Overcoming obstacles

Maria Nann

One man’s story of his journey through life and the hardship he wouldn’t succumb to

Nick Subak was diagnosed with Aspberger’s Syndrome, the mildest form of autism, as a sophomore in high school. At 26, he is now working on a master’s degree at Kent State. Brittany Ankrom | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Listen: Nick talks about his younger years, before he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Listen: Nick explains how he felt when he was diagnosed with the mildest form of autism at age 16.

Listen: Nick talks about his life now, and how he has worked to overcome his disorder and have as normal a life as possible.

Nick Subak stood in the middle of Tops Market, shocked when the realization hit him.

“So, that’s it,” he said. “It will never be easy for me.”

No one standing around him had any consolation to offer the 17-year-old. He looked into the eyes of his friend and fellow co-worker, searching for answers. But the big, brown eyes that met his gaze offered no help, no reassurance. And Nick felt the weight of his realization come crashing down on him.

What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means it manifests itself in different ways for different people. People diagnosed with it may have a broad range of symptoms, from something as mild as social awkwardness to something as severe as an inability to communicate.

Those with autism can experience difficulty with any aspect of everyday life. They can have problems with textures, whether with foods, making eating difficult, or with fabrics, making dressing difficult. They can have issues with falling or staying asleep. They can have issues with sounds, and something as simple as a knock on the door or a telephone ringing can throw them into hysterics and throw off their whole day.

Because no one knows what causes autism, there is no cure. Doctors can treat the symptoms. Someone who has difficulty sleeping can take pills to help them fall or stay asleep. Someone who doesn’t like textures can go to therapy to help him or her learn to eat certain foods.

“You’ll just have to work really hard,” he faintly heard Steve’s voice say. But Nick couldn’t bring himself to look at his friend’s face. Instead, he glanced around the walls of the grocery store he knew so well. The packed shelves, as always, lined the store with what seemed like miles of cereal boxes, canned goods, fruits, vegetables, toiletries, appliances, candies and meats. Everywhere he turned, he saw a red cotton polo identical to the one he donned, passing by, white name tags creating individuals out of a sea of Tops uniforms.

And at that moment, Nick felt his face get hot. He felt suddenly separated from the group. He knew his life was going to be different from theirs, harder, more challenging . handicapped.

A year earlier, as a sophomore in high school, Nick had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He and his family had always known he was different from other kids his age, but they could never say what exactly it was. When Nick was a boy, his family would take trips to the beach, and his parents would sit and wonder as they watched their son give lectures to seagulls. In school, he always had a hard time making friends and often found that he couldn’t relate to other kids – or that they couldn’t relate to him. But his family had never been able to pinpoint what exactly it was that was different about Nick. He was just, well, different.

So, how does Asperger’s fit in?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there are five developmental disorders that make up the autism spectrum disorders – Autism Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Asperger’s is the mildest form of autism.

People with Asperger’s oftentimes have difficulty in communicating with and relating to others. They have a hard time forming and maintaining relationships.

Those with Asperger’s often overcome more obstacles than those with more severe forms of autism, which is why someone with Nick Subak’s form of autism would be able to achieve the high levels of success he has, where someone with a more severe form of autism might never be able to finish grade school, let alone high school or college.

But now he had a name for it – Asperger’s. But that wasn’t the word echoing in Nick’s head as he stood at work, idly bagging groceries. Handicappism, he kept hearing. Handicappism. Handicappism.

Nick passed the rest of the day in a somewhat nervous daze, and hurried home after his shift, eager to talk to his parents about his epiphany. It was the first of countless conversations about his fears of never being taken seriously, of always being treated as less than everyone else. From something as simple as creating conversation or meeting someone new, to something as important as finding a stable job, Nick feared his handicap would stand in the way.

“You can do anything you set your mind to; you know that,” his mother told him.

Nick sat there, skeptical of his mother’s response to his fears. He knew she really believed what she said, but he wasn’t so sure.

That night as Nick lay in bed, he kept going over the last several months. He was finishing high school, working, thinking about college. Even after his diagnosis, there wasn’t any question in his family about what he would do after high school. It was just assumed that Nick, along with his three younger siblings, would attend a university and get a degree. But Nick hadn’t really given any thought to what it was he wanted to do.

Days passed and Nick continued to feel restless. Then one day, his mother came home from work with what she assumed to be a great idea.

“Temple Grandin is coming to Cleveland!” Leah announced proudly to her son. Temple Grandin, a famous speaker and author, was diagnosed with autism at a young age and has worked her whole life to moderate and control her disorder.

