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Nick Johnson:
Lands NASA Internship

Nick, a 23-year old from Kentucky who was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of 3, lands a 10-week summer internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

BLASTING OFF:
After years of autism challenges, Nick Johnson lands NASA gig

By Todd Kleffman | Central Kentucky News
June 15, 2013

Nicholas Johnson has never been one for crowds. 

When he was younger, a trip to a restaurant or retail store often would send Nick into loud shrieks and convulsive movements. Once, during a trip to the grocery store when he was about 8, he began rocking back and forth so violently while riding in the cart that he tipped it over in the middle of the aisle.

It’s no wonder that his parents, Rose and Paul Johnson of Danville, are so proud of how far their son has traveled since he was first diagnosed with severe autism more than 20 years ago. For them, it is like he has journeyed to Mars. 

Nick, 23, landed a 10-week summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., working among the country’s top scientists, engineers and technicians that build, launch and monitor instruments that advance our understanding of the universe. He started last week creating computer databases and building security firewalls for the space agency, and already he’s feeling in his element.

“You know the story of the Ugly Duckling? Well, I have been kind of like the ugly duckling all my life,” Nick said in a telephone interview last week. “Now that I’m here at Goddard, I’m turning into that beautiful swan and learning to fly.”

Robert Spector, acting chief of Nick’s NASA unit, described the intern’s responsibilities.

“Our goal for Nick is that by the end of the summer program, he will have developed a database that will assist project managers navigate the rigorous procedures and guidelines that govern all information technology projects at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,” Spector said in an email. “He will have an opportunity to learn about the disciplines of designing systems based on users’ requirements, designing and automating forms, and database design and administration. 

“Along the way Nick and his fellow interns will be given the opportunity to participate in NASA training and planned group activities such as the Center Tour, lectures, future career opportunity events, and various social events that are part of the internship program.” 

That Nick is working at NASA would probably come as a big surprise to those professionals who first diagnosed him with “probable autism” when he was 3 and living in Florida. Some suggested Nick be removed from his home and placed in a center with other autistic children as the best way to prepare him for his future.

“We were advised very early on that Nick should be in a vocational school to learn how to retread tires or make fishing reels,” Paul Johnson said.

Though they had little understanding of autism — a mysterious mental condition characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships, and obsessive behavior — Rose and Paul were disinclined to consign their son to a life of drudgery at such a young age. They realized he was developing differently — he didn’t communicate verbally until he was 5 — but they saw flickers of intelligence, even if they could not make sense of his actions.

“I saw he was capable of more than that. He was very bright when he was very young. His brain just works differently,” Rose said. “It was just little things he did when he was playing. Instead of rolling cars along, he’d turn them over and watch the wheels spin. He would take all the condiments out of the refrigerator door and line them up.”

The family decided to return to Kentucky, where they felt Nick had a better chance to develop to his full potential. They began intensive therapy sessions, both at home and through Eastern Kentucky University’s Child Development Center and social services, and they enrolled him in Estill County public schools to work on his social skills.

“I wanted him to see how the real world works, not just his imagined world in his head,” Rose explained. 

Mainstreaming Nick into public schools was no small feat. Many teachers and classmates were afraid of him because of his unusual behavior. He had to eat behind a curtain in the elementary cafeteria because the sight of other kids eating — a bit of gelatin dribbling down a chin — would make him physically sick. He was often shunned.

“I came into a classroom once and saw him sitting by himself in the corner while the rest of the kids were in circle time. I said ‘You call this inclusion?’” Rose recalled. “I had to butt heads with principals. I was at his school all the time, first as a volunteer and then I became a teaching assistant.”

Amid the almost constant struggles and frustrations, there were also breakthroughs. When he was about 9, Nick began going to stay with his father, a computer science teacher at Estill County High, after his own school day was done. Paul coached the chess team and during practices, he would set Nick up at a computer in his classroom. Soon, with only minimal instruction from his dad, Nick was displaying skills well beyond his age.

“At first, the computer was like a babysitter for him while I was with the chess team, but then I realized he was working at levels higher than the high school kids,” Paul said. “The 10th-graders would be playing video games and Nick would be writing code telling the computer how to make a chart.”

Along with computers, Nick also showed a knack for music, quickly learning how to read it and play instruments, first the violin then the flute. He was first-chair flute in the high school band.

