Christopher C. Gagliardi, Staff Writer
He is 21 years of age, but by the way his charisma and charm can be seen in The Torch newsroom, you would see him as someone whose energy can be bottled and brought to life with others. His eyes speak to everyone’s soul, and he has the fun, positive joy that connects to those he sees anywhere and anytime. Although he’s young, he has wisdom beyond his years.
His name is Devon Campbell, and he may look like any other student you come across from Montclair, New Jersey. He enjoys being outside of college as a musician, creating music for world’s ears. What most people don’t realize is that, like me, he is also an Autistic American, trying to prove himself to those who still think that people who are autistic cannot amount to anything. From childhood until our interview, he said he was sure that something was different about him from second grade onward. His mother also knew that he was different. Campbell said, “When I was young, I didn’t think of the weight of it at all. I was a kid so I couldn’t understand the scope of that. My mom knew and she didn’t tell me with like, authority, that there was something that I had until much later. She told me that ‘you have trouble with social issues.’”
Campbell, like many others, is not alone in this situation. According to a 2009 article by Dr. Scott Bellini, associate director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, “Impairment in social function is a central feature of ASD. Typical social skills deficits include: initiating interactions, responding to the initiation of others, maintaining eye contact, sharing enjoyment, reading the non-verbal cues of others and taking another person’s perspective.” The article goes on to say, “The cause of these skill deficits varies, ranging from inherent neurological impairment to lack of opportunity to acquire skills (e.g. social withdrawal). Most importantly, these social skill deficits make it difficult for the individual to develop and keep meaningful and fulfilling personal relationships.”
Growing up with Asperger syndrome for Campbell was difficult. He had to endure hardships that many people deal with, such as being bullied because of your differences. “Yes, very heavily,” he said when asked if he was ever bullied. Campbell said during that time, he transferred to three different schools quickly. From fifth through sixth grade, he lived in Passaic, Fairview and Bloomfield, but bullying never stopped. The last school he transferred to was Garfield. “They used to call me ‘Spaz,’” he said, “which was a very bad word. Most of the time it bothered me, I thought, ‘this will pass.’” Yet he prevailed.
When I asked Devon how his friends reacted after he told them he had Asperger’s, the reaction was unique. “A lot of them knew. Usually, it’s like ‘I didn’t know, but now that you said it, this does make sense,’” he said. Campbel says he gets along well with his friends. He also stated his community has been good to him too. “Normally I do not tell people [right] off the bat because I am pretty good at playing my angles,” he said. “Making sure that I’m not intrusive in conversation because I have been in classes for a bunch of stuff with Asperger’s and ADHD, so I have been in groups that have helped me to figure out when it is OK to talk to people, or when people like being talked to.”
Since coming to Bergen Community College, he said that he’s grown in helping young people who have special needs, including those on the autism spectrum. “It’s kind of like paying it forward, he said. “When I work with them, I find that they need consistency and coming to Bergen, it’s just more consistency in which I can thrive in.”
I asked him what he thinks is the biggest challenge for people who have autism. He said, it’s law enforcement’s intolerance to families whose loved ones are on the spectrum. He told me stories about autistic people being mistreated. He said, “It was kind of disheartening.”
Campbell’s hope is that more will be done. “I see more people with autism in positions of power.” He mentioned Greta Thunberg, a young lady who also has Asperger’s that sparked climate change strikes worldwide, and to call upon leaders to help save the earth.
Closing off with a piece of advice for people who see anyone with autism spectrum disorder: “Treat them like a person. They are a person.”