Unusual invite gives boy with Asperger's a chance to belong
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GARY, Ind. — He is about half the age of other students in the room. Yet 13-year-old Noah Egler is completely in his element, wearing powder blue medical scrubs and answering questions with an enthusiasm that draws smiles from those around him.
They are amused by his presence, but also inspired. Young Noah, meanwhile, is content, though a little nervous to be taking part in a workshop usually reserved for medical students, not for precocious eighth-graders.
He is here because he was invited, because the director of the summer program at the Indiana University Northwest medical school saw something in this young man — perhaps a bit of the boy he himself once was, a kid who also liked reading and studying more than sports.
"I'm technically a nerd, and I hang out with other people who are technically nerds," Noah will tell you. He says it in a matter-of-fact, Dr. Spock kind of way.
The invitation came at a good time. "He was losing his optimistic outlook," says his mother, Cindy Egler, who worries that school has become too little a challenge for her son.
Also, some of his peers have been increasingly giving him a hard time. They aren't always sure what to make of this quirky but good-natured boy who was diagnosed when young with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that Noah talks about freely.
There've been signs of it since he was a baby, when his father would put him in a backpack carrier and mow the lawn, just to get him to take a nap. The noise, they say, drowned out the distractions for a mind that, even then, was curious and difficult to settle.
By now, he says Asperger's simply makes him him. But he's also had a hard time fitting in.
His parents hoped this chance to go to college, even for just a few days, might give their only child a glimpse of a world where that could happen.
At the Eglers' home in Bourbonnais, there is no cable television, by choice. There are, however, plenty of books, full of experiments for "mad scientists" or the principles of electronics or detailed explanations of dinosaurs or the human body. Upstairs in his bedroom, Noah has a poster of the periodic table of elements on one wall, along with ribbons from science fairs and Boy Scout merit badges. The book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" rests on his night stand.
As he gives a tour of the house, Noah often pauses to search for words, as if he can't quite keep up with all the thoughts racing through his head. Staying focused, he says, remains a constant challenge.
He runs off to his room to find something, then returns.
"Two signs that you have Asperger's. You can't find your planner and when you do, it has Boolean logic written on it," he says, laughing, and then sits down at the kitchen table to show drawings that depict the mathematical system used in such fields as computer science and electronics.
In the corner of the same page on that planner, he has scrawled a recipe for crepes, which he's been learning to make with the help of some old Julia Child videos. It's part of his parents' plan to encourage their son to round out his interests. He has a black belt in karate. He went to Boy Scout camp this summer and "spent a lot of time kayaking," he says, sighing as if it were a bit of an inconvenience.
Always, his attention comes back to science and electronics. His basement "play room" is filled with electronic devices he's made and a computer he's taken apart to examine. This fascination with how things work began early on.
As a toddler, his mom remembers observing Noah repeatedly dipping his fingers into his bath water, then studying them.
"What is he doing?" she asked his dad, Mark, a chemical engineer.
"He's looking at the refractions," he replied.
It was this kind of curiosity that caught the attention of Ernest Talarico, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at Indiana University Northwest medical school in Gary.
He and Noah met this winter at a memorial service for a mutual family member. Talarico noticed Noah quietly tinkering with an electronic device he'd brought with him to the service. It was an alarm he'd invented to detect flooding in his grandparents' basement.
"I was fascinated," Talarico says. "I couldn't build something like that now, let alone at his age."
He asked Noah how the device worked and how he'd built it. Further conversation revealed that Noah also had an interest in electronic prosthetics, "bionic" arms and legs and the like, a topic covered in the very medical school seminar Talarico oversees each summer.
He asked Noah's parents if they would let him attend this summer's prosthetics workshop, and they said yes.
"I was speechless," Noah says of that initial meeting. "I actually met somebody who was a scientist. It was really kind of amazing."
He took on the task of preparing for the first day of the seminar seriously, studying college level anatomy textbooks.
At one session, students were reviewing the inner workings of the upper limbs when Talarico asked them which nerve serves the biceps and other muscles.
"The musculocutaneous nerve!" Noah shouted before anyone had a chance to answer.
"He just blurted it out like an expert," Talarico said, smiling.
At another session, Noah had the chance to bond with his lab partner, a 23-year-old biomedical engineer from suburban Indianapolis named Jarod Markley.
Markley, who also grew up in a small town, told Noah how he often felt like an outsider in school.
"Other kids didn't really understand me. I would rather stay in and read a book," he said. Noah's eyes lit up.
At lunch, they talked about everything from molten blobs and other things that can be created with sulfuric acid to their love of doodling their ideas in notebooks. Noah described one drawing he'd done showing a special type of wire that thickens when electric current runs through it. One day, he told his new friend, he'd like to find a way to incorporate that type of wire into paralyzed limbs "like a pacemaker for the muscles."
"I want to help people," he said, "and it seems like the medical field is the best way to do that."
The conversation was easy, like peers chatting. The age difference was irrelevant.
Back in the workshop, they and the other students watched as amputees and therapists who fit them with prosthetics demonstrated the latest advancements in electronic, computerized devices that are making walking up and down stairs and on rougher terrain — even running — easier for many people who've lost some or most of a leg.
Noah mouthed the word, "Wow!" as he watched other students checking out those prosthetics and then got to do so himself.
Later that evening, his fellow students applauded as he received a special award for his participation, along with a robotic arm kit.
His parents watched with pride, and perhaps a bit of relief. Talarico nodded in approval.
"I'm not saying he's a Doogie Howser," the professor said, referring to the old TV show about a teen who becomes a doctor. "But it does say a lot for someone that age."
Here, Noah had found what they'd all wanted him to find — a place to focus and use his gifts.
Here, he belonged.
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