Diagnosed with autism when he was only 2, doctors told his parents he would never walk, probably never talk and be in diapers his entire life. But Kilgore had a determination and support system rarely seen by doctors that turned the autistic infant into an inspiration to teachers, students and his entire community.
Since only 56 percent of students with autism finish high school, according to the Autism Society, it was equally surprising that Kilgore not only represented his Blue Springs Elementary School class in the Bradley County Spelling Bee in 2000, but graduated from high school with a regular diploma and was voted the person with the Most School Spirit by the Student Body at Bradley Central High School. He is currently on the honor roll for the Fall semester at Cleveland State and types 80 words a minute.
“The doctor said he would never speak, never be out of diapers, had zero chance of functioning and suggested we institutionalize him,” said Ernest Smith, Kilgore’s stepfather.
Diana Smith, Kilgore’s mother, said in an earlier interview the news was “devastating” and broke her heart. But the Cleveland couple rejected their doctor’s good intentions in that summer of 1990, and decided to see what they could do with their precious son on their own.
In truth, no one expected Diana and Ernest to see the kind of academic success their son would later achieve, but they believed in and worked with the youth day after day, week after week, for years. Kilgore not only lived up to their expectations, but exceeded many of them, prompting Tennessee state Rep. Kevin Brooks to call their son a “hometown hero.”
In 2000, Kilgore became one of only 35 students in the world to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to be recognized as an international “Yes I Can” award winner for handicapped students.
“It still feels pretty good to know that I got to fly to Vancouver for such a presentation,” Kilgore said. “Good teachers, great friends and a supportive family made the difference.”
The 7-foot, 366-pound Seneca/Cherokee, also known as “Long Eagle,” spoke of his special gratitude for Jenny Elkins, his teacher at Trewhitt Elementary School, who pushed him to read throughout his classes with her up through the seventh grade. He also credited Ernest for working with him daily.
“Both my parents worked in the mental health field, so I’ve been around mentally challenged people all of my life,” Ernest said. “I started into that line of work, but switched to engineering. James was raised in a family environment, in a regular educational environment and has had a lot of help.
“He was in diapers until he was about 5 years old. He did not say his first word until he was approximately 5 years old. But when he did start he didn’t slow down. He kept going. He was 10 years old before he could fasten his belt, but he was already proficient on a computer. He was 10 or 11 years old before he finally grasped how to tie his shoes. But by that time he had already been helping an instructor teach a computer class. He is one in a thousand. Some things he grasps and other things [are] difficult for him to comprehend. Complicated things he can grasp and run with, and something simple he still has problems understanding.”
According to the latest estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 88 children in the U.S. has autism and an estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. has autism, which causes developmental disabilities that can result in significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. These figures do not include Asperger’s and other spectrum disorders.
The Smiths never saw autism as the end of the world for their son, but the beginning of a world of opportunities for him as he accepted the challenge of his circumstances, and is now accomplishing what many people with half his challenges are achieving.
Not only is the straight A student majoring in journalism and mass communication at Cleveland State, but for the past five years he worked as both reporter and editor of the Cherokee Signal — the official newspaper of Cleveland State.
“I would say one of my crowning achievements so far was becoming the 2009 and 2010 Cherokee Signal award winner and being inducted into the honor society at Cleveland State,” Kilgore said.
His father has taken it a step further and supported him in creating his own local newspaper — the Foothills Crier, serving the Southeastern area.
“With James having autism, it would be questionable for him to work for a regular newspaper,” Ernest explained. “Therefore, we came up with the idea of a small paper he could write on his own. We started in November 2012, with only four pages and two advertisers. Currently, we have 20 pages and 13 advertisers. We welcome any articles that anyone would like to send, but we do reserve the right to edit or reject depending on the content.”
Kilgore said his plan is to transfer to a four-year university to obtain his bachelor’s degree in journalism, a profession he has been interested in since he was a child enjoying working on his elementary school’s morning television show.
Ernest, who is also part Cherokee, said, “For a number of years I owned and published ‘The Eagle News,’ which is a Native-American newspaper. When James was 12 years old, he started working with me on that newspaper and he developed a love for writing and reporting. It carried on through high school.”
At the age of 25, Kilgore is constantly creating one milestone after another, proving that autism is not necessarily the handicap some people would categorize it as. Meeting Kilgore is living proof that meeting one person with autism is simply that — one person — because each autistic person is wonderfully different and capable of impressive feats.
“It feels pretty good to me to be a journalist,” Kilgore said. “It takes a lot of hard work, determination and willingness to build editing skills, but you would be surprised at what can be done — even with autism.”
C. Michael Stokes, vice president for Student Services, said “James really inspire people around him to do all they can do, and become all they can become, because of what he’s already accomplished. In terms of dependability and effort, there is no one who works harder than James does. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa member so that means he has really good grades.”
Diana and Ernest praised Cleveland State instructors for working with Kilgore, saying, “They have absolutely bent over backwards to help him. They have one of the finest faculties of any college in the nation.”
Diana said, “I guess you could say we were able to get through it with a lot of prayers and good teachers.”
Experts say along with certain social and intellectual difficulties, autism can bring special abilities that include strong memory skills, math skills, three-dimensional thinking, musical ability, artistic talents and the ability to focus intensely on an interest.
For further information on autism, visit www.autismhelp.info or www.autismsupportnetwork.com.