Words are important to Nathan Olson.
This is his first year at Pacific Lutheran University. He’s a published author, a PLU legacy and autistic.
Olson has been going to college for six years. After struggling in classes and being a “failure on paper,” his family decided to get him tested for learning disabilities. At 22-years-old, Olson learned he was on the autism spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs one’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It also includes restrictive repetitive behaviors, interests and activities that cause impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning.
“For so long I didn’t have an identity. That day, November fourth, I was the most proud of myself and my identity,” Olson said. “At least I had a name for it finally.”
When Olson was younger, he had a hard time forming a bond with his family. He was always different and didn’t quite fit in. And his family couldn’t quite understand. He connected with one person more than anyone, his grandfather, Herman (Herm).
He and Herm would go out driving together. Olson was especially fascinated with driving as he grew up. They would drive and talk, and Olson felt like Herm was his main supporter. Part of the PLU class of 1951, Herm would tell his grandson, and anyone who entered his home: “When you come over, you don’t need to be anyone but yourself.”
Olson remembers thinking to himself at a young age, “But what if I don’t know who I am?”
Growing up, Olson struggled to form bonds with people, struggled in school and struggled to explain why. He made his way through school, eventually attending the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
English was always easy for him; Olson enjoys reading and writing. However, school was harder for him than most and he was finally tested for autism after failing through his college career.
After finding out he was autistic, Olson decided to explore himself. He wrote in journals and everything began falling into place.
“I journal,” Olson said. “It was really about exploring myself and finding the courage to be that open and find the identity behind the disorder.”
His journaling lead to self-discovery. Beyond that, he found the unwavering desire to educate others on the autism spectrum. Olson’s journaling turned into “A Journey Through My Heartland,” a memoir dedicated to Herm, his late grandfather.
In his book, he tells the story of what it’s like being misunderstood and bullied through school. An Everett native, Olson writes about being tormented by classmates and eventually graduating from Everett High School.
His story doesn’t end there. Before his grandfather passed, Olson promised Herm he’d graduate from a four-year university. Herm was a teacher and believed getting an education was the most important thing a person could do.
Keeping that promise, Olson went to Everett Community College, Univ. of Alaska, Bellevue College, and now, PLU. At Everett and Alaska, Olson never felt comfortable and dropped out. Bellevue opened him up to learning and Olson finished with an associates degree in the Autism Spectrum Navigators program.
That still wasn’t enough. Olson applied to his late grandfather’s alma mater with one goal in mind: graduate from a four-year university.
“Coming to this campus, I see my grandfather,” Olson said. “I’ve made more connections here in the last 30 days than I ever did.” Olson is proud of how accepting and diverse the PLU community is.
Now, poised to graduate in 2017 with a major in Sociology, Olson said he’s found where he belongs. Coming to PLU was like coming home.
Even though he is now more comfortable than ever, Olson still struggles with his disorder. There is no beginning or end to it. Living in the dorms, eating in The Commons and sitting in classrooms are still social-anxiety provoking activities he has to participate in everyday.
“This journey has been about finding myself and courage to have my identity,” Olson said. “I just hope others out there have the courage to try and understand or accept that I’m different.”
Even though he’s starting small, Olson has big dreams for PLU. “I envision PLU coming to the forefront of embracing neurodiversity in higher education,” Olson said.
Words are important to Olson. When he talks, he chooses each one carefully.
He turned to words when he was diagnosed, journaling helped him find himself.
The words in his book are his contribution to the Autism Community. And he hopes that with those words he can change stigmas and assumptions around the disorder. Starting here, at PLU.
“I’ve been so impressed with PLU, they accepted me even with my grades because they look at the whole person,” Olson said. “PLU paved the way to let me come, learn and make connections.” ◼︎