For college student, autism gives gift of individuality
Once a silent child, Fifles now chatters, wonít be held back.
By Brielle Schaeffer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 16, 2011
Near the end of his morning French class at the University of Wyoming, Johnny Fifles glances at the clock.
“Four minutes,” he says, mechanically, loud enough for all to hear.
The students are filling in missing lyrics to a French song and practicing vocabulary. They raise their hands when they think they have the answers. “Amours.” “Petit.” “Vieux.”
The first-level class is conducted completely in French. Almost.
“Have you ever seen ‘Big Fish’?” Johnny blurts out, in English, to his teacher.
She hasn’t. The class chuckles. She calls on a student.
“One minute,” Johnny says aloud again, putting his stuff away with purpose. He can’t hold himself back in his public speaking class, either.
“I forgot what causes autism again,” he says to a classmate speaking about the benefits of organic produce.
Pesticides, she says.
“Well, I’ve got autism,” Johnny says.
Johnny, 21, of Jackson, a 2009 graduate of Summit High School, is making his own way during his first year at the university in Laramie, an environment with many new, exciting and sometimes stressful things. Like many of his classmates, he’s making college work for him, learning to become more independent.
After his morning classes, Johnny darts out the door. It’s homecoming week for the Cowboys, and already there’s a buzz about campus, talk of the big football game and parent visits in class.
He hops on his yellow cruiser bicycle and pedals into his day, focused on his next task as he crosses the open campus, yellow aspen leaves a highlight among stone and brick college buildings. He likes to be on time, to stay in sync with his schedule.
Homecoming week for the ’Pokes is, in a different way, homecoming for Johnny, too. He earned an associate degree from Central Wyoming College in Riverton and won a Hathaway Scholarship to keep learning in Laramie this year. Today his dad, stepmother and sister are coming to see him in Laramie for the first time since he has been away from Jackson.
Johnny, 21, was practically silent until he was 4. Julie Church, his French teacher and a grad student at Laramie, wouldn’t have guessed as much from her interaction with him this semester.
“He participates a lot,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a little off topic, but it’s always interesting.”
Church recognized Johnny was different when the semester began.
“I knew that he was speaking when he wasn’t necessarily supposed to,” she says.
Often, he’ll say “Thank you for enlightening us” after a classmate’s speech.
Nobody told her she had a student with autism.
Even at 5-foot-9, Johnny has a boyish way about him. He slouches a little, which is more apparent when he’s at his computer. He struggles to make eye contact, so it’s hard to see his long eyelashes and warm, brown eyes.
As a toddler, Johnny ignored everyone, his mom, Deb Sanders, says. Autism, a developmental disorder, affects social and communication skills. When Johnny was diagnosed when he was 4, family, teachers and caretakers used treats to lure him into doing things. After doling out bags and bags of mini M&Ms, Johnny was speaking.
“That’s how we taught Johnny to talk,” Deb says. “Everything just took a little bit longer.”
Five-year-old Johnny repeated himself. He spelled words like “Pocahontas” perfectly, but backward, thanks to his almost photographic memory. He was adrift in his own world, according to a 1995 article in the Jackson Hole Guide.
“When the teacher calls the kids over to sit in a circle to listen to a story,” Deb told a reporter back then, “I want Johnny to be with them.”
He was. He entered kindergarten with his class, graduated and went off to college with them, too. Now he’s an art major. He’s taking public speaking and has an anthropology class.
Now, Deb jokes, they have to tell Johnny to keep it down. She got him a private room at the university, “for him and a potential roommate, because he’s chatty sometimes,” Deb said.
Johnny opens his cellphone and dials.
“James Fifles, where are you?” he asks his dad, a little agitated.
The family arrives late to Johnny’s room in Crane Hall. He shoots up from his desk to see them.
“You look like a baby,” Johnny’s 23-year-old sister, Corey, says playfully, touching his long, pouffy hair. “A baby fro.”
His stepmother, Lesa, coos over the metal tree sculptures he made that are displayed on his dresser.
