Ashley Coar is not your typical college student. She’s traveled the world and speaks five languages (Japanese, Spanish, Korean, French and English). And despite being born to African American parents from the United States, Korean is actually her native tongue. She didn’t learn to speak English until age seven.
Along with her ability to speak multiple languages fluently, she also earned memberships with both the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and the Daughters of the American Revolution, an unlikely feat as any. Ashley can also play the piano as if she was born behind the keys, without ever having had a piano lesson. She has an infectious smile and an insatiable fondness for learning new things. She also is autistic.
In the spring of this year, Ashley’s story reached a high point as she walked across the stage at Morgan State University as a member of the Class of 2015, with a GPA above 3.0 and a degree in English. To her family, it would be one of their happiest days. But her journey didn’t begin under such positive circumstances.
Born 25-years ago to parents Elizabeth Coar and now retired Colonel James Coar, a veteran of the Vietnam War, Ashley’s birth came as a surprise to the couple who already had one young, adult child and wasn’t expecting another. However, from the moment of her birth, they knew that her arrival was special.
“We weren’t looking to have another child, not at the age we were at the time, but then here comes Ashley,” said Mrs. Coar. “When she was born, I knew that there was something unique about her, outside of the circumstances surrounding her birth, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Whatever it was, I knew that I loved my baby very much.”
Once when she was two-years-old, Ashley looked at a completed puzzle, took it apart, and reassembled the 24-piece set in only 30 seconds. It would be these types of amazing achievements, coupled with Ashley’s reluctance to speak, that prompted Mrs. Coar to have her daughter tested.
The family was informed that Ashley had Autism, a complex neurobehavioral disorder that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. Specifically, she was diagnosed as having a high functioning autistic spectrum disorder known as Asperger Syndrome.
Following the startling diagnosis was an even more surprising suggestion from the doctor of what to do with the autistic child. It would be something that Mrs. Coar never forgot.
“The doctors suggested that we have Ashley committed to a group home where she could be cared for with other children like her. They said that she would require a lot of care and thought that it would be a burden on us because of our age,” said Mrs. Coar. “Being separated from my child wasn’t an option. When it comes to your children, you have to do what you have to do. She was staying with us.”
As the child of a military parent, Ashley was able to see the world and attend schools in a number of foreign places. In all, including the time prior to Ashley’s birth, the family has moved 22 times. The journey would eventually bring the Coar family back to the United States to her father’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, where Ashley later graduated from high school.
In 2008, Ashley moved to Baltimore with her mom, who grew up in the city. She then enrolled in Baltimore City Community College, where she studied an array subjects that interested her. And when she conquered all of the challenges the college had to offer, she made the decision to transfer to Morgan to pursue her bachelor’s degree. According to her mother, it was the “best option.”
Now, as a graduate of Morgan State University, Ashley wants to attend Notre Dame of Maryland University in December and plans to pursue a Master’s in Journalism. However, her dream job is to become a translator in the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC.
When asked about what impresses her most about her daughter and her various achievements, Mrs. Coar’s response is succinct.
“The thing that makes me proudest about my daughter is what she overcame just to graduate from high school,” said Mrs. Coar. “That, and the fact that she has never been weak. She knows who she is and stands up for herself.”
Added Ashley, “I’m autistic, not stupid.”
She is that, and so much more.