Sixteen-year-old Christian Fletcher is the sort of guy that typically blends into the crowd. The Detroit Lakes junior likes it that way, too. He isn't loud, he isn't opinionated, and he probably won't be spotted shooting the breeze with just anybody.
"Yeah, it's kind of tough for me to start conversations with people," he says, looking down with a small smile.
To many who know of him, he is "that quiet guy." To those who actually know him, he's a young man overcoming adversity. Christian has Asperger's Syndrome, and even if he isn't the most well known guy around, his syndrome has surfaced in some pretty famous TV and movie characters:
Sherlock Holmes, Napoleon Dynamite, Lt. Reginald Barclay of Star Trek the Next Generation, Dr. Gregory House from the TV show House, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory - all of these characters are said to be created with Asperger's Syndrome in mind. Asperger's sits on the high functioning end of autism, but isn't completely rare; in fact, 1 out of 200 people in the United States are afflicted. But what does it actually mean for those living with Asperger's in real life? It differs somewhat for different people, but a common aspect to it - and one that affects Christian - is a difficulty in picking up on social cues and more abstract concepts. For Christian, it has also meant a very quiet childhood.
Growing up with Asperger's
"I remember when he was about three years old, and he would get really upset if fruit snacks weren't color coordinated and numerically correct," said Christian's mother, Tiffany Fletcher, who says those fruit snacks also had to be eaten in a certain order. "He also had significant sensory issues - certain clothes like jeans or corduroy jeans were not staying on because he didn't like the feeling or the sound of them." Fletcher says it was clear that her little boy needed everything to be very literal and concrete with few steps and little room for interpretation.
"You couldn't just say 'Clean your room', it had to be one thing at a time," she said, adding that while Christian showed incredible intelligence at a very young age and seemed to get along well with adults, he would close up around other kids, preferring to play by himself. He remembers as far back as kindergarten knowing there was something a little different about him.
"I could only be friends with certain kids - I couldn't deal with everybody the same," said Christian. "I liked the quieter kids that were more like me or who liked the same things as me."
Although they lived in rural Audubon, Fletcher chose to open enroll her son into the Detroit Lakes school system because at the time, it was one of the only schools in Minnesota that offered a socialization-focused program that was independent of education curriculum. He simply needed to understand those social cues that threw him so far off.
"He'd come home and tell me about some of the things with his friends, and it would make me sad because it was obvious to me that they were making fun of him, but he didn't catch on to that," said Fletcher, who felt the pain for her son that he would have felt, had he truly understood it. "I'm already an over-protective mom, but that made me even more overprotective," she said, adding that she also knew empathy was something Christian didn't understand or always feel, either. Having a tough time "putting himself in other people's shoes" made it tough in social situations.
In school, social skills groups proved hard for him because it forced him out of his box; however, while they were certainly not a quick fix for him, he continued to run the course like he knew he needed to and slowly began to piece things together.
Being the quiet guy never really bothered Christian, he said, until middle school. That's when he noticed and started caring.
"I was never really into sports, but I knew tons of other guys were, so I'd look up sports stats just to be able to talk about it with them, when really I never saw any of it," said Christian. "I just wanted to be able to talk to them."
Repeated exposure to different problems, a lot of explanations from his mom about what somebody probably meant by what they said and a lot of patience over the years slowly built up coping mechanisms for Christian, but it hasn't been easy on him or his mom.
"Being a child is very difficult, and children can be cruel," she said. "You'd have to be so careful about how you said things to him because he would take it differently, and it would hit him differently...and it was just really difficult for a lot of years."
Finding his voice
For a shy guy, going to any kind of club can seem daunting, but when Christian first started going to the Boys and Girls Club of Detroit Lakes, he instantly felt some good vibes.
"It felt kind of like a big friend group with everybody," said Christian, who also found himself appreciating the staff. "They cared about what I had to say, and it made it so that I liked giving my point of view. At school I didn't feel like that was the case, so this made me express myself more."
Detroit Lakes Boys and Girls Club Director Pat Peterman says he remembers Christian when he first started coming as a really shy kid.
"He was very reserved, very quiet, didn't interact a whole lot, stayed to himself..." said Peterman, who says the staff went of their way to get try to get him involved in things, and eventually it worked.
Over the past few years Christian has went from being the guy that nobody notices in the room to the one who is helping to supervise it. Although he is technically still a club member, Christian is also an employee of the Boys and girls Club, working part time as a program assistant. As a staff member, he now finds himself drawn to those same quiet, withdrawn kids he once was and does everything he can to get them involved.
"I don't always know their past lives, but I just see them struggling...and I just like to help people - I don't like to see people in pain," said Christian, who doesn't claim to have a natural ability to put himself in people's shoes, but understands how to do it now. He still isn't loud and boisterous, but he appears to have found his voice. In fact, after he was chosen as this year's "Boys and Girls Club Member of the Year" in Detroit Lakes, Christian traveled to the Twin Cities, where he competed against other club members in the state who were also nominated.
"He had to not only write a speech, but he had to memorize it," said Peterman, who realized that Christian, although he has come a long way, still isn't a limelight kind of a guy. "I know he was nervous about the competition and the speech," said Peterman, "but he did great. He did better than I probably would have."
Christian didn't win the overall state competition, but for him, he won a little more confidence knowing that he can go to a place that is completely outside of his comfort zone and still do well. Confidence is something he knows he still has to work on.
"I could be 90 percent sure about something, and I will still say, 'I don't know' just because I hate being told I'm wrong," said Christian, who also knows that in a room full of people, he'd probably still be considered the quiet guy, but he's a quiet guy with goals. Through his Club Member of the Year competition, Christian won $1,000 for college and hopes to one day be a genetic engineer so that he can help fix people's genetic disorders before they're even born.
"I just think that's cool," he smiled.
But for right now, it's one foot in front of the other, and a continuation of learning the very fine, fine art of social skills that he now faces as a teenager. For Christian Fletcher, Asperger's may always keep him a little on the shy side, but it certainly appears it won't keep him down.
"I just want people to know that if you have this (Asperger's Syndrome), you can still come to great things," he said before smiling at a followup question of whether or not he believes he will come to great things. "Well," he said, "I already am, aren't I?"