During Brian Johnson’s valedictorian speech at the 2004 Lawton-Bronson graduation ceremony, he asked his classmates, “Where will life’s path lead us?”
He said that everyone’s answer would probably be different because of each student’s unique talents and ambitions.
“And that’s a good thing. The world would not be what it is today if it were not for such a variety of talents and people,” Brian concluded in his address.
This was a profound statement from a valedictorian that oftentimes endured isolation because of his own unique condition, Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.
Getting through each day was not easy for Brian. As early as he can remember, he was “terrified” to go to school and even started kindergarten a year later than most kids his age because of his fear.
He also had difficulty socializing with other children and took things very literally. For example, he remembers very early on in his school career that if the teacher told the class to be quiet, he would not open his mouth the entire day, even if he was called upon. Worse yet, he worried each day that the teacher would yell at the class if someone did talk—he dreaded that moment.
As the school years passed, Brian excelled in school, but he still had difficulty in social settings, especially with one-on-one conversations. By the time he reached middle school students teased him, and he knew he didn’t “fit in” with other kids. The teasing, unfortunately, became normal.
It wasn’t until high school that Brian was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Children with Asperger Syndrome typically demonstrate high verbal scores, average to above-average intelligence, difficulty with social communication/interaction skills (particularly with peers), and an intense interest on a particular thing or subject. For Brian, he was extremely focused on game shows and trivia.
“If I missed a part of Wheel of Fortune on any night, my whole schedule was off,” Brian remembers.
According to Susan Askeland, speech-language pathologist at Northwest AEA and a mentor to Brian over the years, this type of behavior is very consistent with individuals who have Asperger Syndrome.
“Kids with Asperger Syndrome are very concrete,” said Susan. “If they have a homework assignment and get stuck on one problem, they can’t just move on. They are stuck on the problem until it’s right. It’s not unusual for homework to be three or four hours for them because of this.”
Susan emphasized that teachers of students with Asperger Syndrome should create a structure for the students but within that structure be flexible enough so that kids can meet realistic goals.
“They need to see these kids as individuals and think outside of the box for their learning,” explained Susan. “One thing educators can do is to simply ask the student what he or she needs.”
Some individuals will be able to answer right away. But with others, teachers may have to do some “investigating” using different strategies to help the individual with Asperger Syndrome explain what they need to be successful.
Luckily for Brian, he found supportive Lawton-Bronson teachers and principals; AEA staff, including Susan and Jan Turbes, challenging behaviors consultant; and two dedicated parents who helped him meet his goals. He graduated at the top of his class and went on to Morningside College where he performed very well academically, once again.
However, Brian recalls that he was nervous to go to college and needed the assistance of peers and teachers to help him navigate the campus and his classes. Because he can’t drive, he also relied on his family to take him to school, his job and other extra-curricular activities.
Brian, now 26, even became a disc jockey at the college’s radio station. This was a dream job for the Communications major who also secured a part-time job at the Moville Record, a weekly newspaper organization, where he continues to work part-time today.
After college, he continued his media career at KMEG-TV but was let go as the production assistant through a round of lay-offs. The troubling economy and Brian’s lack of social skills have made it difficult for him to find full-time work.
However, Brian just recently began working for College Products, a locally owned company dedicated to meeting the needs of college students. He enters data into a website for the company.
Brian has also found a niche in speaking to large groups about his life with Asperger Syndrome. He speaks to teachers, parents and students and hopes to someday get on the speaking circuit to bring his story to others so that it might educate and inspire them. Some national contacts have been made and the future will tell what transpires.
Brian says the thing he would most like others to know about people living with autism is that, “We are individuals!”
He says special education can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each person has unique needs—one might need help with social skills and another might need help with motor skills.
“Don’t treat us all the same,” stressed Brian.
His speaking engagements have been well received by groups. Recently, after speaking at a meeting for teachers and parents, an audience member contacted Brian to offer him a position at his company to do some computer work.
When asked what he sees himself doing in 10 years, Brian said, “I hope I’m working in a job within my interest area, like media or computers. I hope that I’m living more independently. It’s hard. You just have to take little steps at a time.”
Brian has overcome more barriers than most of us will ever know. He has learned to courageously take little steps to get through each day. We might all be better for knowing Brian, and others like him, to teach us to do the same.
Just as he said to the Lawton-Bronson Class of 2004, “So tell yourself, ‘I CAN do anything I want to, and I will make a difference!’”