Ben Gretchko had an excellent freshman year at Western and is ready for more.
It would be easy to say this past year has been a transformational one for 19-year-old Ben Gretchko, but the truth is that Ben’s entire life has been a series of incredible transformations.
A video of a speech Ben delivered during his Seaholm High School graduation in June 2017 inspired my writing last fall about his extraordinary journey as a child with autism and the pivotal role his doctor, Richard Solomon, M.D., played in his development. Ben’s speech went viral on the Autism Speaks Facebook page and to date has amassed more than 2.5 million views. A new video, Graduating with Autism: The Ben Gretchko Story, gives a behind-the-scenes look leading up to his speech.
For a young man who didn’t utter his first words until he was 4, successfully finishing his first year at Western Michigan University (WMU) would’ve been reason enough to celebrate. That Ben finished his first year with a 3.77 GPA, all A’s in his second semester, a place on the Dean’s List and an invitation to the Honors College is the stuff of dreams.
The secret to Ben’s success is really no secret at all. His monumental accomplishments can be directly traced to the intensive training and guidance his parents, Lisa and Steve Gretchko of Birmingham, received through Dr. Solomon’s PLAY Project. Solomon is the medical director of the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavior Pediatrics.
PLAY, an acronym for Play & Language for Autistic Youngsters, is an early intervention program to help children with autism that relies on a Parent-Implemented Model (PIM) where the parents apply strategies unique to their child’s developmental needs.
The Gretchkos also have no shortage of praise for the Birmingham School District that, according to Lisa, “paved the way for Ben to be prepared for Western Michigan.”
Ben takes regular classes at WMU, where he’s currently a journalism major. The WMU’s Autism Services Center provides an outstanding resource for students on the autism spectrum and is dedicated to helping students like Ben maximize their potential. The center has helped Ben successfully make the transition from high school and home to college and campus life by providing support to help improve his life skills, social skills and advocacy skills.
“I think I finally figured out that I can enjoy college life and keep up my grades, too. I have to work very hard, but I’m just as smart as the next guy.”
— Ben Gretchko
Ben began his college experience by taking one class at WMU last summer, before his freshman year began. That “ice-breaker” enabled him to acclimate to WMU when the campus was quieter, and it set him up for what turned out to be a memorable freshman year.
And Ben’s achievements haven’t been limited to just the classroom. He’s taken full advantage of the myriad of activities campus life provides (including programs offered at Hillel) and has derived a great deal of satisfaction from his new-found friendships. “I learned a great deal about myself over the past year — who my friends are, how to navigate college and how to do more things on my own,” Ben said.
Because of his early academic success at WMU and his easy transition to campus life, Ben has developed what his mother calls a “quiet confidence.” To Lisa’s point, when reflecting upon his first full year in college, Ben said to his folks: “I think I finally figured out that I can enjoy college life and keep up my grades, too. I have to work very hard, but I’m just as smart as the next guy.”
Steve admits, “Like all parents of college freshmen, Lisa and I worried whether Ben could adapt to college life and handle the academic rigor. Of course, we are very proud that Ben is thriving at WMU, but we recognize that Ben’s success is due to his hard work and the fact that WMU provides a supportive environment for him.”
Solomon, affectionately referred to by his clients as “the fun doctor,” is equally ecstatic over Ben’s progress.
“I’ve been utterly impressed by how well Ben has adapted to college,” he says. “He’s doing well not only academically but he’s doing well socially and psychologically. While I am very proud of Ben’s achievements, I’m even more impressed by his maturity and emotional intelligence. This is a real testament to the potential within people who have an autism spectrum disorder and should be an inspiration for all of us to keep growing and developing.”
Ben recently moved home after taking a couple of summer classes at WMU and just learned he got A’s in both courses. He spent the rest of his summer break working part-time and relaxing.
Ben has also set his sights on securing a media internship within the next year. “There’s a lot going on in journalism,” says Ben, reflecting on the current scrutiny of the media. “I just want to tell people’s stories and just get it right.”
Ben thrives on the challenge and competition that college life has offered him and, for that reason, the beginning of his second full year at WMU can’t come soon enough.
“I’m excited for my new classes and hope for continued academic success,” Ben said. “I also look forward to meeting new people while ‘picking up where I left off’ with the friends I made at WMU last year.”
While Ben would just as soon move on with his college life without the added attention he’s received, he understands the inspiration his journey can provide in allaying the fears of other students in similar circumstances.
“If people decided to go to college because of my story,” he says, “it would feel really, really good.”
To learn about WMU’s Autism Center of Excellence, go to wmich.edu/autism/asc.