CKHS grad overcomes Aspergers

"Don't judge a book by its cover, is a philosophy Tom Graham takes to heart. Another is Aim high.Graham, a 1990 graduate of Central Kitsap High School, isn't like the average alumni. In fact, Graham wasn't even expected to go to, much less graduate from, school. He surely not expected to graduate from college. Twice.At first glance, one might not even know Graham has a disability, one which he has been able to put behind him as he moved toward his goals. But society and community members have started to judge the book by its cover.When he was 4 years old, Graham was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a disease described as a pattern of behaviors seen mainly in young boys who have normal intelligence and language development, but exhibit autistic-like behaviors and marked deficiencies in social and communication skills.Louis Graham, Tom's father, said the diagnosis was hard for his wife and him, but they knew Tom was capable of overcoming the obstacles.After a year at the University of Washington experimental school and a year of special education, Tom ventured into the regular classroom setting. His parents and teachers knew he was capable of learning, but overcoming his fear of social interaction was going to be the hardest part.Tom, 27, said he remembers sitting in class and feeling isolated. He said he often wanted to join the group or say a word or two but he said something always stopped him.I was teased a lot, Tom said.Louis said his son endured a lot of exclusion, but every year he did better.He had some great teachers who helped, Louis said. It was tough.Karyn Lackman, one of Tom's former teachers, said he was one of her favorite students.Tom is an authentic human being who wants to be self-supporting, Lackman said. No one got him through college, except himself.After graduating from CK, Tom earned an associate of arts degree at Olympic College in two years. Soon after, he went to Western Washington University, graduating in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in geography.Since then, Tom hasn't been able to find employment.What's disappointing as an educator is, we tell students work hard, learn and you can do anything. In fact, that's a promise we make to them, Lackman said. I feel we've broken that promise when it comes to Tom.For the last four years, Tom said he has applied to more jobs than he can count and has been turned down by most of them. He said although some places seem to have legitimate reasons, others don't.Lackman agreed. She said she believes he is being discriminated against based on his disease.I can see why she says that, said Tom about Lackman's claim.I feel I have a lot to offer. It is very frustrating. The trouble is, I've been forced to apply for jobs anywhere.Since moving back to Central Kitsap, Tom has relied on the assistance of his parents. At 27, Tom said he wants to show his parents how independent he really is. He has enrolled in a number of computer classes at Olympic College to help make him more marketable as an employee.Louis said he is very proud of his son. He wishes his son realized just how successful he is and that his dream will come.My regret is when he gets turned down (by employers) that he thinks he's failed, when he hasn't, Louis said.Tom said he knew finding a job would be hard but not as hard as it has been.If (a company) were to hire me, I'm sure I'd do a good job and they'd be impressed, Tom said. I'd be very reliable. I had perfect attendance in school and I'm very careful and accurate.Tom said he has made a conscious effort to push himself and become more gregarious.I've been able to socialize a lot more, Tom said. My father says 'keep doing what you're doing.' I've made more efforts to socialize more and be friendlier with people.Tom said although some days are tougher than others, he still continues to reach for his goals. He said in five years he hopes he is employed and more independent.Hopefully, I have a job and live on my own, Tom said."

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