If you have a conversation with Sam, he seems like any other 18-year-old guy. He likes video games and hanging out with his friends. When he’s not in school, he takes random naps. He considers Skittles to be an absolute necessity.
Sam is typical in many ways, but he’s also exceptional, even though he won’t tell you that. He received scholarship offers from all seven colleges to which he applied. He read the last Harry Potter book in 10 hours, and can tell you from memory what happened in each chapter. He attended the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference in Washington, D.C., and President Obama’s inauguration in Washington D.C., by himself.
But life isn’t always easy for Sam and his family. When Sam was in 1st grade, he was diagnosed with Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression. He was evaluated again in 5th grade, with the same result. He was sensitive to certain foods, and had trouble writing legibly. Some thought he had Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sam was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder (or simply Asperger’s), a form of autism.
“Challenges peaked in the middle school years,” said his mother Mary Louise. “Sam saw the world in a very particular way, and he needed flexible teachers and mentors. Otherwise, there was conflict. With the Asperger’s diagnosis, we understood better what was going on and how to support Sam.”
Two things were important for Sam: attending a school where teachers were able to work effectively with his learning style, and attending the Social Skills Group for teens with Asperger’s at Fraser. For four years, Sam attended the three-hour social skills group sessions twice per week.
“At first it was weird, but it got fun,” Sam said. “We did some cool stuff, leadership stuff, learning about other perspectives.”
Sam’s participation in the group limited some of his school activities, but he built some good friendships, particularly with Ross, Kort, Tom and Riley. Even though none of them go to high school together, he said that “they’re just fun to hang out with.”
Joining the group was a big step for Sam. Rachel Gardner, who facilitated the Fraser groups when Sam was a member, said he initially had difficulties engaging with peers, but has made great progress. “By the time he left the program, Sam was a real leader,” she said.
Right now, Sam is trying to choose a college. “It’s an oh-so-fun process,” Sam said sarcastically.
“I feel very comfortable with him heading off to college,” Mary Louise said. “Sometimes kids with learning disabilities end up working consciously on skills that you need in the real world. That can make them more prepared and confident than kids with no learning disabilities who haven’t faced the same obstacles.”