John Goettle has a lot of similarities with other 19-year-old boys.
He tinkers with technology and likes traveling. The Everett Community College student is intelligent and conversational, at times.
That wasn’t always the case.
Goettle’s life with Asperger’s syndrome proved challenging for several years. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, all he needed was a push to emerge from his cocoon.
At a young age, Goettle was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of mild autism. It’s difficult for Goettle to make eye contact, use hand gestures, understand humor, and connect with people as well as being more concentrated on himself.
During his earlier school years, he was less aware of his surroundings because of Asperger’s syndrome.
“Lower expectations were set for me,” Goettle said.
Through his elementary school years, he was enrolled entirely in special education classes.
In sixth grade, he met Paul Kukuk, who was supposed to be a role model more than a tutor. Kukuk wasn’t tasked to work on academics with Goettle because the special education teacher felt it would be too challenging.
“The special education teacher said ‘Just be his friend, don’t worry about academics’” Kukuk said. “It was almost like saying he wasn’t competent to learn anything.”
Middle school special education teacher Gerry Barat recognized Goettle was capable of more and tried to push him in seventh grade. That year, Kukuk focused mainly on academics. Goettle was reluctant because he was afraid of change.
Barat worked with Kukuk to improve personal things with Goettle as well as challenge him academically. At first, Goettle didn’t want to talk about his condition. As time went on he became more open to discussing it.
In his freshman year of high school, Goettle was put into regular classes. But he remained hesitant. During Goettle’s sophomore year, he returned to special education classes. Though he said he was ready for regular classes, the school kept him in special education. It prompted Goettle to transfer to the Insight School of Washington, an online program.
There were requirements before he could enroll in courses with Insight. Goettle had to catch up in English and math. He learned to read by reading online materials, which also helped him learn to write. To catch up to the ninth-grade math level, he received help from retired math teacher Ann Gallagher. He was largely self-taught in reading, writing and computers.
“Hard work pays off,” Goettle said.
Through Insight, he was only given the option of taking regular classes.
Goettle enrolled in algebra 1 and 2, geometry, English 3 and 4, U.S. history, chemistry, biology, and C++ programming. His favorite class was C++ programming, which involved programming computers.
Online school still posed difficulties. With Asperger’s syndrome, the social aspect was challenging for him. Insight allowed him to focus on the academic aspect, while he continued to work on his social skills.
He was able to work on his Asperger’s syndrome through counseling as well as help from supportive adults who pushed him in school and everyday life.
“I don’t think people should give up on people that are on the autism spectrum,”Goettle said. “If people work with them diligently, they will get a personal drive which will enable them to succeed.”
People with autism are often underestimated because of their social differences, he said. They never unlock their true potential.
Goettle continued to study at Insight for three years.
On graduation day, Kukuk was there to support and congratulate Goettle. The graduation took place at Bellevue Community College. The class walked into the room wearing their caps and gowns. Kukuk noticed that Goettle was wearing a gold cord around his neck. He looked into the program and read it symbolized honors, graduating with a grade-point average of 3.3 or higher.
“And I thought, ‘This is that kid that the teachers thought couldn’t learn anything,’” Kukuk said.
The ceremony continued. At the end, the principal announced that every year the teachers and he select and surprise a student of the year from the graduating class. As the principal began to speak about the student, Kukuk thought it sounded a lot like Goettle. He wasn’t sure, because of the 425 students there had to be others with challenges. As the principal announced that the selected student was John Goettle, Kukuk admitted tears rolled down his cheeks.
Goettle is attending Everett Community College and hopes to transfer to the University of Washington and pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
The transformation Goettle made shows his perseverance as well as guidance from others. Kukuk is amazed and proud of the progress Goettle has made since the sixth grade.
“You know what caterpillars turn into?” Kukuk asked. “Butterflies.”