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Kristen Cyr
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Autism diagnosis allowed grad to open up, embrace 'quirks'

May 17, 2016

Bradley Johnson Bradley Johnson

Every child who has to deal with the hurtful taunts of schoolyard bullies probably wishes he could be king for a day. When Bradley Johnson of Coventry finally accepted himself for who he was and came into his own – he did one better: He was king for a whole year.

"There's a crown that gets passed down, a guidebook and an oath you have to take," said Johnson, 19, of his coronation as Coventry High School's King of Nerds in his senior year. "For the first time, it made me feel appreciated among my peers."

Gaining that appreciation and acceptance has been a long, if satisfying, road for Johnson, who will graduate from the Community College of Rhode Island with both an associate degree in Computer Networking and a certificate in Information Technology this month. Always aware of the fact that the way he thought about and related to the world was different than other people, when he was finally diagnosed as being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum when he was in middle school, it felt like a relief.

"After I got my diagnosis, I was pretty accepting of it and I became a lot looser – I was able to open up. It allowed me to be more myself," he said. "I found my own niche. My friends were a big help but at the center of it all, my family at home was my main support."

While Johnson said he realizes that he's fortunate in that his place on the spectrum isn't too constricting, he understands that other people with autism – those who can't communicate, for instance – "have it much, much harder" than he does. But Johnson was adamant that he wouldn't trade his diagnosis for anything; it's as much a part of him as his treasured memories of his King Nerd coronation, the computer games he obsesses over and his fondness for culinary experimentation.

"Having autism allowed me to see that there was a reason I was different from everybody else, and that I shouldn't have to be like everybody else," he said. "My autism has been the sole thing that defines who I really am. Without it, I would have probably been another mindless drone."

Where teachers in his early life may have labeled him a troublemaker without a filter and classmates may have misunderstood him, it's clear from talking to Johnson that his embrace of thinking differently can have wonderful results. A budding gourmand who relishes helping his mother in the kitchen, Johnson recalled tweaking a recipe for chicken cordon bleu in a strange, yet successful manner – and being unable to find evidence that any other home chefs had tried it.

"It had Swiss cheese and ham, and it was breaded," he said. "But really, mine was more like a stuffed chicken breast – I used salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, ginger, orange peel and rosemary. My mom and I really liked the recipe."

Johnson's life is rich with passions and quirks – all the things that make him proud to be the man he has become. At CCRI, where he came right after graduating from high school, he has found a welcoming home as well as an outlet for many of those passions. He has participated in the Psychology Club, is a member of the Role Playing Guild, a writer for The Unfiltered Lens and the honor society Phi Theta Kappa.

"I pretty much spend most of my days in the student union," he said, adding that he often can be found there playing card and video games or Dungeons and Dragons, which, despite his nerdly pedigree, he didn't play until he came to the college. "Everyone is so friendly. It's the friendly atmosphere that has made my time here most enjoyable."

When he is not in the student union, Johnson excels in his studies and is graduating with a 3.87 GPA. He credited his success at CCRI to the hands-on classes and the accessibility of faculty members such as Assistant Professor Michael Kelly in the Computer Science department, who always went the extra mile to give him help and inspiration.

The latest in a long line of self-described "tech heads," Johnston was able to use his classes at CCRI to further narrow down his interest in computing. After graduation, he said he hopes to take a year to get his feet wet in the tech job market, with hopes that he can find an even more specific focus to pursue as a bachelor's degree.

At the end of his journey at CCRI, he had this advice to pass down to those who are just beginning. "Find out what you wish to pursue for the rest of your life," he said. "And accept your quirks. Don't let anyone talk you down because of your quirks."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16