Nathan Olson’s pursuit of higher education took him to Everett Community College, then the University of Alaska. Both gave him one shared experience.
“I failed miserably,” he said.
“I never doubted my intelligence, I never doubted my abilities,” he said. “I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t learning. When I came home from Alaska, I felt I’d let my family down. I’d let myself down.”
His family suggested he undergo a series of tests in November 2011 to determine whether he had a learning disability. Olson, then 22, was all for it.
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I never doubted my intelligence, I never doubted my abilities. I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t learning.
“I knew I’d always been socially awkward. I had a narrow range of interests. I knew there was something I didn’t know about myself,” he said. “After the test, I had an explanation, a place to start.”
The diagnosis: He had Asperger’s syndrome, within the autism spectrum, and a nonverbal learning disorder.
Olson’s family at home in Everett was supportive, but his go-to relative was his grandfather, Herm Olson.
“He was the one who’d keep me going, who always told me to be myself,” Nathan Olson said. “He was such an advocate of higher education, a retired teacher. When I was young, he’d drive me everywhere with him — on errands and outings — and we’d talk. He was always there for me.”
Herm Olson died in 2012. His grandson visited his grave and laid a hand on his headstone.
“I promised to finish my four-year degree. I promised I’d succeed, finish what I’d started,” he said. “I just needed to find a way to do it.”
First, he enrolled at Bellevue College, where an occupational life skills program met his needs.
When I visited PLU last year, I realized they didn’t just look at your transcripts or history, they looked at the whole person.
“People with autism need a structured environment to learn,” Olson said. “When I got to Bellevue College, I had a 3.64 GPA in the nine quarters I attended, and their program fit me. We met with mentors — juniors and seniors from the UW, usually — who helped to keep you focused.
“The result was I got a two-year degree. It was the first time I can remember I finally got somewhere on my journey through higher education.”
Still, there was that pledge to his grandfather. When Olson began checking out Northwest colleges, he visited his grandfather’s alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland.
“When I visited PLU last year, I realized they didn’t just look at your transcripts or history, they looked at the whole person,” he said. “It was the first college that saw me as I saw me. I not only felt I could learn here, I felt I could contribute to the campus community.”
Olson was given several scholarships. It didn’t hurt that by 2013, he’d become a published author with his biography, “A Journey Through My Heartland.”
Before beginning classes this year, he had been on a run of success — at Bellevue College, with his book and during a one-man road trip through Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
“I drove through every county in the state of Washington — all 39 of them,” he said. “I pushed my limits on that trip. I did extraordinary things — for me. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Still, a major university?
“College creates a lot of social anxiety, and people with autism don’t like anxiety. I was so nervous about living on campus in the dorm, about all the social contact,” he said.
I was open about myself to others, and people accepted me. Now I don’t have anxiety.
“I was proven wrong. I was open about myself to others, and people accepted me. Now I don’t have anxiety.”
“I’ve talked to student leaders on campus about being kind of an ambassador for the disabled. I’d like to remind everyone that behind every disability, there’s a heart and soul. I’ve been humbled by the response. People respect the knowledge I have.”
Olson isn’t shy about what he’s learning. Clearly, some of it has been delayed by his Asperger’s syndrome. He’s starting to get the upper hand on his condition, if not quite mastering it.
“I met (autism activist) Dr. Temple Grandin and spoke to her. I’d always had trouble with conversations, and she told me ‘Treat them like board games — everybody has to take turns.’
“That helped me understand how to do it,” he said.
He’s on track to graduate sometime in 2017 with a major in cultural anthropology, and already knows what he’d like to do then.
“I’d like to join the Peace Corps,” he said, “and find a role as a disability master.”