WISE, Va. – Although the trials of school and trying to fit in socially can be difficult for anyone, it is especially challenging for those with a disorder like Asperger’s syndrome, a mild variant of autism. Jordan Wheatley knows firsthand the unique challenges, but he has not let the disorder stop him from achieving his goals.
The primary struggle for Asperger’s individuals manifests in social situations – impairments to standard interactions like making eye contact, behavior patterns and speech inflections often cause the individuals to feel isolated.
“I have often felt like I just don’t really fit in,” said Wheatley. “People with Asperger’s and autism tend to fixate on just a few things, and have trouble connecting with their peers and being able to talk about other subjects. I think a lot of people don’t know much about Asperger’s, so they don’t understand what is really going on with us.”
Fortunately, autism awareness seems to be gaining ground and more people are learning about the symptoms of someone with developmental disabilities and how it affects their interaction. For example, Wheatley explains how not being able to make eye contact when talking to others can have a host of ramifications – whether in a social setting, at school with administrators or even at job interviews.
Wheatley was fortunate that both his parents are special education teachers and recognized the signs early on. He is lauded by his teachers as being extremely bright; he taught himself to read at age 4 and was reading at a 7th grade level within a year. But like most autistics, he is a perfectionist and very focused on detail, which created a challenge in school. He struggled to complete assignments on time because he focused on making his handwriting perfect. Teachers would keep him in during recess to finish his assignments, which only reinforced his frustration and sense of separation.
“Jordan is a kind, honest and hard-working young man,” said former teacher Stacey Sturgill. “Although school was not always easy for him, he worked hard and overcame many obstacles.”
After graduating from high school, Wheatley admits he didn’t really have any direction. He attended Mountain Empire Community College for a couple of years and dabbled with majoring in art or computer science, but neither seemed to fit. He had an epiphany while working at the Cinema City movie theater in Norton, Virginia.
“I worked in the arcade, where I helped children redeem their coupons for prizes,” recalled Wheatley. “Seeing them happy over the prizes they had won made me realize that I wanted to get back into society. I wanted to help people, especially children.”
This realization morphed into a new inspiration. He decided to go into special education and teach children who struggle with developmental disabilities like his own. He ultimately transferred to the University of Virginia at Wise, and in December 2015, received his bachelor of arts degree in education with a dual endorsement in general education for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade as well as special education for pre-k through 12th grade.
“I believe that Jordan will be a successful teacher because he has the ‘heart’ for the job,” said Sturgill. “He has firsthand experience in dealing with obstacles and challenges and overcoming them. What a great example for young people with special needs.”
Wheatley feels he has a unique ability to understand special education students and he may help them navigate the ups and downs of trying to fit in.
“I’ve been in their shoes,” he said. “I know how it feels and I know the trials that those children go through. With the kind of background I have, I definitely feel I can help them.”
Wheatley has already applied for positions all over the Mountain Empire region, and hopes to land a teaching job soon.
“The sky is the limit,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that want a job, and eventually, you will get the job. It’s like fishing – you throw the line out there in the water and it’s just a matter of which fish is going to bite. If one doesn’t bite today, there is always tomorrow.”
Those close to Wheatley have high hopes for his future and commend his dedication to pursuing his goal to help others.
“Life has always been difficult for Jordan and he has had to work much harder than most people,” said his father, Wayne Wheatley. “He has met and dealt with many frustrations, but he is doggedly determined to push onward.”
That determination has been the driving force that has kept Wheatley focused on his goal and unwilling to let his frustrations get him down. And his message to others who struggling with developmental disabilities?
“You have just got to say to yourself, failure is not an option,” he said. “You have just got to keep going at what you want and never give up. You have to believe in yourself and in your ability to accomplish your dreams.”