By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
BIGGERSVILLE – In only a couple of weeks Joshua Smith will make the transition from high school student to college freshman.
The recent Kossuth High School graduate is a bit apprehensive, though.
This major life change would be difficult for most students, but for 18-year-old Joshua the anxiety is even more intense. Joshua was diagnosed several years ago as having a mild form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, which makes it more difficult for him to cope with change.
“With Asperger’s any change in routine is difficult,” said Joshua’s mother, Karen Smith, a nurse in the Baptist hospital system.
What may ease the transition, however, is the familiarity of being part of a band and playing his trumpet. Joshua was awarded a band scholarship at Northeast Mississippi Community College, and he’ll participate in a band camp next week.
“When you don’t know you’ve got it (Asperger’s) people don’t understand,” Joshua said. “They want you to be extremely tough.”
Joshua has learned – and continues to learn more – about what behaviors he has that are related to his condition: repetitive habits; not always recognizing personal space and boundaries; often having to be reminded to practice socially acceptable behaviors.
“It’s easy to obsess over things you like,” Joshua said.
For him that may mean if a video he likes to watch has even the smallest flaw, he’ll rewind and work with it until it is seamless, clearer, brighter. He’ll work with it until he figures it out on his own.
But there are the other, problematic areas as well, particularly in the social behavior arena.
“I got sent to the office a lot in ninth grade,” Joshua said. “I was picking my nose a lot.”
Despite some of the overt signs that single Joshua out as “different,” he has many other outstanding qualities that balance the scales, including a warm and fun-loving personality, excellent math skills and a keen memory for the most minute details.
“He can pretty well play all the brasses,” said his father, Dale Smith, the band director at Biggersville High School. “He has always been around music and when he first picked them up he could make the most beautiful sound on the tuba, baritone or trombone.”
In sixth grade Joshua tried out all the instruments in band except drums, and the director “picked” him for trumpet, Joshua said. Since then band has been an important, central part of his school life.
A ‘regular’ kid
When Joshua graduated in May with an academic diploma, he and his parents celebrated the end of a years-long struggle for him to receive the “free and appropriate public education” guaranteed him in federal law.
At many junctures along the way, the Smiths said, various people tried to pigeonhole and limit Joshua’s participation in the spectrum of school activities.
In the past three years the intervention of an advocate and an attorney with the Disability Rights Mississippi organization have helped smooth Joshua’s path. Jackson attorney Wendell Hutchinson represented the family in a legal action to assure that the school district lived up to its obligations.
Education advocate Shelly Blankenship attended meetings with Karen Smith when Joshua’s individual education plan was discussed to guarantee compliance.
“I went in and observed Joshua at school, and there were educational issues,” Blankenship said. “They kept telling Karen he would never get a regular high school diploma, only a Mississippi Occupational Diploma. He has an average IQ, but we really had to push for the necessary modifications for him to be successful.”
Having Joshua be successful is all Karen and Dale Smith say they ever wanted for their son.
Now they’re hoping the struggles and successes they had, which required teachers receive training on how to work with students with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s, will help other families coping with similar problems.
“After he was allowed to participate without restrictions, he earned Most Improved Band Member in one year,” Dale Smith said. “He had opportunities this past couple of years he’s never had, and his confidence improved.”
That building confidence allowed Joshua to function during his senior year mostly without assistance, which is important for his transition to college.
“At college they don’t quite give you the same help, but special services will help him if he asks for a tutor, and accommodate for tests,” Karen Smith said. “He needs to be able to get out and do things like everybody else, and we know he can do it.”