Like most teenagers, Justin George devours pizza and often neglects his dirty laundry or half-empty bags of Goldfish scattered throughout his bedroom – his electronic oasis is perfect, blissful order.
He loves snow days (because it means no long bus ride to Richmond for school), spends entirely too much on the computer, and … he has his hobbies.
But, perhaps, while the more unruly 16-year-olds are more intent on breaking the rules, Justin sees them as holding the universe together, in immaculate cosmic order. It was the just the way this Enon resident was programmed to perceive the world.
“That is typical Asperger’s behavior,” said Bill George, his father. “The rules are the rules, and when you don’t follow the rules, people are put in jeopardy.”
When he was five years old, Justin was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a very high-functioning form of Autism. Now, 11 years later, Justin begins his journey and is starting to come to terms with his special abilities, characteristics, and “gifts,” as his father calls them.
A former Air-Force serviceman who now works for the state, the elder George first observed his son’s unique traits at a very young age. Justin was two years old and wanted to convey something very important to his parents during a walk around the neighborhood one day: one of first “obsessions.”
“It was his first word – he spelled it … He just turned to me and [my wife] Kathy one day and said ‘S.T.O.P. stop,’ ” George said.
Also, around that time he noticed his son could take a group of concentric cups and stack them together faster than he could himself.
Asperger’s is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who, in 1940, observed and studied children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills and demonstrated limited empathy with peers. People with Asperger’s Syndrome experience difficulties with social interaction – sometimes having challenges making eye contact with people or forgetting socially-appropriate “rote” behaviors, such as shaking hands upon meeting someone – and have restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
His dad describes many people with Asperger’s as being egocentric, often having challenges perceiving the world through another’s eyes. As all people are different, Asperger’s often impacts individuals in different ways, often presenting people with combinations of these characteristics.
Though Asperger’s is often described as a “disability,” George, who said he himself has Asperger-like traits, couldn’t see it any differently.
“Asperger’s is not a burden, it’s a gift. It’s not an anchor, it’s wings.”
People with Asperger’s also experience excellent auditory and visual perception, often demonstrating enhanced perceptions like discerning small changes in patterns such as arrangements of objects or well-known images. These unique kinds of people also tend to have normal or above-average intelligence.
However, according to his dad, despite his exceptional abilities, Justin was for the longest time in a bit of a denial about sharing this fact with other people. But due to all the experiences in the past few years he has become more confident in telling people he recently attended the Faison School for Autism in Richmond.
“At first, it was like I had to fix myself; now I’m like, these are tools to help me,” Justin said.
Soon after leaving Chesterfield County Public Schools in 2008, where the difficulties to grow and learn about himself became more frustrating for Justin by the day, the George family discovered Faison to be the setting he needed.
Two years down the road, Justin began attending I’m Determined youth summits and other youth forums designed to assist in the development, empowerment, and overall understanding of adolescents with their unique challenges and abilities. In the last year or so, he has met numerous state leaders (Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner and Governor Bob McDonnell, among others), learned about the history of disabilities and the culture running along with it, and has come to understand who he is and where he’s going, all while attending various forums and conferences all over Virginia.
Last Friday, Justin graduated from the Virginia Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) after he had spent a week with teens similar to himself, all with a broad range of challenges, staying in the VCU freshman dorms. It was the longest time he had ever spent away from his family.
Teri Morgan, sponsor programs manager at the YLF, said the greatest thing students learned was self-empowerment and their role in the world.
“They really walk away with the feeling that, ‘I’m okay the way I am and even if I have a disability, or if I don’t learn or process things the way somebody else does, it doesn’t matter – it’s who I am and that’s fine.’ … They learned that they’re part of a bigger thing than just themselves and their disability. They learned pride.”
Only after attending the summits did Justin realize he had experienced a “life-changing experience.”
“Before, I would give up on some school lessons and assignments because it would feel too hard,” Justin said. “But now, with all these youth summits it’s been different. I learned that other people overcome stuff that more intense that what I’ve gone through; so hearing other people’s stories really makes a difference.”
His mother, Kathy, said it all has helped him cope, in a way, aiding in him concentrating on his abilities, not his disability.
Now he’s doing well in his classes, making SOL scores well into the upper 500-range – the advanced level of testing on what he has learned in the classroom. Since first attending the summits and conferences, Justin has become a licensed FCC amateur radio operator and is enjoying learning some accountability and independence.
“My parents are here for me, and all these people I’ve met are here for me, but I’m the one – in terms of self-advocacy – I have to do it.”
From here, the family sees Justin as having the potential to do whatever he wishes, in terms of his future and discovering his vocation in life.
“He wants to succeed so badly. He wants to be appreciated so badly,” George said, “he wants to be liked so badly. I see no difference between that and any other human being on the face of the planet – none.”