This guest post is by Christopher Fegley, a man on the autism spectrum who is attending West Virginia University. He is now majoring in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. Christopher is applying for our Spring 2017 Making a Difference Autism Scholarship via the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference. You can read more about the organization and how to apply for our scholarship here.
Disabilities come in many forms. Some are easily seen; yet others may be invisible to the casual observer. People whose challenges are hidden are subjected to doubt and derision which is generally not experienced by those with more obvious disabilities; yet, it should not be the defect or deficit which defines us. Rather, we should define ourselves by the obstacles we overcome.
From the time I was born, I was different. My head size was well above average and my parents were told I might have hydrocephalus, though it was eventually disproven. I began talking rather early and at just fifteen months, surprised my great-grandmother when I clearly asked, “Who is that?” when she came to visit, even though it would be at least two more months before I began walking with any confidence. When my parents needed me to start in daycare just before I was two years old, while the others in the toddler room were babbling and saying “birdie,” I pointed out the window and said, “Look! It’s a robin!” They decided I could skip the toddler side of the center and moved me to the 2 to 3-year-old room.
At three years of age, I became hypersensitive to certain sounds. It started with things like the bells of the parking garage elevator where my mom worked. I would hold my ears and scream every time it chimed as we passed a floor. Attempts to test my hearing proved inconclusive as I couldn’t tolerate the earphones or the noises they tried to have me listen to. It was also about this time that people began to indicate I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) make meaningful eye contact. We would later learn that looking at someone’s eyes was confusing for me because I didn’t recognize the emotions they expressed, nor was I able to pick up on other social cues such as body language. It didn’t make sense that I understood so much in other ways, but couldn’t decipher what most would consider to be self-explanatory.
Like others on the Autism spectrum, I developed areas of special interest. In my early years, I had a passion for dinosaurs and insisted my parents read books about them to me until I could read them myself. By the time I entered kindergarten, I recognized not only the type of dinosaur, but I also knew the period in which they lived. I helped my teacher pronounce their names and I was rather opinionated with my peers when they were playing with the dinosaurs if the ones they chose wouldn’t have known each other or couldn’t have been “friends” since one would likely have eaten the other.
Over the next couple of years, I began showing signs of obsessive-compulsiveness and being exceedingly literal. I’d argue when asked to put on my “shoes and socks” because socks had to come first. In school, I had to have a sharpened pencil with which to write. That meant I was making trips to the pencil sharpener so frequently as to disrupt the class. Finally, in the second grade, my teacher began to piece things together, and when I was eight years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder which means I am on the Autism spectrum.
Autism is considered a “spectrum” disorder because there are a wide variety of issues that can be involved, and there is no black or white diagnosis. Most people associate Autism with the character in the movie Rain Man, but not all Autistic people are math geniuses, nor do they all have the same limitations. I, personally, experienced sensory problems, difficulty with fine motor skills and was unable to understand social cues. I still have issues distinguishing between literal and figurative language, and sarcasm also continues to be confusing both when I miss that someone else is using it or when my form of it may not make sense to those around me. Still, I have overcome many of the things that used to hold me back. Most people that meet me do not know I am on the spectrum unless I choose to reveal it.
I owe a lot of my progress to my parents who chose not to treat me differently than any other kid. They introduced me to a variety of activities. I played soccer, took swim lessons, participated in scouting, and played football. I’ve even hunted with my dad and grandfather. They worked to teach me patience, to recognize when I was getting overstimulated, and taught me how to re-focus and how to know when I needed to walk away from a situation or person, and that became important in middle school when kids began to point out that I was “different.”
Throughout elementary, middle and high school, I participated in scouting. I earned all ranks from Bobcat to Eagle Scout, something that less than five percent of all boys who join scouting achieve. It was, in part, through scouting that my area of special interest evolved and instead of paleontology, I am now focused upon becoming an aerospace engineer.
In eighth grade, I was chosen as one of only two dozen students in my city to participate in an engineering curriculum in high school. I joined the school robotics team as a sophomore and used that platform to educate my peers about Autism. A year later, I was one of 500 students across the state to participate in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars program through NASA.
Because of my diagnosis and need for some educational accommodations, my guidance counselor and engineering teacher suggested I should start with a community college instead of a 4-year university. At first, I considered doing just that, but I realized it was the “safe” thing to do, allowing limitations to define who I could become. Although it was risky, I discarded the bonds of society, setting my own goals, and chose instead, a 4-year university. Thus, I will soon define myself as an aerospace engineer.
Kerry Magro, an international motivational speaker and best-selling author started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. Help us continue to help students with autism go to college by making a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit here. Also, consider having Kerry who travels around the country speaking about his journey on the autism spectrum at your next event by contacting him here.