Teen wins scholarship for autism speech

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published May 24, 2011


STERLING HEIGHTS — Benjamin Orjada wants the world to know he’s just like anyone else.

He might see it through different eyes, having to work harder to pick up social cues that come naturally to most other people, but that doesn’t make him inferior to others, just different.

And when the 17-year-old junior at Stevenson High School shared that message at the Michigan district championship of the Optimist International Oratorical Contest recently, it won him the top prize, a $2,500 scholarship.

Orjada was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a second-degree form of autism spectrum disorder, when he was in the seventh-grade. He describes Asperger’s as living with a brain where the parts that would be used for social skills in a typical person are reallocated for extra academic skills.

He first signed up for the local speech competition for extra credit in his English class and wrote his speech just a half-hour before the competition was about to begin. Out of the six students he competed against that day, five were from Stevenson, also taking advantage of the extra credit opportunity.

Then, he won.

Orjada traveled to the regional contest, where the competition was “very intense.” He won that competition, too.

“I’m improving the speech bit by bit,” he said of each competition that led up to the district championship, the highest contest in the state.

In choosing the subject for the speech, he said he originally had several ideas, but turned to autism because teachers advised him to focus on something about which he was passionate. During the piece, Orjada speaks at length about a friend who is living with autism spectrum disorder and the need for better information and understanding. It is only at the end that he announces that he’s really been speaking about himself.

“I’ve lived my entire childhood” with autism, he said. “I had to deal with a lot of bullying from my peers. I was trying to remove the social stigma that autism is.”

Orjada said he was called every name in the book when he was younger, from weird, to “special ed, stupid, or in my worst experience, retarded.” And he said that couldn’t be further from the truth for him and many other “high-functioning” people living with autism.

“I want to remove this perception that people who have autism are any different than anybody else,” he said.

Orjada said the bullying started out slowly in his old school district — he moved to Utica Community Schools for high school — but because it was largely ignored by teachers and staff instead of actively punished, it just got worse instead of disappearing.

“I went into depression, and it got to the point (where) I had to change districts because I was suicidal,” he said.

It was at that peak of the bullying that his mother had him tested for autism after recommendations from school officials. He was found to have Asperger’s syndrome at that time, and he transferred school districts to get away from his peer group.

Since Orjada has been among Stevenson’s halls, Principal Steve Pfannes said he hasn’t seen the teen be treated differently than anyone else.

“One on one, he’s great,” he said. “Talking to Ben, you know that he’s different, just in the sense of he’s got a personality that is different than most kids, but you wouldn’t know that it was due to him being autistic.

“But I do know … coming to Utica Community Schools, he has felt accepted and hasn’t been treated different by anybody.”

Orjada said, in speaking about being autistic, he wants others living with the diagnosis or other challenges to know that “it gets easier as you get older.”

Walking through the halls of Stevenson, Orjada said he has many friends, some with Asperger’s syndrome and many without. But he said even some of his friends and classmates need to be more aware that how they speak casually can hurt someone like him.

“In the hallway … they’ll say, ‘That’s retarded, dude,’ and that’s offensive,” he said. “That word has been associated with us for so long.

“Autism is … just something that the rest of the world has to learn about.”

Nevertheless, he said he has had “a thousand times less bullying here than at my old school. Being in the school district has truly helped me live.”

He said he has moved on from his past experiences, although he will never forget them.

“I’m not going to hate them for it,” he said of his former classmates. “I can serve as a reminder to people, say, ‘Hey, it gets better. Life goes on.’”

Getting the message out and learning speaking skills from those running the Optimists International contests helped build his confidence, Orjada said.

Pfannes said the entire staff is extremely proud of him for what he has accomplished.

“Any student that can get in front of a crowd and speak, it takes a lot of guts,” he said. “But a student that has a disability and is speaking about that disability, I think that takes a lot of courage to get up and talk about it.”