COLUMBIA — His fingers nervously tap out a rhythm on the plastic table. He anxiously twists the silver cross-engraved ring on his right hand. But Michael Wang's wide grin, punctuated by a dimple on the right side, tells another story.
"I'm smiling at the thought of being crowned," he said.
For Wang, being elected Courtwarming King this year by classmates at Rock Bridge High School was a public victory over lifelong challenges he faces because of autism.
"Being crowned Courtwarming King shows people with autism can have special gifts," Wang said. "People with autism can change things."
Wang, 18, a Rock Bridge senior, has struggled with pervasive anxiety and other autism-related characteristics since he was a toddler. But through hard work and the support of family, friends, teachers and his faith, Wang has learned to cope with the things that used to hold him back. As a junior, he was chosen for Rock Bridge's Bruin of My Life Award, which honors the year's most influential student.
“Autism is basically a disability that many people have,” he said. “Along with a disability comes a variety of gifts. For me, my gifts are socializing and dancing, and making people feel good about themselves."
Changing behavior not a 'snap'
When Wang was 15 months old, his mother, Meg Wang, began noticing his behavior didn't match that of other children his age. Her son lined up toys instead of playing with them and barely looked at his mother when she came home from work.
"He started staring at the ceiling fans, staring at anything that would spin," she said. "And he was very, very, very hyper."
Wang was so hyper that at age 3, he ran through a patio door without noticing the glass and had to have stitches on his forehead, Meg Wang said.
When he was in elementary and middle schools, socializing was difficult. He was often a loner on the playground — but it wasn’t because he didn’t want friends. Like many children with autism, Wang didn’t know how to interact with his peers, said his mother, a pediatrician at MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Green Meadows Pediatrics Clinic.
Through Applied Behavior Analysis, a relatively new, high-intensity autism therapy, Wang was able to improve his social skills. Wang was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and began the 20-hour-per-week therapy when he was 2½. At that age, he could speak only 20 words, Meg Wang said.
"I was militant about his ABA," she said. "All the data says there is a small window of time for these kids for the most improvement, from about 2 years to 6 years" of age.
ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to teach communication, social and academic skills through one-on-one work with a therapist. Meg Wang said that in her son's case, ABA was extremely effective. After five months of the therapy, he had added 100 words to his vocabulary and began to bond with others. Wang continued ABA for about four more years and underwent speech therapy from age 2 through fifth grade.
Wang's mom reinforced at home what he learned through ABA. She said it took practice for him to feel comfortable with other kids at school. Starting when Wang was in preschool, Meg Wang invited his friends over for structured play dates, practiced telephone conversations with him and read him "social stories" to teach him strategies for peer interaction.
“I would say ninth grade is when he got more comfortable,” she said. “It wasn’t like a snap where he was suddenly very social.”
'They called me "King Michael"'
During a school-wide week of celebration in February leading up to Rock Bridge’s Courtwarming, the basketball season’s version of Homecoming, the senior class nominated nine male Courtwarming King candidates. The Rock Bridge student body voted on the candidates, and the crowning was held Feb. 10 during a varsity basketball game.
The gymnasium was packed with students and community members, including Wang's mother and John Mark Cooley, the Rock Bridge teacher with whom Wang works most closely.
“Everyone just stood up for me and clapped and cheered,” Wang said. “It showed how much they care about me. They called me 'King Michael.' "
He was surprised when he heard his name called. “It was just a big dream to me. I felt very popular, and I was honored that a lot of the students at Rock Bridge had voted for me."
One of the great things about being a candidate was hanging out with the other guys, Wang said.
“Any one of us would have deserved it,” he said. “We’re basically a community, and we always support each other. I’m glad I got to experience awesome friendships with them.”
Wang attended the Courtwarming Dance on Feb. 12 with Ellissa Starr, whom he met in his Children’s Theater class at Rock Bridge. Wang wore a black suit and Starr a one-sleeved, black beaded cocktail dress. The best song played that night was techno favorite “Sandstorm,” he said. He fist-pumped with the rest of the students.
“I have very good dance moves,” he said.
Just one of the b-boys
Wang showcased those moves at Rock Bridge’s annual CAPERS talent show April 21 with RBX3, Rock Bridge's breakdance club, which he joined with his brother, sophomore David Wang, this school year. Michael Wang, the middle child of three, also has an older sister, Jennie, a soon-to-be graduate student at the University of Houston.
Before joining the club, Wang had no breakdancing experience.
