Lobbying for those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
Recent high school graduate Gary Riege of Cottage Grove is a science and math whiz. He’s also a Star Wars fanatic, avid computer science techie and advanced placement student. He’s soft spoken, but he has big ideas, especially when it comes to bringing awareness to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and the need for more educational opportunities.
“I found out when I was really, really young,” Riege, 18, said about his diagnosis. “I always knew I had that.”
Riege and several others with FASD took to the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol earlier this year and spoke with their local legislators to ask for education changes that allow students on the fetal alcohol spectrum the same opportunities as other students.
Adopted at age 2, Riege’s parents, Christine and Dave, fostered his desire to learn.
“From a very early age they had me watching Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, which got me interested in how the world works from a scientific perspective,” he said. “When you find out how some of it actually works, you only want to know more.”
But when the couple’s budding scientist met resistance in the classroom, they began looking for alternatives.
At East Ridge High School in Woodbury, Riege said he wasn’t able to take certain advanced placement classes, he couldn’t use a computer for note taking and the school district wasn’t following through with the accommodations listed in his individual education plan.
“I needed special education but (the district) always fought us on almost everything we asked for,” he said. “They wouldn’t follow my (individual education plan), and other times they wouldn’t add things. And when they would modify it they would remove all of my supports.”
Frustrated with the inability to partake in courses he knew he would excel in, Riege enrolled in the Minnesota Virtual Academy. He soon began taking advanced placement classes, delved deeper into the mechanics of computer science and got a confidence boost from supportive teachers that he said helped “big time.”
“It was a much better situation,” he said. “They followed my (individual education plan), the format was different so a lot of my accommodations were automatic and I had the ability to .go to a teacher anytime.”
And the best part, he said: “They let me take harder classes.”
One such advanced placement test had him writing out Java computer programming language by hand. And he was able to take both microeconomics and macroeconomics classes.
He shared his positive experience at Minnesota Virtual Academy with state Rep. Denny McNamara and Sen. Katie Sieben in February at the Capitol.
“We need them to support legislation to basically improve the special education programs, more specifically for those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder,” he said. “I want others to be able to take more complex math and science classes if they want.
“Just because they are in special education doesn’t mean they are less,” he added. “Our current system treats us as less, and it really bothers me.”
Along with advocating for more opportunities for fellow students with the disorder, Riege is also spreading the word about just how preventable FASD is.
“There is recognition but not enough, in my mind,” he said. “There’s still going to be a problem but we need to realize that it’s preventable and we need to reduce the number of people that end up having it.”
And for those with FASD, he said it’s all about support, now and in the future.
“We need that support in place so they can be successful,” he said. “Without giving them a proper education they aren’t going to go anywhere. There can’t be the, ‘Oh, you’re in special education? You can’t do that,’ anymore.”
For more information about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, visit the Minnesota chapter’s website at mofas.org.