While battling autism and life as a college student, Tory Ridgeway and his family serve as advocates to raise awareness about the needs of people with autism during the college application process and the collegiate journey. (Courtesy Photo)

By Aysia Morton
Special to the AFRO

In 2021, Tory Ridgeway’s full NROTC scholarship was revoked because he was a young man with autism. Ridgeway still followed his dream of attending Embry-Riddle University and an autism coach helped him navigate college difficulties, but he and his family are still taken aback at the discrimination they faced from the Navy.

Ridgeway’s lifelong passion has been for flying aircraft and military defense. When he was four years old, he watched his dad work on planes at the air force base and became fascinated with the thought of flying them one day. When Rideway grew older, he couldn’t qualify to be a fighter pilot because of his eyesight, but he did not give up.

Ridgeway had a goal to pay his way through college with scholarships and grants, so he worked hard and excelled in high school to earn honor roll grades. When the Navy robbed him of that opportunity due to his disability, his family tried appealing their decision and applying for a medical waiver. The Navy responded by suggesting Ridgeway transfer to a “less expensive school.”

Despite the number of times he heard no, Ridgeway and his family fought back.

“We’re doing this to bring attention to anyone who may be going through this, or may go through it in the future. If it doesn’t work for Tory, let’s do what we can to help it get better for everyone behind him,” Ridgeway’s mother, Vanessa told the {AFRO}in July 2021. “Let’s change this process. There is a flaw in the process,” she continued.

However, mother Vanessa Ridgeway is not the only one with the activist spirit.  With Ridgeway’s diagnosis and own history, he has often been an advocate for those who are differently abled.

“He has not allowed the disability to get in the way of his individual success, he has overcome so many obstacles in his life,” the mother said last summer, before describing the “buddy benches,” her son created for other students who might feel different, or get teased by their peers.

Despite overcoming a lot, as an undergraduate student at Embry-Riddle, Ridgeway faced many obstacles as a young man with autism.

“Learning how to be an adult and juggle school was very difficult. People with autism strive off of having a structured environment from day-to-day. But with college, they’re throwing you into these classes and telling you to figure it out. It felt like I was in a play and everyone had the script but me,” Tory Ridgeway said.

He had to make tough decisions like dropping the honors program to get used to balancing the responsibilities of college. He couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities, clubs or organizations, African American programs in particular, that create a well-balanced experience.

Vanessa Ridgeway, his mother, said that he was in distress from the lack of structure. So, he and his family hired an autism coach to help him adjust to his new life, improve his grades and prepare for finals.

“I have heard from so many parents who want to know what an autism coach is. We don’t know that there is a need for our kids once they get to college because we think we are doing the best with Disability Services to get their needs met… being fortunate enough to have an autism coach available was a Godsend.”

Disability Support Service’s (DSS) purpose is to ensure equal access for students with disabilities. The Ridgeways said DSS is a good resource that helps get academic accommodations for homework and testing. But it does not provide the same one-on-one time and organization that you get from an autism coach.

“There’s a gap between what DSS offers and what a student can do. The missing link is an autism coach that can provide individual attention to students.” Vanessa Ridgeway said.

Now the Ridgeways, particularly Tory, are advocating for autism coaches.  They say an autism coach can be the difference between a child failing or passing a semester or an entire year.

“They level the playing field for our kids. An autism coach took my child from an anxiety level of 12 to an anxiety level of 3,” said the active mother.  Though the Ridgeways have faced profound obstacles, they want to advocate for other families of children with autism. Their goal is to help parents and kids with autism begin planning for college and to make the process of finding an autism coach more accessible.

The mother turned advocate has begun training as an autism coach and has created a support group to inform and uplift other families. She desperately wants to help families find autism coaches to help their children excel in college. Her organization, Different Not Less, was created to do just that and individuals can contact her at Vridgeway@differentnotless.net.

Tory Ridgeway’s resiliency is palpable and his passion for life is infectious. After graduation, he wants to get his master’s degree in engineering and work for the defense at Lockheed Martin. He mentions his love for Travis Scott and Denzel Curry as he talks about the future. I’m reminded that he’s maintained his youth and jubilance through life’s challenges.

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here!