“It’s something I picked up once I started going more often,” Wang said. “I made a lot of friends there.”
“It’s kind of like a pose to end your b-boy dancing,” he said.
Woodcrest: a safe place
Wang’s favorite people to spend time with belong to the Woodcrest youth group. Wang, who describes himself as "very religious," spends a lot of his free time with youth ministries at Woodcrest, a non-denominational Christian church near his home in west Columbia.
The youth group attends Sunday services together and staffs Woodcrest's children’s day camp when Columbia's public schools are out for teacher meetings or breaks. The group also helps out with the junior high and middle school service on Saturdays.
“I’m surrounded by people who want to follow the Lord and make good decisions,” he said. “They’re really nice to me, and I just feel safe. It’s an environment where I can feel safe knowing that people want to do the right thing and have a relationship with God.”
Rock Bridge junior Landon Fitzpatrick, who has known Wang since sixth grade, said bad moods are no match for Wang's personality.
"He says 'hi' to me literally every day," Fitzpatrick said. "No matter how bad a mood I'm in, it always makes me feel better."
But the guys who are now his friends didn't always know Wang as friendly and outgoing, said Diego Huaman, a youth group friend and junior at Rock Bridge. In sixth grade, he said, Wang was shy and didn't talk much with other kids.
"He totally developed," Huaman said. "He wasn't so outgoing, and now he's the most outgoing guy."
Rock Bridge junior Curran Van Waarde, who knows Wang through youth group as well as RBX3, said Wang's friendliness and sense of humor have made him widely known at school.
"He probably knows three-fourths of the Rock Bridge population — and all of the girl population," Van Waarde said.
Weathering the unexpected
Wang is also part of Rock Bridge's yearbook staff, which has been his favorite, but most challenging, class this year. He acknowledged academics are a struggle.
“I can do it — I’m smart, but it can be frustrating, and it can be time-consuming,” he said.
Wang said class readings and math problems are a challenge because it's hard for him to concentrate, and it takes a while to get through an entire assignment. There's also a constant worry that he's missing an assignment or that he'll have to turn something in late.
This anxiety extends to other areas: Wang stresses when his mother asks him for help because it throws off his routine.
"Time is definitely something I worry about," he said.
Creating routines and ardently sticking to them is a typical autistic trait, Meg Wang said. Wang said he's constantly conscious of the time because he worries he'll miss chances to hang out with friends. He has found ways to cope with anxiety.
"Sometimes I'll stretch or listen to gentle music," he said.
Wang also relies on his faith to get him through. "I pray to God about it and try to realize that God works out everything for good — because I love him," he said.
Since he was a sophomore, Wang has been working closely with Cooley, a learning specialist at Rock Bridge, for about half of each school day. Under Cooley's instruction, Wang studies the same core subjects as other Rock Bridge students, but the content is presented differently. Cooley has seen Wang take charge of his academics.
“Over the years, I have watched Michael deal with the struggles, and he’s always persevered,” Cooley said. “Every morning, he starts over again, dealing with the anxiety and frustration and misunderstandings, and he’s persevered with a good, positive attitude.”
In addition to the Bruin of My Life Award, Wang has received the Bruin Pride Award — reserved for students with excellent attendance, work habits, citizenship and character — twice since freshman year. This year, he was Cooley's pick for the award.
One benefit of high school is the chance for Wang to build friendships with other students with autism.
“We kind of find the same things humorous,” he said. “We develop humor, and we look up funny stuff, like funny YouTube videos.”
Social networking sites such as Facebook gave him another way to interact, Meg Wang said. Besides playing video games and talking on the phone, one of Michael's favorite pastimes is posting encouraging messages on his 1,147 Facebook friends’ walls.
“Autism has overarching characteristics, such as social challenges, but every person with autism is unique,” she said. “In Michael's case, he has worked so hard to meet his social challenges that social skills have become his strength.”
'I am who I am'
Wang got more than a Courtwarming date out of his Children’s Theater class. Working with children in the class, as well as through an internship this year at Rock Bridge's preschool program and a teacher's aide job at Fairview Elementary School, has helped him decide what to do after high school: go to college to become a preschool teacher.
Wang wants to teach because he loves getting kids excited about learning. He's been won over by their enthusiasm.
“They always come in with smiles,” he said.
Wang plans to attend Moberly Area Community College after graduating May 21 and has applied for several scholarships.
"Autism doesn't define me," he wrote in one scholarship essay about overcoming adversity. "I have autism, but I am not autistic. I am who I am."