As a young boy, Corban University senior Craig Johnson didn’t know he was different from the rest of the children in school.
However, the social norms that most children learn as they grow eluded him. When a teacher was speaking, he would get out of his seat and circle the classroom and sit down again. He couldn’t look others in the eye, instead looking them up and down or not at all. He found friendships with older people much easier than with his own peers.
Although the signs were there, it wasn’t until Johnson turned 12 that he was formally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a condition related to autism. The disorder will often debilitate people well into their adult years, if not their entire lives if left untreated.
With the support of his family, Corban’s respected faculty and friendships with fellow Christian students, Johnson is thriving at the university and accomplishing goals that a decade earlier would have been unimaginable. Instead of letting the disorder beat him, he plans to walk across the stage during Corban’s commencement ceremony in May with a major in psychology and a desire to help others with autism.”
“I want to become a spokesperson for an organization,” he said. “During my first 12 years, I would often get in trouble, but my parents and teachers just didn’t know what was going on.”
Johnson moved to Oregon with his mother when he was 12. Teachers at the private school he attended noticed the signs and encouraged his mother to have her son see a counselor and a speech therapist, which led to his diagnosis.
One of his most important goals is creating awareness, especially for parents of young children, he said. According to www.AutismSpeaks.org, one in every 110 children has the disorder, with one in 70 being boys. Signs include not understanding how to use their voices and facial expressions appropriately. They often won’t understand politeness and social norms or how to appropriately interact with people.
Some severe cases include mental disabilities and poor motor skills, while others, such as Johnson, are highly intelligent and function well within their environments.
The signs typically begin to manifest themselves when a child is 2 to 3 years old, when parents are more likely to consider the problem simply a behavior issue the child will grow out of. However, the older a child gets, the harder it can be for therapy to change patterns and behaviors.
“I had to meet with a counselor each week,” he said. “I went through self-awareness training and a speech therapist to learn how to use facial expressions and vocal tones.” As he prepared for graduation, he sought a college where he could establish routines that would help him through each day, but also where he could get the one-on-one interaction he needed to succeed. He found that at Corban University.
“If I mention his name on campus, everyone knows who I am talking about,” said Dr. Richard Meyers, the chair psychology at Corban. “He endured a lot of discrimination and missed blocks of education during his first 12 years of life. He has social and emotional chaos, but he’s learned not only the academics, but how he learns best and is very serious about his education.”
Faculty and staff also learned from Johnson, Meyers said. Although professors never changed their high standards for coursework, they learned how to clarify their expectations in ways that benefitted all students.
Meyers said Johnson is the first student with Asperger Syndrome he has worked with during his tenure at Corban that he is aware of.
“I can’t tell if it’s him growing or us growing,” Meyers said. “I’ve come to appreciate the power of the human mind and what it can accomplish. I’ve learned the power of a support system and what it takes for him to come through the college experience.
“We are valuing him and affirming him and watching God work through him,” Meyers added. “I see a great future for him as a public speaker and being able to share his testimony with others.”
Already his experience living with Asperger Syndrome has made Johnson a valuable addition as an intern at Family Building Blocks in Salem.
“He has been an amazing resource to work with,” said Kaye Cepeda, Family Services Supervisor at the non-profit social services agency. “I’ve seen him expand his role and opportunities so much in the time that he has been with us.”
His duties include training new interns in various tasks, such as developing a newsletter that will reach 300 or more families each month. He also scours the Family Building Block waiting list to identify families with children who may be eligible for Head Start Services.
Additionally, he schedules tours of Family Building Blocks and works to connect families to Family Building Block resources including playgroups.
“That’s his forte, his gift,” Cepeda said. “He sends out the most lost contact letters we’ve ever seen. He’s very thorough and efficient in his work.”
Although he admits it is one of the toughest parts of his job, Johnson said he is getting more comfortable on the phone contacting families and others with the FBB network. He’s also provided his personal insight and experience to the Swindells Child Disability Resource Center across from Family Building Blocks. Craig routinely contacts partnering agencies as part of his internship.
Watching Johnson build confidence has been “amazing,” Cepeda said.
“It’s like night and day from when I first met him,” she said. “He’s gaining confidence and dialoguing with adult clients. He’s getting better at working in a fast-paced, changing environment. It has been wonderful having him here.”
For now, Johnson is working on completing his studies and internship and trying not to think too far ahead. However, he trusts that God will place him where he is needed most.
“I know what I would like to do,” he said. “But God knows more than I do.”
For more information about Family Building Blocks, visit http://www.familybuildingblocks.org/