Autistic or artistic? College-bound East High grad is both
Tadd McKeown, pictured during his graduation party Sunday, has received a music scholarship for college. (Staff photo by Jim Lee)

SIOUX CITY -- Many friends and classmates of fellow 2008 East High grad Tadd McKeown would be shocked to learn that Tadd was diagnosed as autistic before he was 3 years old.

At Sunday's high school graduation party at his Morningside home, Tadd greeted everyone, exchanged hugs and kisses with friends and relatives and played video games (as always) with his friends in the basement. Very un-autistic behavior.

There's no hint that the college-bound honors grad hated to be touched as a youngster or that his parents, Sandy and Marty McKeown, were afraid that he would never talk. Diagnosed by professionals at 2 1/2, he was 3 when the words finally started to come.

Artistic maybe, but autistic?

After all, Tadd snared a music scholarship to Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., which he will attend in the fall. He graduated with honors from East and excelled at the saxophone. He might come off as being a bit shy, said "Uncle" Lon Kvanli, a Lutheran minister from Sioux Falls who has been Marty McKeown's near-lifelong friend. But Kvanli said he knows a lot of "normal" kids that he wishes were as normal as Tadd.

"And he's got a sense of humor," Kvanli said.

That sense of humor's a characteristic Jeff Soukup, his band instructor at East High, noticed this past year -- along with his dedication. "Tadd was always the first one here, the last one to leave, and just extremely hard-working," Soukup said.

Soukup said Tadd didn't seem particularly shy to him. "He just seemed pretty comfortable in the group. He was just respectful and mindful of others and really had a caring heart. I could pick up on that when I was having a hard day," he said, noting he was completely unaware Tadd was autistic until Tadd's mother told him.

An early diagnosis gave the McKeowns a chance to take some measures and be proactive in their treatment of Tadd's condition, Kvanli noted.

The fact that he wasn't their first child helped them determine Tadd's early development was a little off, Marty McKeown said. "He couldn't express himself at all. You could tell when he didn't want something, but he couldn't tell you what he wanted," he said.

Not the first, nor the last

Kvanli told his old friend: "I remember you saying one time, if Tadd had been the first child, he'd have been the last child."

Kvanli remembered seeing Tadd setting up his blocks when he was 2 or 3 years old in a certain order. "I remember taking one block and moving it out of order, and he screamed at me to put the block back. Everything had to be organized," he said.

So it's a good thing Tadd had older brothers to teach him the world just isn't that orderly.

"He had a brother that's just older than him, and his brother would just destroy everything that he'd wind up and put up," Marty McKeown said. "And he couldn't have anything the way he wanted to because his brother would come and kick it all over the place, which was really good for him because I didn't want him to be strange."

Tadd had no choice but to fit in with the rest of the family, his parents, three older brothers and a younger sister.

Like many autistic children, he also didn't care to be touched, so his parents took him to a massage therapist once a week. Eventually, he looked forward to those visits, Kvanli said.

Sandy McKeown said the family went through a period when they didn't know what they were going to do with their autistic child.

An education advisory team from the Western Hills Area Education Agency wanted to put Tadd in a special ed preschool immediately, but the parents opted to keep him home for two years and work with him themselves, with an AEA specialist visiting weekly for a couple of hours, teaching Sandy McKeown what to do, she said.

The McKeowns also "stuck to their guns" when the AEA pros said Tadd should be put in a special ed kindergarten class. His parents wanted to mainstream him, just as Tadd was already being "mainstreamed in the family," Kvanli noted. If it didn't work, Sandy McKeown noted, they could always move Tadd back into special ed classes.

Fortunately, it did work.

"He's going to lead a very normal life," Sandy McKeown said.

Ready to solo

"We were going to make sure he was going to leave some day," Marty McKeown said, a nod to his 19-year-old son's future college career. "That was the goal. That was something on our minds, too, "Are we going to have this kid 'til we were 100 years old because he can't function in life. He's functioning way better than I thought he would. He's probably more social than some of our normal kids were."

Tadd said he finds it a little "weird" to be the the focus of such discussions about times he can't remember. When kidded by Jan Turbes, autism consultant with the Northwest AEA, about having to do his his own laundry while away at college, he noted that is something he already does.

Sandy McKeown noted that Tadd is an extremely disciplined young man, working 20 hours a week at Chick-Fil-A. He got up early each day for band practice and still pulled in an A-B average -- the only B's coming in physics and calculus. She said she talked to his physics teacher about why Tadd didn't get an A and was told that it was probably because he wasn't reading his textbook. His test scores reflected mostly what he picked up in his lab work.

"And that's exactly what he was doing because his reading comprehension was so poor he wasn't bothering reading the textbook. And so they learn very differently and we as parents have to find a way to channel that and help them to learn it."

But math and music come easier.

"Once I understand the math problems, I get it, and the music's easy," he said.

Turbes said that when the McKeowns chose to maintain Tadd against the recommendations of the education pros, it turned out to be the best thing for him. "Tadd got really good early childhood intervention, and then working his way through, he has definitely gotten better," she said. "He's going to make a great man."

Tadd told his mother once that his dream job would be to travel the world and play his saxophone.

Maybe some day, he'll do just that.

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