TV Journalist Dwayne Ballen to Deliver Keynote at the Inclusion Institute

Date Published: 04/23/2014

When journalist Dwayne Ballen delivers his keynote address on May 20th at FPG’s National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute, he’ll talk about how his son Julian has benefitted from inclusion. The former network sports anchor and current autism activist will explain how Julian’s mainstreaming was especially important, because high-functioning autism meant he was aware he was different. Ballen will tell you how Julian’s inclusion helped the boy feel like he was part of the group, like he belonged. He’ll also tell you how about agony—about how it felt, when Julian was older, to hear an administrator inform the family there was no place for Julian in his school. But the reasons Dwayne Ballen believes so firmly in inclusion go far beyond the benefits that it has brought his son and other children with special needs.

“People with special needs have much to offer us,” Ballen said. “I hope I’m a better person for having Julian. I hope I’m a better father. But one thing is certain, my life is better for having been Julian’s father.”

Julian’s autism comprises a blend of challenges and gifts. Ballen chronicled life with his son in the acclaimed Journey with Julian, in which he recounts how Julian has had a penchant for drawing ever since his grandmother first suggested giving him a pencil and paper in church to calm his fidgeting. While many parents know the strategy well, the result with Julian was particularly striking, igniting a lifelong passion for drawing that has kept his sketchpad often in tow—and in use no matter the environment. When Julian was a teenager, even at the Smith Center during the frenetic last few seconds of a UNC-Duke basketball game, the artist still was intent on his sketches.

“He can draw all day, with amazing imagination and recall,” Ballen said. (See Julian's elephant). “He once drew a complete scene from the Serengeti without anything in front of him.”

Now age 20, Julian’s talents also include laser-like interests in animals, mythology, and all things Disney. His ability to focus intently on his favorite subjects, coupled with his memory, means he has developed his own forms of expertise in these areas.

“He can talk about his interests for hours,” Ballen said, smiling. “If you get into a discussion with Julian about his favorite topics, you are headed for the deep weeds.”

As a father of a neurotypical son, too, Ballen is well aware of the particular gifts Julian brings to the family. His wife Martina, younger son Jared, and Ballen himself all benefit from an extraordinary perspective.

“We get to see the world through Julian’s eyes,” Ballen said. “And it’s a wonder. He sees everything with such unalloyed joy. That’s what we get to experience—the purity of his joy for his life, devoid of duplicity. It’s the greatest gift.”

From a young age, Julian has been bringing his gifts to classrooms full of children without special needs. Research shows that typically developing children profit from inclusion. Parents report that their children are more accepting of human differences and more aware of other children’s needs, and they have less discomfort around people with disabilities, as well as less prejudice about people who behave differently.

Ballen, too, has witnessed inclusion’s benefits in Julian’s classrooms. “The other kids gravitated toward him,” he said. “They wanted to pair up with him, especially for group projects that involved drawing, because it came so naturally to him.”

Ballen said that it was easy to see how such opportunities could help all children develop. “Kids are myopic and selfish—that’s just part of being a child. But having Julian in class helped them move through that magnitude of being Me.”

Later, however, the Ballens would encounter a middle school official who declared there was nothing he could do for Julian. Recounting the scene, Ballen likened the news to “a gut punch.”

“At the same time, it motivated Martina and me as parents,” he said. “You don’t want your child at a school where someone who’s supposedly a steward refuses to be involved in their schooling.”

Ballen explained that many schools are unprepared for students like Julian.

“It’s hard, because you run into problems in middle school and high school, where there’s a divergence in the tracking between those students headed to college and those who aren’t,” he said. “We sat in a room full of educators, who told us that at best we could expect a certificate of attendance for Julian—not a high school diploma.”

Julian would graduate with a high school degree, but only after a failed placement and a period of devastating emotional turmoil, which then took months of recovery for him. The Ballens found a small public school that helped children who had experienced nervous breakdowns and other issues, and Julian eventually flourished there.

“We need resources like that for more children,” Ballen said. “It’s a perfect mentoring environment. But what about those parents who aren’t as dialed in as we are—or who just couldn’t find the right resources?”

Julian’s recovery was so thorough, he even volunteered later at a summer camp with kindergartners, which Ballen writes about in Journey with Julian. At the camp, Julian enthralled children with his drawings of animals and Disney characters, as well as his detailed knowledge of the Yeti and other mythological creatures. His interests and “sweet innocence,” Ballen writes, were a perfect match for the children, and the camp director praised Julian’s work repeatedly, inviting him to help with additional camps that summer.

Ballen’s professional life has included a sports anchor role in the Raleigh-Durham market, as well high-profile jobs at CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Golf Channel, and the ESPN Networks, but he writes about how he came to put Julian before his career. He also describes the emotions and issues that come with fathering a son with autism: recalibrating expectations, accepting stares from others, learning to love ill-timed embraces from his teenager in public places, dealing with maddening tantrums, reconsidering what it means to be a father and a man, fearing his son won’t find fulfilling peer relationships or a spouse, wondering and hoping about everything the future might or might not offer—and all the while trying to understand just what “success” for Julian really means.

“We obviously want him to have a full life,” Ballen said. “But understanding what markers to apply is difficult. We can’t project his life.”

The book ends before Julian’s college life began. He has completed a semester in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s “Beyond Academics” Program, which allows students with disabilities to take classes and live the full college experience without working toward a degree, unless they choose to do so. He took the following semester off but talks now about returning, and he says he someday wants to become an animator for Disney—the perfect merger of his interests.

Regardless of how the next chapter unfolds, the artist’s impact is already significant and lasting—thanks to his family’s commitment to bringing him into inclusive environments and publicly embracing all that he is.

“Julian doesn’t even realize how he is helping to make the world more accepting of thousands like him,” Ballen writes, “simply by being himself.”

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FPG’s National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute has become the premier educational opportunity for anyone involved in the care and education of young children with special needs in inclusive settings. For over a dozen years, the popular three-day conference has drawn people from across the country and around the globe to Chapel Hill. This year’s Institute convenes May 20-22, and Dwayne Ballen will deliver his keynote address shortly after 1 PM on the opening day. To read more and register, visit: http://inclusioninstitute.fpg.unc.edu/

FPG is offering a special pre-Institute Workshop that addresses many of the challenges middle and high schoolers with special needs, like Julian, have faced as they transition into adult life.

Read about the other special pre-Institute Workshops

Read more about Journey with Julian

Watch Dwayne Ballen’s recent interview on WRAL

 

FPG grants permission to publish this story in part or in its entirety.

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