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updated: 7/16/2014 6:24 PM

Conquering Asperger's just the start for Antioch teen

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  • Video: Standout Maxwell McKeough

  • Max McKeough has blossomed from a little boy who pulled his eye lashes in frustration and couldn't handle loud noises into an accomplished teenager with a promising future. After graduating high school this May -- at just 16 years old -- he plans to study neuroscience beginning next month at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

       Max McKeough has blossomed from a little boy who pulled his eye lashes in frustration and couldn't handle loud noises into an accomplished teenager with a promising future. After graduating high school this May -- at just 16 years old -- he plans to study neuroscience beginning next month at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Max McKeough reads at his home in Antioch. Max has not let his Asperger's syndrome stop him from being a great student and fearlessly speaking to others about his experiences. He is only 16, but just graduated from Antioch Community High School and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago, where he wants to study neuroscience.

       Max McKeough reads at his home in Antioch. Max has not let his Asperger's syndrome stop him from being a great student and fearlessly speaking to others about his experiences. He is only 16, but just graduated from Antioch Community High School and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago, where he wants to study neuroscience.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • One of Max McKeough's pastimes is gardening at his home in Antioch. Max, 16, just graduated from Antioch Community High School, where he gave the commencement speech, and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago.

       One of Max McKeough's pastimes is gardening at his home in Antioch. Max, 16, just graduated from Antioch Community High School, where he gave the commencement speech, and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Sixteen-year-old Max McKeough, who has Asperger's syndrome, works on his vegetable garden a his home in Antioch. He just graduated from Antioch Community High School and gives talks about Asperger's to groups of parents and educators.

       Sixteen-year-old Max McKeough, who has Asperger's syndrome, works on his vegetable garden a his home in Antioch. He just graduated from Antioch Community High School and gives talks about Asperger's to groups of parents and educators.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Max McKeough, a student at Antioch Community High School, has not let his Asperger's syndrome stop him from being a great student and fearlessly speaking to others about his experiences. He is only 16 but just graduated from Antioch Community High School and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago, where he wants to study neuroscience.

       Max McKeough, a student at Antioch Community High School, has not let his Asperger's syndrome stop him from being a great student and fearlessly speaking to others about his experiences. He is only 16 but just graduated from Antioch Community High School and will be attending University of Illinois at Chicago, where he wants to study neuroscience.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Max McKeough graduated from Antioch Community High School this year at age 16.

      Max McKeough graduated from Antioch Community High School this year at age 16.
    Courtesy of Max McKeough

  • Max McKeough holds his diploma after graduating this year from Antioch Community High School.

      Max McKeough holds his diploma after graduating this year from Antioch Community High School.
    Courtesy of Max McKeough

 
 

When Maxwell "Max" McKeough was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 5, his parents were told he'd never be able to hold a job or truly function independently.

But over time -- thanks to his and his family's determination, and the help of countless professionals -- Max has blossomed from a little boy who pulled his eye lashes in frustration and couldn't handle loud noises into an accomplished teen with a promising future.

The 16-year-old from Antioch delivered the commencement speech in May at his Antioch Community High School graduation, and will start his freshman year next month at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he wants to study neuroscience.

His goal is to become a doctor and work in the areas of multiple sclerosis and injuries to the brain.

"I have worked with a lot of psychologists in my life, so I would like to work with the brain," he said. "It interests me, and I feel like it would help people in a similar way to how I was helped in my life."

Max has given talks about his Asperger's to parents and educators through his great-aunt Kate McGinnity's company, Educational Consulting, which focuses on how technology helps people on the autism spectrum.

He likes to tell the story of how his family helped him overcome his fear of skiing by videotaping themselves on the slopes.

"The videos really serve to establish the parameters of a situation I'm uncomfortable with," he explained. "A really big issue associated with (Asperger's) is that an unfamiliar, frightening situation is not particularly well-handled."

Max is an engaging speaker, said Andrea Daniels, student services coordinator for the Oconomowoc Area School District in Wisconsin, where he gave his latest presentation in June. She was particularly struck by his candid description of his thought processing.

"He said, 'Don't limit me, and please don't think that because I'm not responsive or because I need things repeated, that is any reflection on my intelligence or ability to hear what you're saying,'" she said.

His essay about conquering his fear of public speaking earned him a "Be Fearless" scholar award this past winter from the National Society of High School Scholars. Max was among 10 young people, out of 384 applicants from the United States and abroad, to receive the $500 scholarship.

Max's road to success took years of slow, sometimes frustrating, progress aided by professional therapy.

His father, John, works for a packaging company; his mother, Amy, earned a Master's degree in special education after her son's diagnosis. He has an older sister, Samantha, 21.

"The caregivers we were involved with were pretty dire with the diagnosis," John McKeough said.

"They said that he'd never be able to handle mainstream school, that he'd never be able to handle contact sports, that he would struggle to the point where he wouldn't hold down a job."

His parents sought all the help they could.

Max got occupational therapy through grade school to address poor motor coordination, and worked with psychiatrists from the fourth grade through his freshman year in high school.

"We worked on trying to let go obsessive thoughts, and we worked on trying to let go of the sensory overload and the resultant meltdowns," Max said.

He took medication through freshman year, but now only takes melatonin supplements if he has trouble sleeping.

"I don't stop thinking at night, so trying to relax enough to fall asleep is very difficult," he said.

He's learned a number of stress management techniques, from squeezing stress balls to chewing special mint-flavored plastic tubes. When he was little, he also had a weighted blanket, which helped him relax.

Speaking candidly about his Asperger's is no longer awkward, Max says.

"To take a look at yourself from an objective perspective, it really is an opportunity to analyze how I act and behave in my life," he said.

Making friends was difficult until the fourth grade, when he finally bonded with kids that liked video games as much as he did.

"I have a tendency to have a single track to my thoughts, I can sit there and talk for five hours about 'Doctor Who,'" he said. "It's easier to make friends when you have a lot of similar levels of obsession."

These days, you'd never know Max once struggled finding friends, said Trey Hickey, choir director at Antioch Community High.

"He basically deals with his peers like normal social teenagers. You wouldn't know that he has any learning disability," he said.

One thing that defines Max is his perfectionism, Hickey said.

"He's always on time, always prepared," he said. "If he by chance he does something wrong, he asks how he can fix it, and does his best to fix it immediately."

His father equated Max's brain to a file system that works in its own way.

"In some ways he's got an enormous advantage over the rest of us, when he's interested in something he'll have an encyclopedic knowledge," he said.

"He's got a steel trap memory, so he can remember a lot of details from his younger years that people are always interested in," great-aunt McGinnity agreed.

Crucial to Max's success is that his family not only likes him, but "gets" him, she said.

"They don't love him in spite of his Asperger's, I think they recognize that his Asperger's is integral to who he is. They love all of him, including -- and maybe more -- the parts that are sort of Aspie (Asperger's)."

Maintaining daily routines is a key to his success, Max said. One of his favorite routines is gardening. Max has planted everything from pumpkins and watermelon to rosemary, always after doing meticulous research, and now dreams of going hydroponic some day.

As for his upcoming college experience, yes, there is some nervousness, but Max has a great track record, his father said.

"His ability to develop a workaround is fantastic. His improvement doesn't necessarily mean his mental way of handling sensory input has changed; he's just figured out how to make it work in society."

Paying it forward is very important to him, Max said.

"To say that I would be where I am today without all of those professionals, I don't think it would have happened," he said. "I think that I came very, very far with them, and I would like to say I could make a difference in someone else's life on that level, because I was basically saved by these people."

• Elena Ferrarin is always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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