At nearly four years old, Eileen Limon wasn’t talking at all. And when her mother would call her by name, Eileen wouldn’t respond. The Chicago girl had just been diagnosed with autism, and it wasn’t clear what lay ahead.
But now, 14 years later, that same girl has made it to the top of her high school class.
Eileen, a brunette with a warm smile, is this year’s valedictorian at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Little Village on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Eileen remembers the day her principal and school counselor told her she’d earned the honor.
“I was in a little bit of disbelief … and I was so happy,” Eileen said. “After all those late nights where I have to do late work, mak[ing] sure it was right … it just felt really great.”
There’s just one major wrinkle. Eileen doesn’t know if she’ll be able to give her valedictorian speech in front of her classmates and family now that schools are shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Eileen has been working on the speech since she learned she was chosen as valedictorian.
Our Lady of Tepeyac is planning a drive-through ceremony later this month in the school’s parking lot. School administrators are considering having another ceremony in July if possible
Getting to where Eileen is now hasn’t been easy. She struggled in elementary and middle school.
“It was sometimes hard to understand my classmates and communicate with them, and some were nice but others weren’t,” she said. “Even though they didn’t know what I had, they could tell that I was different from [them], so it was a little hard to make friends.”
Eileen recalls times when she was rejected in the playground, bullied and singled out. She also remembers noticing when people had lower expectations for her.
“Sometimes people would make remarks or tell me that I wasn’t going to succeed and I wasn’t going places and that I wouldn’t be able to do as many things as kids who are not autistic,” she said.
Eileen wanted to prove them wrong, as well as prove to herself and others with autism “that they could do anything that they put their minds to,” she said.
"You can do it"
Soon after her autism diagnosis, Eileen’s mother, an immigrant from Mexico who speaks mostly in Spanish, sought help. As a child, Eileen learned sign language at first and received speech therapy through elementary and middle school. Her mother also found a supportive community and was Eileen’s biggest cheerleader.
“I always told her, ‘You can do it, and don’t tell me otherwise because I know you can,’” Luzmar Jimenez, Eileen’s mom, said in Spanish.
Eileen joined a Mexican folkloric dance group when she was in middle school, which helped her deal with the stress of communicating with others. “Because we didn’t have to use our voices at the time,” she said. “We just had to use our feet to dance.”
In her first year at Our Lady of Tepeyac, Eileen found herself struggling to adjust. Work also has been challenging at times.
“Presentations and large social situations were especially daunting,” said Kathleen Ingram, the school principal.
But Ingram said Eileen is a strong self-advocate who reaches out to teachers and counselors when she needs help. Eileen's academic record included honors, Advanced Placement classes and high grades. She has also developed strong friendships.
For the fall, Eileen is going to Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where she plans to major in psychology or engineering.
She is happy but laments not being able to celebrate as other high school seniors have in past years. A recorded version of her valedictorian speech will go on the school’s website.
Eileen is still tweaking a few lines and paragraphs in her speech, but she has the ending down where she thanks her teachers, counselors, therapist and especially her mother.
“She sacrificed and was always by my side throughout my life and helped me to grow and become the person she knew I could be,” Eileen said.