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Autistic valedictorian looks forward to college
Bradwell Institute valedictorian Thomas Baker poses with his pal, Midnight the cat. - photo by Photo by Lauren Hunsberger
Autism affects the senses

Autism can greatly affect the senses. Thomas Baker said he experiences an interesting pattern when it comes to his senses.
“Some of my senses are really strong. I have great night vision, but when the sun is out, I’m basically blind,” he said. “I can hear very high pitched noises but at the same time, it’s tough for me to pick up low tone sounds. Some senses are sensitive, and others aren’t.”
Susan Baker testified to this phenomenon. She said she swears her son’s ability to hear high pitches is better than a dog’s. Unfortunately, she also said that this sometimes causes him to become stressed. Thomas Baker often has to cover his ears when a plethora of high pitches becomes too much for him.
Thomas Baker said his early years in school were a bit rougher than most students’. Socially, he described himself as a quiet pupil who perpetually sat in the corner and had trouble grasping certain concepts.
“Academic wise, I had trouble with reading comprehension. I’m the type who is open minded and can never give a straight answer to anything,” Baker, 18, said when describing his struggles with standardized tests. “My mindset is a whole lot different than the test-makers’.”
Baker, who was diagnosed with autisum when he was 18 months old, thinks the disease proglonged his adjustment period when it came to school. The recent Bradwell Institute graduate also suffers from epilepsy and both health issues can make it hard for Baker to feel at ease around his peers.
“It was definitely not an easy process,” he said. So it may have come as a surprise to a few teachers and peers to see Baker, Bradwell’s 2009 valedictorian, confidently and passionately addressing his graduating class from a podium during May’s graduation ceremony.
But becoming the class valedictorian isn’t the end of the academic road for Baker, who is about to embark on the next leg of his journey: college.

Lifelong student

Baker said that despite his troubles with a few standardized test formats, learning has always been a source of stability and confidence for him and he’s eager to begin the fall semester at the University of Texas at El Paso in late August. Thanks to his success in high school, Baker will enter college as a sophomore.
“I’ve always considered myself to be a learner,” he said. “I just like to learn about new things and how they work. The more I’m aware of certain things, the better off I’ll be.”
At the University of Texas, Baker will take classes in computer science information, an appropriate choice for a teen whose favorite pastimes are playing video games and “fiddling around with gadgets.”
His mother, Susan Baker, said his love of learning turned into a blessing greater than she could have imagined.
“He’s very non-socialable and doesn’t like to interact with people, but if it’s a learning situation, he loves it,” she said. “If he’s learning, he’s calm, collected and he’s very attentive. He just loves it.”
Susan Baker said regarding her son’s social and academic progress, he’s come a long way. She said when Thomas Baker was first diagnosed with autism, the hospital sent her a letter recommending he be institutionalized and warning her that most school systems would place her son in special-education classes. Neither of those options, however, were acceptable to her.
“I thought my world was going to end,” Susan Baker said.
But the young mother was determined to help her son get an education and she went with him to class every day during elementary school until he was eventually able to attend by himself.
She said support from Dr. Christopher Garretson, Dr. Vicki Albritton and Dr. James Johnson, principals of the schools Thomas Baker attended, was instrumental in his success. The educators worked with Susan Baker even when her son grew angry during class or became disruptive.

Onward and upward

As Baker prepares for college life, he’s looking ahead to the challenges he knows he’ll face and setting a few new goals. Living alone and independently tops his list of objectives. Currently, he’s living with his father, who works in El Paso.
As for advice, Baker’s got plenty.
“Learning from my own situation … my advice to them [students having a hard time in school] is don’t give up. There’s a second chance even if you mess up the first time,” he said. “Fight ‘til the end, and if you have rough times, remember there’s always someone who can help you.”
He also has a few tips for educators and other influential figures who might encounter children struggling with challenges like Baker’s.
“Don’t write them off as disabled,” he said. “Don’t give up on them. Help them out and keep an eye on them. If they keep their self-esteem up, things are really, really good.”
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