Ken Hegarty at a recent Spectrum360 fundraiser.

Introducing Ken Hegarty, an Academy360 paraprofessional whose personal experience on the spectrum lends him considerable insight into the hopes, dreams and emotions of the students he assists in the classroom.

Ken, who has Asperger syndrome, came to Academy360 a few years ago, with a desire to reconnect with the autistic community after considerable time spent in neurotypical life, education and work cultures. He sensed there were considerable opportunities within the organization and saw joining the Spectrum360 community not only as an opportunity to return to his roots but where he could serve as a role model for kindred spirits on the spectrum.

“Given that I am on the spectrum, the students feel like a second family to me,” says Ken. Acknowledging that every child is different, he continues, “They each have the same goals as everyone else. To be loved and respected with vigor and dignity.”

In his own life Ken has acutely felt the differences between people on the spectrum like himself and those who are not. As he grew up, he was aware that a lack of understanding often caused those he met to treat him differently, either as an oddity or as someone childlike and gullible, which sometimes made him a target for teasing.

Saying it can often feel a blessing or a curse, he draws positivity from the sense of unity shared by others who experience life on the spectrum. Ken currently works as a 1:1 aide and is pursuing becoming a substitute teacher. In addition to his special education work, Ken is an artist who uses his talent to connect with students at Academy360, and runs a comic book club for students. Through the club he has yet another opportunity to use his experiences to benefit others.

One moment in particular stands out to him, when a student came to him during one of their comic book sessions seeking help.

“Before, he was withdrawn and had difficulties interacting with the other staff. But with me he let his hair down and felt safe in my presence. He told me stories about trying to fit in and I told him that he was free to be himself and not worry about what others thought,” Ken says. “This young man was a creative person and demonstrated some skills that were truly out of this world.”

This year Ken shared his personal journey with others at Academy360 through a story he wrote and illustrated, “Puzzle Boy.” It relates a young man’s struggle to make connections with others and find a place where he fits, until he meets a ‘Big Group Cast’ who invite him to become a part of their crew and he makes “finally friends just like me.”

That “big group” is Ken’s nod to his workplace.

“This is the closest to a [real life] reference in the poem,” says Ken. “It is an allegory for Spectrum360. As I’ve stated before, this work environment has been a great pleasure in terms of expanding my skills and meeting lots of cool cats. So I figured why not give them a shout out without being too specific.”

For the story’s artwork, and in life, Ken is deeply influenced by two of his idols: the author Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and filmmaker Tim Burton, who himself identifies as being on the spectrum.

Ken’s favorite film of all time is Burton’s 1990 magnum opus, “Edward Scissorhands,” the tale of a young humanoid man whose construction is interrupted by his creator-father’s untimely death and has to wrestle with society’s judgments and lack of understanding. It is, Ken feels, the perfect allegory for life with autism, and that Burton’s outlook on life provides valuable encouragement:

“Tim Burton once humorously said that he feels lucky to make movies for he gets to work out his psychological issues. From that particular school of thought, I’d said that fellow autistics should embrace themselves and their traits. It’s best to forget the rubbish from any naysayers and just revel in the things that make you happy. That space alone will contain the talents needed to grow and morph your life into the most beautiful experience one can ever have. So yes, shine that autism flag like there’s no tomorrow; that’s what I say.”