Johnny takes off his blue “Sonic the Hedgehog” shirt to change into something for the occasion: his dad’s old velour, tiger-striped dress shirt. With that transformation, Johnny is ready to step out. The family heads to Jeffrey’s Bistro downtown for a reunion dinner with a few friends.
He orders off the menu and catches up with his family.
When a friend of Corey’s stops by, Lesa tells Johnny to ask her what her birthday is.
May 29, 1988, she says.
That was a Sunday, Johnny tells her almost instantly.
Someone else offers Aug. 6, 1985.
That was a Tuesday, he says.
August 15, 1972.
Another Tuesday, he says.
Lesa calls it his party trick. Johnny explains it another way: “I have a computer in my brain.”
In his sparsely decorated brick dorm room, Johnny can sit by himself and make YouTube videos for hours.
He splices old “Sonic the Hedgehog” cartoons together and dubs in different audio and sometimes visual clips from Harry Potter, Batman and other cartoons. He talks in a high-pitched voice along with one of his video characters: “OK, but you’ll have to be on your best behavior.”
“I will,” he responds as the other character.
Johnny has made 366 videos. He has 28 subscribers and 2,794 channel views on YouTube.
He reads, too. Johnny has about 200 dictionaries on languages, from Arabic to Yiddish, some of which are at college with him. “The Book of Mormon” and all sorts of compilations of mythology are on his shelf.
As a young high school student, Johnny began studying language, perfectly forming words in different scripts, Jim says, a talent that proved useful.
“Anytime we had to do correspondence for family celebrations, we would have him put them together,” Jim says. “He would do it completely in Cantonese.”
Johnny has created the fictional character of “Jonathanmelech,” a primordial superhero he has been writing about. He also uses the alias — which means “Yahweh, the Giver and King” in Hebrew — as “wishful thinking,” he says.
“I have autism,” he says, plucking his shirt like he is snapping suspender straps — a regular tick. “My mind doth work in mysterious ways.”
A big fan of Quentin Tarantino, he’s writing books and movie scripts in the Tarantino vein. He is working on a book about a guy, Jesse Reeves-Reese, who turns into a zombie every night. Reeves-Reese is a sort of Jesus Christ-type figure, he says. He already decided Reeves-Reese is an Aquarius, born Jan. 21, 1987.
That was a Wednesday.
While most students doodle or write to-do lists when they’re bored, Johnny does numerology and creates diagrams for his fictional characters. Numerology assigns to letters numerical values that can then reveal certain things about a person’s character, some believe.
“There’s valid truths in numbers about personality,” Johnny says.
He has done his own numerology every which way, with his full name, middle name, nicknames. His “heart number” is one, making him a natural leader, but not very self-confident, he says. His “character number” is eight, which means potential success in business, finance and politics.
“But I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” he says.
One of his numbers says he’s a responsible family man.
“In the future, yes,” he says.
His “karmic lesson number” tells him he needs to learn to trust, he says. That’s his biggest challenge.
Sitting in his dorm room in front of his laptop, watching some of his own videos, it appears he’s not working on that lesson.
“I don’t know if he cares if he has a social life or not,” Deb says. “I think it’s something we would want, for him to have a friend, but I think people are annoying to him sometimes.”
While waiting to meet his tutor in the library, Johnny buys a $1.50 chocolate donut at the in-house cafe. He writes a check, balances his checkbook, then extends his hand over the register to introduce himself to the barista.
Mike shakes his hand. He’s from Cheyenne, he tells Johnny.
“That’s not far from here, but it’s a long ways from Jackson Hole,” Johnny says.
After he turns away, Mike and his female co-worker trade glances over the somewhat awkward exchange.
Shortly after, Johnny’s tutor, Billi Rimel, arrives. The 25-year-old junior English major meets with him a few times a week in library study rooms. They’re working on his upcoming speech for public speaking class.
Johnny rehearses in front of her: “Now let’s go behind the scenes as to the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
He clears his throat, paces the room and uses hand gestures to make his point. Johnny has a punctuated, formal way of talking and sometimes pronounces his Rs as Ws, as in “Opewation Enduring Freedom.”
Billi flubs the name of one of the post-Sept. 11 operations while helping.
