Despite being bullied and knowing he has Asperger's syndrome, Thomas Lichtenberg is an optimist.
"I have so much optimism, I have even bcome an optimist about Asperger's," the 5th grader told a group of 4th graders Friday.
Thomas openly talks about his condition, which is an autism spectrum disorder, and he has even helped his classmates understand it.
"He's amazed me this year," his teacher Nancie Jahshan said. "The joy he's brought to our classroom has been amazing. He has a voice that needs to be heard."
Jahshan felt so strongly about Thomas' message that she made arrangements for him to speak to four classes at Gill. He met the first two on Friday and will speak to a second group on May 17.
Having just taken 3rd place in the , he was well prepared to talk about how optimism helps him cope with the challenges he faces.
"Asperger's is one of my biggest obstacles," Thomas told an attentive group of students from Brian Davis' and Ronnell Johnson's classes. "One of my challenges is I don't have many friends."
Thomas likened his trying to relate with other kids to going back in time, to the days of the Civil War, and talking to them about modern concepts. "I just don't get them," he said.
Hardest challenge is bullying
People with Asperger's syndrome often focus on one subject and learn everything they can about it, Thomas explained. His remarkable memory, in addition to helping him ace quizzes in school, retains minute details about the world of Star Wars and The Adventures of Tintin, a comic book series and 2011 feature film.
Since learning about his Asperger's, Thomas has worked to keep those details to himself, and to use other techniques that help him better relate to others. But others have not always treated him well.
"The hardest challenge I have with Asperger's is I get bullied a lot," he said. "I've dealt with this by learning to stand up for myself. I get help when I need it."
"My optimism doesn't let me give up," Thomas added. "I've even made friends with someone who used to bully me."
After his speech and a short Powerpoint presentation with factual information, including a list of famous people who have Asperger's, students peppered Thomas with questions. He told them that he was "just born with (Asperger's) There's no way to catch it."
He is still bullied and said "that's not gonna change, but it does get better."
"How does it feel to be different?" one student asked.
"I don't really know," Thomas replied. "Everyone's different in some way."