Montel Medley barely spoke when he was 3 years old. His mother remembers him repeatedly saying one word, “truck,” and almost nothing else.
Fast forward 20 years and Montel, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, is a graduate of Towson University, one of nine students to earn a dual degree this year in mathematics and computer science.
“I’m just so excited,” said Roberta Medley, his mother, sitting in the audience with other family members at the graduation ceremony on Friday. “Now he’s ready for life.”
There was a time when Montel didn’t think he would graduate.
For his first few years at Towson, his mother checked on him routinely, knowing that his autism could make it difficult for him to navigate socially and manage unexpected challenges. Last spring, she decided to loosen the reins.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to step back and let him do his thing, let him be more independent,’ ” she said.
A valedictorian in high school, Montel found himself struggling to keep up with his course work.
He stayed in his dorm, skipping classes sometimes. His grades started to plummet. By the end of the semester, he had failed three classes, got a B in one and a D in another.
“After that semester I thought about how I’m going to manage it, what I’m going to do different,” Montel said in a recent interview.
His mother responded in a way that a parent of a student without special needs might — by telling him to shape up.
“If you don’t get your act together you’re coming out,” she said.
So Montel rallied.
“I started getting people’s phone numbers. I started going to office hours with my professors,” he said in the interview. “Sometimes I like to pretend I don’t need them.”
That fall, he received two B-pluses, three A’s and one A-minus, earning a 3.66 grade-point average and landing on the dean’s list for the second time since arriving at Towson in 2014.
One out of three high school students with autism attend college, said Paul Shattuck, an associate professor with the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University. Most go to community college, not four-year institutions where they can earn a bachelor’s degree.
Montel was diagnosed at Georgetown University Medical Center when he was 2½ years old, his mother said, and referred to an infants and toddlers program in Prince George’s County. The program worked on Montel’s motor skills, speech and sensory skills.
Like many mothers with an autistic child, Roberta said she felt guilty, “wondering if it was something that I did” that caused Montel’s condition. “I vowed that I would do all that I could to help him to be the best that he can be.”
She said she has tried to encourage Montel to be responsible, offering tough love, she said, in an attempt “not to baby him.”
“I tell him all his life I want him to do things on his own,” she said.
Despite behavioral issues in his early years of elementary school, Montel scored high on tests. He was paired with an aide from third grade until his freshman year in high school to help him navigate the classroom and among his schoolmates.
At Surrattsville High School in Prince George’s, Montel said, there was “a lot of hand holding” compared with college — where the only allowances made for students with disabilities were preferential seating in class and additional time to take exams.
At Towson, he said, he “learned to adapt and do things on his own,” including laundry, setting his schedules, and juggling his homework and class work. He became a member of Towson’s Delta Alpha Pi, an honor society for students with disabilities. This year, he mentored a freshman who also is majoring in computer science.
His next goals include finding a job and, at some point, getting a place of his own. His mother wants him to tackle getting a driver’s license.
During the summers of 2015, 2016 and 2017, he interned at the Federal Highway Administration, working on development projects. He said he would love to find permanent work with the federal government, similar to what he did during his internships.
Dawn Timmons-Jones, who was his supervisor and became his mentor, said she has been keeping an eye out for positions for him.
“He was very meticulous and so quick to get work done,” she said.
On campus, some of Montel’s professors were not necessarily aware of his autism — but they knew that he loved asking questions.
He walked into his senior seminar math class one day this spring, wearing a graphic T-shirt and jeans, and flung his book bag on the desk in the front row.
Using a pencil, he quickly copied down the notes on the “Curse of Dimensionality.”
He was the second student to ask a question during class. And the fourth. And the fifth.
“His brain works very interestingly,” said Tatyana Sorokina, a professor of applied mathematics and analysis who taught Montel for three classes.
“He asks questions, but once he gets it, he’s unstoppable, pretty much solving anything that you give him,” she said. “I just assumed that’s how his brain worked.”
On Friday, Roberta Medley sat front and center at the graduation ceremony, joined by her sister, Theresa Hansberry, Montel’s cousin and another aunt.
“Montel! Montel!,” they shouted as he marched into the arena with his classmates, scanning the crowd to look for familiar faces.
He waved to them with a wide grin.