With no actual ability to express how incredible *Sam’s journey has been, know this; he is a true inspiration of what is possible when opportunities–however difficult–are sought out and cultivated, then supported in a way that his very real talents were identified, practiced, and are being fully utilized.
Same was quiet growing up, probably seen as painfully shy by onlookers. Sam has expressed several times that he thought something might not be quite right, but he had no idea exactly what was going on with him. Never once did Sam believe that there was anything “wrong” with him, he was just quiet and a bit different from his peers.
Sam’s somewhat obsessive abilities in pattern recognition, consistency, attention to detail, and his extraordinary ability to focus were overlooked or misunderstood in the public school setting. He was quite often distracted by details that, when put together in his mind, made complete sense, but Sam did not have the ability or confidence to communicate the complexities of his thoughts into words that could be shared with others.
Due to this and other social awkwardness combined with his naturally shy demeanor, some form of developmental disability was suspected, but not diagnosed early in life. Sam was often overlooked and excluded from activities in mainstream classrooms but still managed to do fairly well. In fact, it was not until his last few years of high school where academic difficulties showed up.
One place where he was not overlooked was in the swimming pool. Sam was skilled enough that his social challenges could not cloud his performances. He was quite accomplished at the backstroke, participating in varsity high school swimming. His swimming performances were judged independently of all else because it’s hard to argue with the completely objective electronic timing system and with its accompanying results. Sam proved that being skilled enough in one area makes up for quite a lot in areas where skills may be lacking.
Another area where Sam did well, was driving. Given that he was fascinated by the way machines worked, particularly large military and transport vehicles, he was excited and very nervous to learn to drive. Say what you may about the amount of time he spent playing video games, the hours spent engaged in realistic driving games and simulations were advantageous to Sam’s motorist skill set. He was indeed coordinated enough, his motivation to drive slightly outweighed his fears, and he put his attention to detail to good use, passing both the written and driving tests with flying colors.
Having the ability to drive was fantastic, but the blended challenges of demanding academic subjects and anxiety brought about by specific environmental factors caused Sam to flee situations or skip the classroom experience entirely. Consequences were anything but few on days when he chose to escape the academic setting so that he could regain control over his ability to breathe; the greater of the two problems were addressed but left him perpetually behind in several subjects. Sam was and is blessed with an angel-mother that not only encouraged him but made it possible for him to make up the work that he missed through somewhat masterful negotiation and persistence. It was not easy, but Sam graduated.
Influenced by many people that spoke of Sam needing to take the next step and start living more independently, he moved away from home to continue his formal education. College was full of ups and downs, mostly downs, which became a pattern of negative experiences that was never entirely turned around.
With encouragement and support, he made it through two semesters, trying everything he knew to fit in; joining the swim team and even a fraternity, but to no avail. Sam, like so many individuals with invisible disabilities, was judged more harshly than most when he made a social mistake. Confused, and with anxiety at an all time high, he was referred to a counselor who noticed that what Sam was experiencing looked like autism, and at the age of 19, he was officially diagnosed with what he calls, “high functioning autism.”
No matter the level of functioning, this was a challenging time for Sam. The reveal was not something that Sam understood in that moment or in the months that followed; he returned home and for the first time began thinking and expressing that something was “wrong” with him. Regardless of this potentially devastating mindset, he continued to pursue his college education closer to home, with built-in assistance and support at home.
He earned his Associates Degree–again with much persistence and great effort–in a computer program with an emphasis in video game design. At that point, Sam found himself at a dead end street, with no practical options to pursue.
Fortunately, his mother–the ever-stalwart supporter–refused to give up and helped Sam find a goal oriented, personalized program that helped him learn about himself while learning about autism. It addressed social skills, employment, and other areas identified as challenging for an individual with autism.
After one year working through the individualized program, Sam reflected,
I had really learned a lot about myself. I learned that autism can be something that is of great benefit to me and to those that support me if I focus and put in my full effort. I learned about the hidden rules of diverse social environments and how I could better fit into them without feeling as much anxiety. As a result of these things and my consistency and attention to detail, I got a job…working in the IT department. It is a very stable part-time job that I have been doing now for almost two years. I enjoy the work that I do, specifically when I am able to help people solve their computer problems, and have made several friends at work.
It can’t be said much better than that.
Sam still has some kinks to work out–as all of us do as we age–but know that he presently works as a full-time employee in the same company, having earned his place by demonstrating that same consistency and attention to detail, so often overlooked in his early life.
What a fantastic journey, a demonstration of real strength, of what can happen when individuals and support systems choose to push forward in spite of the many challenges they face! Sam is doing well and has a brilliant future in store.
*A pseudonym has been used to protect the identity of the person in this post. His story is true, and its details are used with permission.
Joel C. Johnson is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and serves as the Assistant Community Outreach Director for Including Kids. He has six years experience working with young adults with autism and enjoys the uniqueness of this disability population. Joel worked at Utah State University as an assistant track and field coach for several years and as the coordinator of the EmployAbility clinic for nearly two years, helping to develop a program placing individuals with autism and other disabilities into competitive employment. He understands educational, public, private, for profit, and nonprofit business work environments and cultures. He is dedicated to providing the highest quality services to his clients and their families, and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities to experience full community inclusion.