“I knew you would remember it,” she tells him when he corrects her. “You’ve got a better memory than me.”
For some academic things, at least. Leaving his tutoring session, he races into the elevator before a co-ed gets off, almost running into her. She stands back, flustered.
Jim talks to Johnny regularly on the phone or via Skype, but, “it’s easier to monitor and verify everything is going right in person,” Jim says.
They’re trying not to be worrywarts.
“We’re doing everything we can to get him socialized and independent,” Jim says. “It’s the social part that’s lagging.”
During a recent video chat, Lesa says, they had to tell Johnny to wash his hair. But, she says, seeing him at college made them feel better.
“We were very reassured that he’s doing fine and he’ll be fine and he’s enjoying his college experience,” she says.
Being at the university is a good opportunity for Johnny to test his skills, Jim says. Johnny is a sponge and a lifelong learner, he says.
“If he wants to get a doctorate, I’ll encourage that,” Jim says.
Sister Corey thinks Laramie will teach him more than academics.
Over the summer, she says, Johnny had a job in Jackson washing sheets and making beds at a hotel. He didn’t like it and grumbled. But people can’t do that, she told him. Especially if they want to stay employed.
“Being in a college setting without his family, he picks up on it more because other people are not as forgiving,” she says.
Deb has different fears for Johnny.
“I’m kind of worried about him being on his own, being really far,” she says. “It’s the furthest he’s ever been by himself.” She worries about I-80 closing during the winter and not being able to get to him.
In Jackson, Deb would help Johnny practice going to the grocery store and doing the laundry. “But now he’s got that down,” she says.
Deb hope Johnny will practice other things, like asking someone for a ride back to Jackson in exchange for gas money. A peer mentor program through the university might be able to help with those things, she says.
“I think he can be misunderstood ... because of his behavior sometimes,” she says. “I hope other people don’t take that behavior as being rude. He’s just more honest than everybody else.”
Unlike other parents of college-age kids, she doesn’t have to worry about Johnny going on a bender. He doesn’t like the taste of alcohol.
“He’s not going to go out and go to frat parties,” she says. “He’s not going to be hungover, ever.”
They had different things to worry about when he could legally start drinking. When Johnny turned 21, Deb and Jim had the option of maintaining power of attorney over his legal and financial affairs. They opted not to do that, Deb says.
“That’s not really pushing him toward independence, is it?” she asks.
At the University of Wyoming homecoming football game, War Memorial Stadium is an ocean of brown and yellow. Nearly 23,000 fans will cheer the Cowboys to a 41-14 victory over the University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels.
Johnny is at the game decked out in brown and gold. He arrives at the stadium before the rest of his entourage.
“He got mad at me because I said we didn’t have to be on time, so he left me,” Corey tells Jim and Lesa.
Johnny calls to tell them what section he is in. He is there watching the game when his family makes it in after kickoff.
“That’s good for a W-Y-O first down,” the crowd cheers, as the family settles in.
The “Barrel Man” dances on the field in his signature get-up of cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a barrel. Cowboy Joe, the university’s pony mascot, parades on the field after each ’Poke touchdown. Cannon blasts celebrate the points.
Johnny has a canvas bag of mythology and language books, a notebook and pencils with him in case he gets bored. He watches all the home football games with his bag.
“You got ‘War and Peace’ in there?” his dad jokes.
During the first half, Johnny cheers along with his family and only resorts to his bag and notebook in the third quarter. He intently colors the edges of a character diagram for his book characters, content with himself, while the crowd around him goes wild for the team.
“It’s normal to be different,” Johnny had written in the middle of the Venn diagram for two book characters.
Johnny has a couple more years at the University of Wyoming before he will be on his own, out of college and “in the real world.”
He says he wants to travel to Greece and Australia. He has big plans for redesigning Coca-Cola cans with vibrant colors.
Will Tarantino, who Johnny wants to give his movie scripts to, someday accept the saga of Jonathanmelech and put it into production?
Being autistic isn’t a disability to Johnny. It’s an extra ability, as he likes to say.
“I’ve had autism as long as I can remember,” Johnny says. “It’s my gift. It makes me who I am.”