On his way to George Mason University’s LIFE program, Alex Bolden, with (left to right) his uncle Brian McCabe, mom Tara McCabe and Chatham Principal Diane Gagliardi, won a $1,000 scholarship from the Alliance of Special Education Schools of North Jersey.

On a long drive home from a vacation in North Carolina last summer, Tara McCabe and her son, Alex Bolden, of Livingston were chatting about his upcoming senior year and high school graduation.

“Alex said, ‘Where am I going to college next year?’ ” said McCabe. “I said, ‘You want to go to college?’ It was first time I ever heard that out of his mouth!”

McCabe was a bit surprised because for Alex, college wasn’t a straightforward choice. Alex will graduate on June 16 from ECLC of New Jersey’s school in Chatham for students with special needs, where he has been enrolled for 11 years.

Alex’s journey has been complicated from the beginning. As a newborn, he was diagnosed with Down syndrome, and at age 7, doctors determined he also had autism spectrum disorder. “Alex had behaviors that weren’t Down syndrome. We spent many years and lots of doctors and therapists until we found the answer. Once we heard autism, the diagnosis fit Alex in a very complete way,” said McCabe.

During his early childhood, the family lived in California, and his educational experiences were uneven. He was enrolled in a public school and, initially, placed in a regular classroom. “We tried mainstreaming but that just never worked for him. We gave it an effort,” said McCabe.

He was moved into a self-contained classroom, mixed in with students who had a range of needs, from being non-English speakers to those with serious emotional issues. The curriculum wasn’t specifically aimed at students with his diagnoses, and it wasn’t challenging, either. “It wasn’t a great fit but better than the other option,” recalled McCabe.

When she decided to relocate to New Jersey, McCabe did her homework on the best school districts for students like Alex. She was determined to live in a district that would find the most appropriate setting for him. They chose Livingston, and it was the right move. The district supported placing Alex in a special-needs setting. After a few false starts, their case worker recommended ECLC.

“ECLC was just so complete for Alex,” said McCabe. “There were academics and life skills, plus all of the ‘normal’ school experiences, like sports teams, dances and proms, that Alex needed. He is very outgoing and craved those social experiences. He got all of those things, and, yet, got to do them being completely himself.”

At ECLC, Alex started on the path that eventually led to college. “ECLC helped him become independent,” said McCabe. “He learned how to follow a schedule and to take personal responsibility for his actions. He learned how to shop for and follow a recipe. He learned to identify and control his emotions and how to be a friend. The ECLC program is so individually tailored to each student. It makes a huge difference because what Alex needs may not be what someone else needs.”

Indeed, it’s highly unusual for ECLC graduates to continue onto college. But with Alex hoping to take the next step, last fall they started on a college tour. They looked at 12 different colleges, mostly within an 8-hour drive of home. Their top choice was the Mason LIFE (Learning into Future Environments) program at George Mason University program in Fairfax, Va.

McCabe said, “I liked the balance of life skills, independence and supports. It’s close to D.C., so there are opportunities for internships. And, it’s a good blend of a typical college experience and supported, supervised daily living.” In the LIFE program, students in master and bachelor degree programs assist in the teaching and mentoring of the LIFE students. It’s an opportunity for both groups to learn from each other.

Meanwhile, Alex is already winning accolades on his way to college. He was awarded the $1,000 Joe Gorga Scholarship from the Alliance of Special Education Schools of North Jersey at their annual conference on May 14. In nominating Alex for the award, his teacher, Patricia Lenzo, wrote, “Alex is a friendly, attentive and tenacious young man. Alex is a class leader helping out whenever needed.”

At George Mason, Alex is excited to pursue his dream of becoming a special education swim instructor. He has won five gold medals in Special Olympics swimming competitions and has volunteered at the Madison Y, coaching youth sports classes. Already, he has obtained CPR certification and is working toward certification as a water safety instructor.

“My goal at college is to make new friends and to become a teacher. I want to give kids with special needs everything they’ve ever imagined,” said Alex. “I want to start a sports camp for kids with special needs.”

“He’s got big dreams, and we just have to figure out a path to get him there,” said McCabe. “It’s an exciting and terrifying time. Exciting for him, and terrifying for me! But, it’s been easier with the constant support from ECLC. They’ve guided us through this stage as they have through all the others over the years. I know we will always have the support of the ECLC community. I’m incredibly proud of it, and I think he’s going to do fabulous.”

While he’s eager to go away, Alex knows he can always rely on help from the home front. “I have a great mom who supports me in everything,” he said.