You can’t tell by looking at Edward Gary’s face the pride he must feel inside. He sits in his chair at Pellissippi State Community College, looks you straight in the eyes, and speaks in a deep monotone about earning all A’s and B’s his freshman year. Smiles remain safely tucked away, even as he reveals his dream of becoming a classical singer. Those grades don’t reveal just how remarkable the journey has been for this 25-year-old Knoxville man, who graduated from high school at age 19 after spending most of his school years in special education classes.
Gary received a diagnosis at age 9 of Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder marked by significant problems with social interactions and non-verbal communication. “When we got him in the Recovery Education Center (REC), he was extremely timid,” said Cathy Jerrolds, Peninsula Job Readiness Specialist, “Anything could trigger him. We didn’t know what it might be − it might be a voice, something that was said, a thought that ran through his mind. Sometimes, he would run out of the classroom to walk and sit under a tree. The anxiety was just so intense!” The anxiety he felt is just one of the symptoms of his disorder, which has since been reclassified as Autism Spectrum Disorder, a wide range, or “spectrum,” of symptoms, skills and levels of disability. Poor communication and social skills were accompanied by a strong dislike for being touched or being told what to do by others.
He was hyper-focused to the point that he preferred a fixed routine, and refused to make eye contact with others. That began to change in 2012 when Gary began attending weekly sessions in the REC program at The Lighthouse. There he was taught four aspects of recovery (physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological). A friend and former peer at REC taught him how to make eye contact, and before long, the introverted Gary had become something of a social butterfly. He began spending his breaks visiting with Peninsula program directors, staff members, and other students. It expanded even more when Gary took a driver education class, which gave him the motivation to get his state ID and a bus pass.
Jerrolds was most amazed by Gary’s decision to enroll at Pellissippi State. “When he said, ‘I want to go to college,’ we’re like ‘what?!’ But he’s now a sophomore and doing amazingly well. His diagnosis does not affect his intelligence, it just means he thinks in such concrete terms. He takes things at face value.” He hopes to one day compete on “The Voice” television show. He believes the same hyper-focus that has given him a good memory and good grades will also one day help him be successful in the music field. In fact, his goal is to eventually obtain a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, and earn a living as a classical singer like his inspiration, blind tenor Andrea Bocelli.