Twenty years ago, T. A. McDonald was a single mother of a child with disabilities who had no college education and who could barely afford basic necessities such as housing, utilities, and food. Today, Dr. McDonald is a respected faculty researcher in the Neurology Department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and the author of a groundbreaking study into the causes of autism that was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses.

But as McDonald is quick to acknowledge, none of this would have been possible without the life-changing opportunities provided by California’s community college system and Citrus College in particular.

After leaving high school and home at the age of 16, McDonald endured bouts of homelessness while struggling to secure work and housing without a high school diploma. Even after securing her GED at the age of 20, working multiple jobs, and pursuing a career as a professional pool player, McDonald’s income wasn’t enough to provide for the basic necessities, especially after her child was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.

As her son’s needs became the center of her focus, McDonald found herself not only battling poverty but also confronting the reality that experts in the field of autism didn’t seem to know much about autism at all.

“My lived experience with my son and his needs made it even more apparent to me that experts were not looking at autism holistically,” says McDonald who is also the principal researcher at the Spectrum for Life (S4L) Lab at VUMC where her work focuses on optimizing life outcomes for adults on the autism spectrum and developing interventions for autistic populations. “I felt they were wearing blinders and only looking at part of the picture. I realized that if I wanted answers I would have to go find those answers myself. I also realized that college was an important step toward fulfilling this mission.”

Living in Georgia where she’d grown up, McDonald quickly learned that there was no way for someone in her position to afford college because of the way the state’s higher education system was structured. But after searching the internet, McDonald discovered if she relocated to California she could afford to attend a community college if she became a resident. A year after relocating, McDonald enrolled at Citrus College and it changed her life.

In addition to qualifying for the Board of Governor’s Tuition Waiver (now known as the California College Promise Grant), CALWORKS, EOPS, and CARE programs at Citrus College made it possible for McDonald to afford books and, more importantly, provided a daily meal that was often her only meal of the day.

"I was on TANF [Temporary Assistance for Families in Need] back then and food stamps provided enough funding to sufficiently feed myself and my son for the first two weeks of the month but not both of us during the last two weeks,” says McDonald. “During those weeks, the meal ticket I got from Citrus allowed me to eat one meal a day and was, literally, a lifesaver for me.”

In addition to financial help, the EOPS staff also helped McDonald develop the confidence and leadership skills she would need to be successful. At the same time, numerous professors (especially mathematics professor Dr. Mohamad Trad and adapted physical education instructor Dr. Steve Hartman) and the tutoring center helped her develop the academic skills she would later depend on as she continued her higher education.

After Citrus, McDonald went on to complete a bachelor’s degree at California State University-Long Beach and a M.S. and Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin-Madison where she focused on postsecondary school outcomes for adults on the autism spectrum and the role that self-identity plays in their success.

More recently, McDonald’s work has focused on providing a unifying explanation for the cause of autism and its prevalence in modern society. McDonald’s “The Broader Autism Phenotype Constellations-Disability Matrix Paradigm (BAPCO-DMAP) Theory,” was published in the peer-reviewed research journal Medical Hypotheses in February January 2021. In it, McDonald provides an explanatory model for autism that is consistent with the current science on the genetics of autism but shifts focus to positive traits of autism and to social changes that may be affecting the rise of autism in society.

“By recognizing socially valuable characteristics of autism and the broader autism spectrum, stakeholders can better support individuals developmentally across their entire lifespans,” says McDonald. “Further, by understanding the social value of these traits, we can scaffold intrinsically motivating characteristics into areas of expertise leading to a more inclusive society and more empowering outcomes for autistic adults.”

With a future that appears brighter than ever, McDonald remains proud of her past and the community college education that helped make her who she is today.

“I fell through all of the cracks in high school but there were no cracks for me to fall through at Citrus College,” says McDonald. “I was seen, heard, and supported by nearly every person associated with the college. Any one of my challenges (e.g., poverty, being a single parent, caring for a child with a disability, having disabilities myself) would have been enough to guarantee failure in another academic environment but the supports and people at Citrus College helped me overcome these challenges and find my own path to success.”