When it was time to choose a team project for Junior Achievement, Jordan Randles and his group went through a slew of items.
Maybe they would sell knick-knacks, bracelets or, in Jordan's words, "some item-finder thing." Those ideas, however, had no real meaning to him or any of his teammates. They had no depth.
And, then, it came to him. He would bring awareness to autism, the cultural fallout for which he is no stranger.
"When I was in elementary school I was actually taken out because people didn't like me," said Jordan, 16, a junior at Brookwood High in Snellville, Ga. "I felt really, like, isolated. Even now sometimes. I'll feel isolated at school.
"And, I'm like, 'Man, I wish someone would understand.' But, if more people knew about autism then kids with autism would be more accepted into society."
Maybe then, his phone would ring more with calls from all the friends who accept him for being simply him -- a kid with Asperger's, yes, but a kid whose social awkwardness does not define him.
"It's kind of depressing," he said.
Shining a Blue Light
Armed with his own life story, Jordan decided to lead his team in an effort to sell blue light bulbs as part of Autism Speaks' annual Light It Up Blue campaign. In just three short years, the Autism Speaks' campaign has graced the globe rapidly, with blue lights proudly shinning from many well-known landmarks during World Autism Awareness Day in April.
"I just thought what better way to spread the word about autism than by doing something for the Light it up Blue campaign, which is a pretty big deal," Jordan said.
The team of ten has been up and running since the beginning of the year. The group already has sold light bulbs at Brookwood High School, a Spectrum support group, two Krogers locations, the Abilities Celebration at Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium, and at the Abilities Expo at the Georgia World Congress Center.
By the end of February, the group had sold 300 to 350 bulbs, he said. They were sold at a cost of $5 for one, or $4 each if two or more were purchased.
"It was exciting," he said of the recent expo. "I just felt like this journey can't end, you know."
At Jordan's high school, there are nearly 50 children in a special Asperger's program, according to Ellen Brill, who is in her seventh year as a paraprofessional there. For Jordan, Junior Achievement has provided a good outlet for him to work on one of the hallmark traits of the disorder -- social awkwardness.
Unlike Jordan, most of the students "don't want to be part of something" and gravitate toward isolation, she said. In her experience, some of the students tend to think they are always right and know more than anyone else around, Brill added.
"They have trouble collaborating," Brill said. "That requires a big effort. Jordan wants to do those things, whereas a lot of our other students may not really want to but they do it because they have to.
"But, I think Jordan is more aware that in order to be a more social being he's going to need to know how to collaborate better and take other people's ideas as valuable."
Finding More Inspiration
In addition to his own personal ties, Jordan was inspired by Rachel's Challenge and a song by the country pop group Lady Antebellum.
Rachel's Challenge is a nonprofit that seeks to empower others to create lasting cultural change. It is named for Rachel Scott, the first person killed at Columbine High School during the deadly campus shooting in 1999. And, it's the song "I Was Here" by Lady Antebellum that captures Jordan's own thoughts about his life and autism awareness:
"I wanna do something that matters, say something different
Something that sets the whole world on its ear
I wanna do something better with the time I've been given
I wanna try to touch a few hearts in this life
And leave nothing less that something that says I was here"
So, even after the selling of light bulbs has ended, Jordan -- who some day hopes to run a music company -- wants to create music that other people with autism can use as therapy. Research shows that music is particularly useful with children who have been diagnosed with autism.
He also hopes to speak to children's groups about the neural disorder, which affects about 1 in 110 American children in varying degrees. Boys, like Jordan, have a 1 in 70 chance of being diagnosed with autism, according to data from the Autism Speaks website.
Forging Ahead, Staying Focused
It's been rough, said Jordan's mom, Jeanetta Roche. She quit working three years ago to care for Jordan on a full-time basis. Flitting in and out of meetings with schools or medical professionals, along with managing what Jordan eats and keeping him focused was hard to do while working.
To make it over the past several years, she's blown through 401K money, scoured old boxes for change, sold a home in North Carolina, and used any other savings she had. She even looked under the bed.
"It's been very difficult financially, mentally, emotionally, but my whole goal in life is to parent him to the best of my ability," she said.
She had known something was going on all throughout grade school, but couldn't figure it out. At one point, Jordan was failing his classes. It wasn't until ninth grade that a counselor sat down with her and said that her son probably had Asperger's.
"When they said autism, I thought, 'Oh no, y'all got this all wrong because my son knows how to talk and walk," Roche remembered.
Eventually, she came to understand the complexities of the disorder and better ways to help her son, including attending support groups in Gwinnett County. She's more determined than ever to help her son manage everything, including the isolation he feels and the rude comments and actions by others.
What breaks her heart the most is knowing that Jordan longs to fit in but doesn't, despite the supportive nature of his high school.
"He has not one friend at that school. Not one person calls him. Not one person says how are you doing. He's never been invited to a birthday party," she said.
In spite of the frustrations, Jordan is doing well in school where there are professionals who understand him, and he's even taken Advanced Placement courses. College is next up.
"I'll have to be on a new level of thinking," he said, ticking off a list of things he'll have to do in college without mom around, like focusing on his homework and attending class when he should.
He and his mom are excited about the future. They're pushing toward it with a cautious optimism, knowing there are probably more challenges ahead and more people to educate about autism.
"When you're with the right people and people understand you, you get a chance to touch real life," Roche said. "Everybody needs somebody to just understand them for being them."