For Chance Mair, sometimes emotions are hard to express.

And it was certainly an emotional night in suburban Seattle at Marysville Arts and Technology High School’s graduation earlier this week, where the students filed into the auditorium in black gowns and royal-blue stoles.

Not only was Mair graduating with the 50 seniors in his class, he was the class valedictorian. And he would be giving the valedictorian address, a momentous occasion for a student who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at an early age.

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Mair had never told most of his classmates he has Asperger’s. Never told them he had started his schooling in a special education classroom, or that he received social therapy treatment when he was younger.

“It’s one of those things that for the longest time I didn’t want to tell people,” he said earlier in the day. “But now that I’m graduating, I don’t want to hold it back. I want people to know me for who I really am.”

Growing up in Marysville, Wash. Mair spent his childhood learning how to overcome sensory struggles that come naturally to other children.

Having Asperger’s meant he didn’t talk much, and he had difficulties understanding the nuances in body language. He was overly sensitive to loud noises and strong flavors. His parents recount stories where he would struggle to tell his peers he wanted to play with them, standing quietly by their side.

“I can know that I need to say something and I can feel the confidence to say it when I’m playing it out,” he said. “But then when I get to that step where I actually have to do it, like the execution, that’s when I tense up and get really nervous, really scared.

“Sometimes it’s not even a shyness, sometimes it’s like a fear, a fear of socialness.”

His parents knew his success depended on finding a place where he could build his social skills — and have fun doing it, too.

One way he did that was through bowling. He became fascinated with the sport when he was about 5 years old, playing with different teams in bowling alleys around the Marysville area.

“Diversity is one of the reasons I like it. There’s no one kind of person, there’s no one way you can bowl,” he said. “There are so many possibilities, I guess.”

His parents saw bowling as an opportunity for him to work on his communication skills. They signed him up for as many leagues as possible.

“You put him in a bowling alley, it’s his environment, it’s his home,” said Mair’s father, Derek Mair. “Doesn’t matter what bowling alley. He loves it.”

At Marysville Arts and Technology, Mair was a member of the bowling team and traveled to the state tournament multiple times. His favorite ball is a 15-pound, solid blue Hy-Road.

“It’s the one I’ve been using the longest and the one I can always count on to get strikes. It’s never let me down,” he said.

Mair also excelled in mathematics. His mother, Christine, remembers he would write numbers to the thousands back in kindergarten.

“I can count better than I can talk sometimes,” he said.

Over time, Mair’s family carved a path that would challenge him, but was also comfortable. He moved from the special education class and therapy to regular elementary school classes. He took half his courses in a public middle school and the rest at Washington Virtual Academy online. Once in high school, he was so advanced in math he ended up taking courses at Everett Community College.

He and his family chose Marysville Arts and Tech because it was a small school where he could continue working on his social skills, as well as receive extra attention.

“At a smaller campus those teachers are getting to know you,” his mother said. “They’re learning about your learning style and you’re having them again year after year.”

And he thrived there, with a GPA high enough to earn the valedictorian’s medal.

In August, Mair will attend Washington State University for free through a Distinguished Regents scholarship. He chose WSU over Central Washington University, where he was also accepted. A member of the honors college, he plans to major in mathematics and join the intramural bowling league.

“I’m really happy that I’ve achieved so much and that I’ve gotten to this point in life, but I’m also really sad that all the time has gone by and now I have to say goodbye to all my friends,” he said.

That was what he prepared to say in his speech to his classmates, and some of his former teachers, whom he had kept in touch with over the years and had invited to the ceremony.

Mair made the text large enough so he wouldn’t stumble over the words, bolding certain words for emphasis.

But soon after the ceremony began, after the seniors sat down and the national anthem was sung, the power at the school gymnasium went out.

That meant no microphones and no lights.

But that didn’t faze Mair — it was just another opportunity to fulfill his potential.

When he told them about his Asperger’s, some in the audience audibly expressed surprise.

His struggles, he said, are similar to the struggles everyone faces in their lives. To him, everyone has something they need to overcome, and it’s just a matter of how to learn, persevere and move forward.

“Wherever our individual paths take us, there will be challenges,” Mair told the graduates. “There will be people and circumstances that say, ‘No we can’t.’ It’s up to us to decide whether or not we listen to them.

“We choose whether we sink or swim, stand up or lay down, fight or fall, succeed or fail.”

After he finished, the audience cheered. Carol Sherard, who taught him back when he was a special education student in elementary school, said she was exceptionally proud of him.

“I feel he is representing a whole population of kids that often don’t get represented in the best light,” she said.

© 2015 The Seattle Times
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