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Overcoming Asperger’s, Becoming a Student Leader

Gage Schell led tours of the Informational Technology program at Kent Career Tech Center, articulately explaining the program to adult visitors. He served on the KCTC Leadership Team and taught as a volunteer instructor in digital animation and design for a Ferris State University program.

So it’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, Gage avoided social situations and found everyday conversations a huge challenge. “I’m starting to be able to open up and connect with people more than I ever used to,” he said.

Gage, 18, has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that falls on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Children with Asperger’s typically have trouble with social interaction, don’t understand social cues, and often become obsessed with specific interests.

But Gage has come a long way. He graduated this spring from Forest Hills Central High School, completed the two-year Informational Technology program at KCTC and is headed to Davenport University.

While at KCTC, he fine-tuned his self-taught computer knowledge, built PCs and even created Xbox games. He plans to major in business simulation and computer gaming and eventually become a computer programmer.

Not one to display strong emotions or excitement, he looks pragmatically at the challenges he has overcome and at where he is headed.“I still have a lot to do,” he said.

But mom Ramona Kiley feels enough excitement for both of them. She worried while her son struggled, and wondered about his future. While he was always very intelligent– he disassembled his bed at age 2 and preferred studying health manuals to toys– a lot remained uncertain.

She then watched him blossom in eighth and ninth grade, when he learned to control many of the Asperger’s behaviors, and she was thrilled to see him excel at KCTC.

Singularly focused

Gage knows his stuff: computers have been his passion since early childhood, when the electronic world served as an outlet, a place to de-stress. He understands how they work, quickly comprehending the technical language and coding.

But in school, anxiety caused him to have physical ticks, throat clearing and shoulder shrugging that led to even more problems socially. He also often blurted out things in class and was upset when other children didn’t follow the rules.

“The doctor said not to take away his computer because that was his release,” Kiley said.

Gage was diagnosed with Asperger’s in second grade, after teachers noticed behaviors that concerned them. Kiley said she had never heard of the disorder, but thought her son had Attention Deficit Disorder. Gage showed extreme interest in golf, coins and paper airplanes, but dismissed other things that fell outside those interests. 

Gage said he began to make huge steps socially when he learned how to look at his own behaviors like a third-party observer and consider how to react appropriately in certain situations. Self- awareness was the key, he said.

Kiley said the Forest Hills Central autism program and KCTC made huge impacts on Gage’s progress.       

“When he got into the autism program it was like a weight was lifted off our shoulders,” she said. “I don’t know where we would be today if Gage had not.”       

Then at KCTC, Gage met students with similar interests and he was chosen for the Leadership Team, a role he didn’t take lightly. He knew he had to step up and learn to connect with others, even speak publicly. There were responsibilities he wouldn’t have taken on without the extra push, he said. He also made a best friend and took a girl to the prom, both big milestones.

“He did a fantastic job,” said networking and computer repair teacher Cheri Hanson. “He grew so much at KCTC. We all are very proud of him.”

Hanson said Gage does what needs to be done. “Gage really enjoys a challenge,” he said. “His motivation was strong and he just lived up to everything we asked him to do.”

Asperger’s as a strength

In the 21st century world of rapidly evolving technology, his knowledge is golden. “I think Gage is actually using Asperger’s as an asset instead of a hindrance,” said Kiley.

Gage has indeed learned to channel the disorder for the positive, which allows him to finish projects while remaining completely focused for days at a time. He recently won the regional Skills USA competition in the PC maintenance competition, winning $1,500 for college.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without it,” he said.

Gage also never gives up. If he sets a goal he reaches it, Kiley said. Kiley has no doubt he will have the job he wants. He’s also always stuck to convictions he’s had since he was young, like never experimenting with drugs.       

“Whatever Gage’s plan is, he doesn’t veer from it.

Kiley sees Gage as an inspiration. “I think your story can give a lot of kids and parents hope,” she told him.

The struggles many children with Asperger’s and autism are the same challenges Gage had, Kiley said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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