‘Everyone has a little bit of autism in them…’

Aspiring firefighter with Asperger’s tells his story to Shawano
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

SHAWANO — Dakota Maynard said he’s like Donald Trump or Sarah Palin — you either love him or hate him, with nothing in between.

It’s not because of his politics, though.

Maynard has Asperger’s, a form of autism, and he talked about his accomplishments and challenges on Wednesday in a presentation to an overflowing crowd at Shawano Community High School. Maynard’s visit was a joint effort between the Aging and Disability Resource Center of the Wolf River Region and the Shawano School District.

“For the most part, I look like everyone else, but I’m a little bit different. I’m the blue fish in the middle of the orange fish here,” Maynard said during his slideshow that included an illustration of fish swimming around. “My brain is wired just a little bit differently. My gears turn just a little bit differently than most people’s gears turn.”

Maynard, now 25 years old and on the way to being a professional firefighter, was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 4. Today that has been lumped in and considered part of the autism spectrum, he said, which ranges from classic autism to high functioning. He said he’s on the high-functioning end, where he’s able to go to school, drive a vehicle and “do the things that a typical person can do.”

Where Maynard differs from most can be in subtle things, include taking things too literally. He had a dog named Butterscotch, and when the family went to a restaurant that touted a butterscotch pie, his mind took it to mean the business was getting ready to serve up his dog for dessert.

“Who wants to handle a kid who is bothered and yelling and screaming because he thinks they’re going to eat his dog?” Maynard said. “They don’t understand it. They don’t know what’s going on.”

While most children considered themselves children, Maynard seemed more mature for his age and never considered himself as a child.

“I’ve always considered myself to be a little adult, to be older than I actually was,” Maynard said. “I could go through the dictionary and cite different words in the dictionary. The other kids and I were not the same.”

Certain sensory issues bothered Maynard. Even to this day, he has difficulty getting a haircut, because to him, it feels like every strand of hair on his head.

“It’s actually quite painful to me,” Maynard said.

He also had issues growing up with foods touching each other on a plate, taking showers because of the water surrounding and “suffocating” him, he said, and hugs and kisses that were not on his terms.

“I was very rigid. I had what my dad referred to as a ‘rock brain,’” Maynard said. “He also referred to it as ‘pebbles,’ where there’s a pebble in where the gears are turning and the gears are getting stuck on the same thing, over and over. It could last a moment. It could last two minutes. It could last a day and a half.”

Maynard’s parents, prior to the diagnosis, knew very little about autism, and the only example they knew of was “Rain Man,” a film where Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic man. When friends suggested Maynard be tested for autism, his parents hesitated, as their son’s behavior was the not the same as in “Rain Man.”

Maynard said there are indications of autistic behavior. He said his 84-year-old grandmother has some indications, as well as his mother — even though “she doesn’t think she has it.”

“Everyone has a little bit of autism in them, whether they want to admit it or not,” Maynard said.

Maynard has an obsession with firefighters and fire trucks that goes all the way back to a very young age, as his father was an assistant fire chief for 25 years. He loved wearing the gear, and toy rideable fire trucks allowed him to explore the world safely.

“That was just what I enjoyed,” Maynard said. “That was what I loved to do. I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t talk about anything else.”

Whenever Maynard’s family traveled, his parents would always have to stop at a fire station to get that department’s patch, and sometimes that could be a chore when there were multiple fire stations in the community and only one had extra patches to hand out. Maynard received a surprise Wednesday when he was given patches from the police and fire agencies from Shawano and Shawano County.

His interest continues today, as Maynard is currently going to Fox Valley Technical College and training to be a firefighter and paramedic.

Maynard urged the teachers in the audience to try and use autistic students’ interests as a way to improve their academics. He said he’s horrible at math and that his handwriting is “atrocious,” but if the teachers had encouraged him to write about firefighters or given him math problems that involved the operation of a fire truck, he felt he would be better.

“Use it to your advantage. Use it as leverage,” Maynard said.