How High School Helped Me See Asperger Syndrome as One of My Greatest Strengths

I don't know if I'd be the same person today without that experience. I would probably have felt a lot more isolated, I wouldn't have the social skills that I've developed, and I definitely wouldn't be so certain about what I want to do with my life.
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As a person with Asperger Syndrome, I want assure you that I don't plan on killing anyone. While it is still unclear whether the Newtown shooter was ever actually diagnosed, I want my classmates and teachers to know that I am a living example of a person with Asperger Syndrome who does not share Adam Lanza's mindset. I have friends and feel good about myself. I am enjoying my life and have embraced my Asperger Syndrome as a part of my identity.

A lot of who I am today has to do with the high school that I attended. I don't know if I'd be the same person today without that experience. I would probably have felt a lot more isolated, I wouldn't have the social skills that I've developed, and I definitely wouldn't be so certain about what I want to do with my life. When I started as a ninth grader at the Met Sacramento High School, I didn't want to talk to anyone. I definitely didn't want to talk about my Asperger Syndrome and how insecure it made me feel.

The Met's approach to learning launched me on a journey of exploration and self-discovery. Over the course of four years, I pursued what I was interested in learning about. I shadowed over 30 different local professionals and engaged in four long-term internships. I shadowed at businesses and organizations varying from popular morning radio shock jocks, to the CA State Water Control Board, to the Republican Party of Placer County. However, it wasn't until halfway through my 10th-grade year that I discovered my passion for education reform while interning at the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. Through my project work I was able to focus my research on the proliferation of charter schools scattered across the state of California and the ways in which they sought to accommodate all kinds of learners.

Late in my 11th-grade year I made the decision to intern at two local elementary schools. I worked directly with my mentors: a school counselor and a Full Inclusion Special Education teacher. I learned firsthand what it means to serve special education students and how to teach them to conquer things like sensory issues, decision making, and perspective taking.

One aspect of my internship project was to help the elementary school students improve their ability to socialize and make friends. I first asked the students what might help them and shared ideas about how to stop getting bullied and how to strike up conversations with people they didn't know. I created materials and designed lesson plans that focused on building peer interaction. I frequently asked for feedback and I am proud that my students said that I made a difference in their lives.

Although the focus of this internship wasn't originally intended to be me learning about myself, the process of working with students who were going through the same struggles that I have had was meaningful and important for me. I was able to ask my mentors deep questions about Asperger Syndrome that helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel for myself. Socializing and connecting with other people is something that I have always had trouble with, but I continue to work on it and I am definitely getting better at it every day.

My high school experience encouraged me to form close relationships with people from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, ages, sexual orientations, and political views. I learned that I could work with them and feel connected in mutual understanding; these connections pushed my academic and personal growth to new levels, all while helping me to develop a more confident sense of self. At the end of the day this was some of my deepest learning.

During my four years as a student at the Met, I learned a lot about myself as a person with Asperger Syndrome. I became more emotionally secure, and I transformed a "disability" into a career opportunity. I am currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies and a California Special Education teaching credential which will enable me to teach students who have moderate to severe disabilities. I want to help my future students understand that they are valued and important.

People keep saying things to me like "Why are you going to become a teacher?" or "teachers don't make a lot of money." I am not interested in becoming a teacher to make a million bucks, or to impress anyone! I want to be an educator because I believe that all kids can learn and that the education system in this country needs to change. We need to stop prohibiting kids from actually enjoying what they are learning and find a way to have more personalized learning plans for each student. I know from my own experience that it is possible to make learning authentic to the student and their interests. If teachers are given the time to work individually with students, (especially special needs students) to pinpoint what makes them "tick," it is possible to meet and exceed standards while supporting students in pursuing their interests and passions.

As I begin my second semester in college, I am focused on pursuing my dream. I think educators really need to be able to connect to their students on a personal level. Especially students with special needs. We need that encouragement. The Adam Lanzas of the world need someone who understands them as individuals and connects with them in meaningful ways to help them develop a positive mindset. I hope to be that teacher for many students in the future.

This piece was written in collaboration with his former teacher, Andrew Frishman.

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