents put him in eight different schools on the south side of Milwaukee, trying to find one that could best educate their son. When most children were reading, writing and talking, Jeremiah used sign language to communicate. Instead of play dates, he went to therapy.

Jeremiah will battle lifelong barriers like these because of his autism.

Autistic children tend to see things in "black and white," Jeremiah said. Coming to terms with the fact that there is more than one right answer to a problem, was a lengthy challenge.

When autistic children are faced with the unknown or a sudden change in their environment, anxiety and panic take hold.

That held true when Jeremiah was a child. To overcome this panic, repetition was key. If Peter took a different freeway exit that was out of the norm, Jeremiah would spend hours upon hours screaming until his dad went back on the freeway to take the exit Jeremiah was used to.

"I had to get off on a specific exit, and if I didn't he would go ballistic," Peter said. "As soon as we got off on that exit he would stop."

Accepting the differences

Jeremiah was in second grade when he first realized he was different from other children. He struggled with his coursework and attempted to integrate into a traditional classroom.

Integration was and continues to be a struggle.

"In the beginning, I cried a lot because you want them to succeed, you want them to be wanted, but when you think about it for a minute that's the same things we want for ourselves," Joyce said. "But autism is very difficult, because there isn't a face to it. He looks normal.

"Don't you think a 22-year-old wants real friends? He wants more than just to get out and work, but he doesn't have the friends that are going to hang out with him and go out and do the things guys his age do."

Despite every thing that could have held Jeremiah back, he didn't let it.

"Even though he didn't talk until the age of five, he was determined," Joyce said.

From one word to many

Joyce and Peter ultimately settled in the North Shore, where they found a school to meet their son's needs. Jeremiah credits Nicolet High School with much of his developmental growth, particularly with speaking skills and learning how to organize his typically disjointed and chaotic thoughts.

It was a miracle Jeremiah learned to speak. It is even more amazing that he now leads conferences across the U.S. as a speaker and disability advocate, sharing his story and teaching others about autism.

"I give advice all the time. One is be yourself. Two is always be determined and my third point is strive to achieve your ambitions and never give up," Jeremiah said.

He said policy debate in high school helped him acquire the skills to speak eloquently.

"Policy debate in high school was where I broke down a lot of my barriers because we were taught to have an open mind and there are two sides to every story," Jeremiah said. "One thing with autism is we can have so many ideas at so many times because of our anxiety and in high school I learned how to organize my thoughts in a way that I'm telling a story."

Being able to have one-on-one time with educators, he said, also helped him overcome educational obstacles that stood in his way.

To hear Jeremiah speak at an event, email him at

jeremiahswisher@yahoo.com.

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