Along the way, Nick was pushed into other pursuits, often against his will. Cub Scouts. Boy Scouts. Running track. Martial arts. Going to prom. All were full of frustrations and embarrassments, each with new people for Nick to adjust to and vice versa, each with new guidelines and boundaries he had to learn.

For Rose, pushing her son beyond his comfort zone, despite his resistance, was something she instinctively knew she needed to do. Like hugging him when he was hellbent against it.

“I had to force myself to hug him sometimes. He’d be so frustrated that he would push me away and headbutt me, but I just wrapped my arms around him and pulled him in,” said Rose, who has kept journals of Nick’s experiences that she is incorporating into a book tentatively titled “Thunder of the Mind.”

Nick recalls “lots of awkward situations” that he now views as essential in his continuing efforts to learn how to mesh his world with the larger one that he encountered while attending EKU, where he graduated cum laude last month with a degree in Network Security Management, and the even larger one he is now living in while working as a NASA intern.

“I get nervous being outside my wall. Being exposed to so many different things helps me break through those barriers, learn what to say and what not to say,” he explained. “My advice (to parents with autistic children) is to gradually expose them to different things, coax them into new situations. Develop trust and just do it. It has helped me become more open-minded about life.”

Those experiences are paying dividends for Nick as gets a feel for life on his own. He shares a suite with two other interns, whom have introduced him to a couple of new activities — kicking around a soccer ball and going to the drive-in to see a double feature including “Fast & Furious 6.”

“That was the most exhilarating experience I ever had,”he said of the movie. “My social horizons have broadened.”

Like many people with autism, Nick sometimes has trouble distinguishing between real and make-believe, and can become obsessive about certain things. He has been passionate about role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, as well as professional wrestling, and at times works himself into a lather when discussing those subjects.

“I know it’s choreographed but I get into the storylines. I try to place myself in wrestling scenarios. I would definitely beat the hell out of The Undertaker,” Nick said. “I used to talk about some unusual topics and posted some bizarre stuff of Facebook and a lot of people unfriended me. If I posted now what I did then I would unfriend myself.”

Nick is still learning the boundaries of acceptable behavior with each new situation he encounters. He seems to be navigating those obstacles at NASA quite well.

“Nick has already made a positive impact on his host organization in the Information Technology and Communications Directorate,” said Spector, his supervisor at Goddard. “In addition to being an active participant in technical meetings he has implemented a ‘joke of the day’ practice. Nick obviously knows that keeping a group of information technologists loose and happy is an important factor in mission success.”

Sense of humor aside, Nick’s autism may actually prove to be a plus in his chosen career. German multinational software developer SAP made news last month in announcing that it plans to begin recruiting people with autism into its workforce.

According to Rueters News Agency, SAP executive board member Luisa Delgado said, "We share a common belief that innovation comes from the 'edges.' Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century."

Spector suggested NASA is thinking along similar lines.

“As a result of his experience we hope that Nick will have acquired new technical skills related to software development and IT security management,” he said. “We also expect he will have gained an awareness of the need to balance people and technical factors in designing a system. Nick’s background may actually give him an edge in developing a system that is more ‘usable’ for a broad and diverse community of users.”

If that bears out, Nick would be quite pleased. He said he hopes his internship at NASA might lead to a full-time job there down the road, or in some other high profile, high-tech environment.

Seeing their son rise to his current level of success is obviously a matter of great pride for Rose and Paul. Paul said they initially wanted to pitch Nick’s story to the newspaper in April, which is Autism Awareness Month, but decided “he hasn’t done anything yet.” But that changed when Nick graduated college with honors in May and then landed the NASA gig.

“Now he’s done something,” Paul said. “I’m really proud of Nicholas, and I’m really proud of Rose.”

For her part, Rose — whom Paul credits with helping Nick fight the majority of his battles — sees Nick’s progress as more than just validation for the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.  She sees her son as a poster child, a source of inspiration for other parents who have children with autism, which, according the Center for Disease Control, now affects 1 in every 50 children born in America.

“There’s such a wave of diagnoses these days. I think that Nick shows all the young parents out there with autistic children that there’s hope,” Rose said. “If you’re patient and loving and you take therapy seriously, you can succeed. You don’t have to keep your child locked in a room. Push them, let them experience the world.”

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