Leah was an interpreter for the hearing impaired, and she had always believed that deaf people speak best to and for the deaf. So when she heard someone with autism was coming to Cleveland to speak about autism, Leah was thrilled at the idea of taking Nick to see her talk about his disorder and others like it.

But her son’s enthusiasm did not match her own. He agreed to go, but seemed only mildly interested. Seeing this, Leah tried to get him pumped up when the day finally came. She helped him get ready and pick out an outfit – a blue button-up shirt and matching tie – and drove the two of them from their Cuyahoga Falls home to the Marriott hotel in Cleveland.

After speaking, Grandin held a book signing. Leah thought it would be the perfect way for Nick to be able to meet and speak with someone who understood what he was going through. She picked up a book, and the mother and son got in line. When it was finally their turn, Leah introduced herself and her son.

“Why, you’re a nice looking young man,” Grandin told Nick, admiring his choice of outfit.

As Nick and Grandin began talking, Leah took in the woman’s appearance. She looked as though she had stepped out of a Wild West movie. Her red, plaid shirt was tucked into her jeans, which were held up by a big belt with an enormous buckle. Her unkempt hair fell to her shoulders, and around her neck hung a thin bolo tie that ran down the front of her shirt.

“Do you have meltdowns?” Leah heard Grandin asking her son. “Well, don’t go putting your fist through any walls. Just toe the line, and you’ll be fine.”

What an odd thing to say, thought Leah, who was vaguely aware that the two were talking about anger issues related to Nick’s syndrome.

When Leah asked the two to pose for a picture, they both froze uncomfortably, as they often did when put on the spot, staring at her camera rigid as sticks.

Leah laughed.

“Come on!” she said. “Smile!”

(Years from now, Leah would look back and still think what a funny picture the two made – Grandin in her Western get-up, standing next to Nick in his blue button-up and tie, both looking extremely uncomfortable.)

For the rest of the day, Nick thought about what Grandin had told him. Since he and his family were insistent on college, Grandin had suggested the computer-networking program at the University of Akron. Not much contact with people, he kept hearing her voice say. He supposed he could be OK with that, if it was what would be best. And after several conversations with his parents, they agreed that was the way to go.

Upon entering Akron, 18-year-old Nick quickly became involved with the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation through the university. His parents knew the group would not only help Nick on his career path, but that it would probably pay for his schooling. Nick met with counselors and members of BVR, and in December 2001, he began working toward his degree in computer networking at Akron.

For two years, Nick worked with computers. He had set his mind to finishing his associate’s degree. But toward the end of his two years at Akron, he began thinking that computer networking might not be his niche. When a professor suggested Nick take an advanced test after he finished the program, Nick responded with indifference. He realized he didn’t care to take the test – he didn’t really care for his program at all, in fact. He was determined to finish what he had begun, but began making plans to attend Kent State, where his mother was working, to find what it was he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

During his time at Akron, Nick had become extremely conscious of his health, drinking protein shakes and lifting weights at the gym, and he was building muscle faster than he’d ever done anything before in his life. And the bigger the role nutrition played in his life, the more he thought about making it his life. So when he came to Kent State in January 2004, he began working toward a degree in nutrition.

It was one of many degrees he would never complete. As Nick’s interests and short-term goals changed, so did his perspective on life. After his nutrition kick, Nick looked to psychology. But he decided that wasn’t the road for him to follow, either.

Nick began speaking at conferences and events at Kent State. He spoke to audiences about his life, his setbacks and his disorder, and he found that speaking gave him a certain confidence.

“If you could talk to people with Asperger’s and autism, or talk for them, imagine what a great thing that would be,” his mother told him.

Nick continued to speak to groups about his life and his disorder and thought about taking his mother’s advice. He enjoyed pushing himself to work on being socially adept and found the personal connection he had with the people he was speaking with was what he had been missing during his studies at Akron. And so, deciding that he needed that interaction with people, Nick began a degree in communications.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, Nick pursued an area he would be able to contribute to more personally – the Intervention Specialist certification in education. As he began his master’s program, Nick finally felt his life begin to fall into place. He was hired to work full time for Cuyahoga Falls City Schools, mentoring an autistic eighth grader and was working a part-time job on the weekends at Giant Eagle. He is now taking classes and working toward his master’s and, eventually, his doctorate. He even lets himself dream about one day becoming a university president.

And to him, handicappism has become simply a roadblock he’s learning to overcome.

Contact enterprise reporter Maria Nann at [email protected].

(Editor’s note: This story is based off extensive interviews with Nick and his mother.)