Holy Rosary School valedictorian Mattie Zimmer, of Arabi, can do major calculations in her head. She plans to pursue a math degree on a full scholarship at the University of New Orleans. She's active in community theater.

But as a toddler, Zimmer was diagnosed with autism — moderate to severe.

“They said I would never talk or go to school and that I would be institutionalized, and guess what happened? My mom ignored the doctors and did everything she could for me,” said the 19-year-old.

“I did not let the fact that I have autism get to me. ... We were born to be unique, and I even said that in my valedictorian speech,” she said.

Zimmer, who graduated with a 4.5 GPA and earned a 30 on the ACT, received scholarship offers from the University of New Orleans, Xavier University and Loyola University, all in New Orleans. Competing against the brightest students in the state and beyond, she received the most coveted TOPS scholarship and several regional and international scholarships for her achievements in math and community service.

The young math whiz chose UNO. She has been inducted into the UNO Honors Program and will major in mathematics, with plans to ultimately earn master’s and doctorate degrees from UNO. Her goal: Teach or work for NASA.

“She was a trailblazer, and she has a very good work ethic,” said her mother, Jamie Landry-Zimmer.

Zimmer made straight A’s from seventh to 12th grade — the entire time she was at Holy Rosary in New Orleans. The co-ed Catholic school educates children with learning differences.

Holy Rosary Admissions Director Rose Fitzmorris said many children on the autism spectrum can exceed academically, but they always will need extra support to navigate social situations. They often struggle to understand people’s motives and aren’t able to grasp subtleties such as sarcasm, she said.

But Fitzmorris, who taught the Zimmer Biology II in her senior year, said, “Mattie is incredibly bright and motivated. Despite any obstacles in her way, she put in the blood, sweat and tears to achieve what she has. She worked hard to memorize her lessons and was a very diligent student. She had a laser-beam focus on getting her work done. … It helped her to focus and do better.

“She is a legit straight-A student. I think in applying for all of these scholarships, it was a way of validating all of her academic accomplishments because she didn’t want to excel just among our students but among the world.”

Classes at Holy Rosary are smaller than those at traditional schools, Zimmer's mother said. The girl was allowed breaks when needed and extended time to take tests. Because she is a visual learner, she did better when she had notes or could see what she had to learn. She sometimes needed instructions clarified.

She received professional stage, film and television acting instruction, and she can easily memorize the scripts for her performances. While autistic children often are either-or people — either tech-oriented or talented in the arts — Zimmer excels at drama and art as well as math.

When she started at Holy Rosary in seventh grade, Zimmer learned she was gifted in math but needed help in science and reading comprehension. She has independently learned math since ninth grade by watching video lessons, performing the calculations and earning straight A’s. She took the regular calculus class online in the summer so she could take Advanced Placement Calculus her senior year.

“I picked UNO because I really like the programs they offered for film and television, and I also like that they had a good math program,” Zimmer said. “I can compute numbers pretty quickly. I find it really interesting with the theory and the formulas. Alongside math, I like physics. I like that a lot of math is applied, and I like that physics allows us to use those applications in real life.”

Zimmer credits her success to the support of her mother, who waited until she was 12 years old to tell her of her autism diagnosis. Landry-Zimmer has a sociology degree, has worked for several medical professionals and has served on various boards for autism support. She always encouraged her daughter to do her best no matter what, adding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping an autistic child.

“She is my biggest cheerleader of all,” Zimmer said. 

Zimmer faces other obstacles as well.

She has severe allergies, along with Common Variable Immune Deficiency and Mitochondrial Disease, which both require her to spend one day a month in a hospital to get treatments to boost her immunity.

She'll always require an extremely strict daily structure, prescription supplements and a gluten- and milk-free diet, her mom said.

When Landry-Zimmer received her daughter’s diagnoses of autism and the immune deficiency, she started interventions immediately, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, speech therapy and biomedical treatments.

“I followed the path her recovery led me to, and when she started to excel academically and physically, our dreams changed,” Landry-Zimmer said. 

"The ability to move quickly past the shock and stigma of the diagnosis and to focus on recovery is key,” she said. “Through it all, create your new normal, factor your health and well-being into the equation, and surround yourself with a team of professionals and parents who support your quest to help your child reach their greatest potential in life, whatever that may be."

NOTE: Landry-Zimmer recommends these resources for more information about autism.

Louisiana Autism Resources: Families Helping Families of Greater New Orleans at fhfofgno.org and Autism Society of Greater New Orleans at asgno.org.