Hobbton High School senior Mary Thompson is one active young lady. In addition to going to school, she is involved in community theatre, is president of Hobbton’s Future Business Leaders of America, is a section leader in the marching band, and is a tutor. Add a time-consuming senior project into the mix and busy is definitely in her vocabulary.
Thompson does not mind her often hectic schedule though, especially when her senior project is something she considers bigger than herself.
For her senior project, Thompson chose to focus on autism, a developmental disorder that she has herself. She is specifically concerned with autism awareness. “The project takes a lot of time and research but why not do something that you’re passionate about and that can help others,” says Thompson.
She was disagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, when she was 2 years old. She understands how difficult it can be for parents of autistic children to find the answers they seek when their child receives such a diagnosis. Over the years, she witnessed her own mother’s struggles to find information specific to this area of North Carolina.
Her mother, Melinda Thompson, knew when Mary was diagnosed that she needed to do her homework. However, information wasn’t plentiful. “When she was little and I was searching for information, there just wasn’t a lot out there, especially in Sampson County,” says Melinda. “I had to rely on books and the internet.”
Although always a proud mom, Melinda is especially pleased that her daughter picked autism awareness in Sampson County as the topic of her senior project. “It’s a wonderful accomplishement,” says Melinda. “By doing this project and using it not just for school but also for educating the citizens of Sampson County on autism, there will be more help for others who need it.”
Myra Goodwin, a local autism consultant and Thompson’s project mentor, is also proud of Thompson and her work. “She wants people to understand autism,” says Goodwin. “Mary is a great voice for people who often have no voice.”
Thompson’s research for her senior project began with a paper she wrote during her junior year. More research followed during her senior year, and now, her project is near completion. She will soon create a scrapbook and present her project before a panel of judges at Hobbton.
However, Thompson is choosing to do numerous other presentations in an effort to spread the word about autism throughout the community. “I have already done presentations for the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, the Partnership for Children, and at Cedar Point Disciples Church near Newton Grove,” says Thompson. More presentations are to come.
While her goal is to educate others with her project, Thompson has discovered that there is always more to learn, even about her own disorder. “Before this project, I didn’t realize that autism is more common than childhood cancer. I was surprised by that,” says Thompson. “I also learned that the rate for autism in North Carolina is higher than the rate for the entire nation.” Thompson explained that this inflation was mainly due to the high number of autism facilities located in North Carolina.
Her project has also made her reflect on her own early experience with autism. “I really had to look back on my childhood for this project, and it’s made me see how far I’ve come,” says Thompson. “For some people, autism just sticks with them. I’ve been very blessed; I was one of the lucky ones who could overcome a lot.”
Thompson credits TEACCH, an autism program started at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1972, with helping her get to where she is today. “At TEACCH, they know what they are doing,” says Thompson. “They have the skills and teaching techniques to really help you. I would definitely recommend them.” TEACCH is headquartered in Chapel Hill, and they have seven regional centers throughout North Carolina.
Thompson also praises her parents for their love and dedication to helping her. “I have great parents who did anything and everything to help me succeed.”
Success is definitely in Thompson’s vocabulary, and she is very excited about her future. She plans to attend Methodist University where she’s earned a presidential scholarship.
As a technolgy lover and a musician — she sings and can play 10 different instruments — it’s no surprise that Thompson plans to major in Computer Information Systems and minor in music.
Although she notes that there is no cure for autism and the cause of the disorder is still unknown, Thompson maintains a positive attitude.
She recalls an inspiring meeting she had with an autistic adult about a year ago. “It was like looking at myself ,” says Thompson. “I talked with him about his experience and it made me see how much I’ve grown.”
Thompson’s mother was also encouraged by this meeting. “We saw that he was independent and successful. He had a job; he could take care of himself and meet his own needs. Those were the most important things,” says Melinda.
It is this hopeful outlook that keeps Thompson’s passion strong. Even after high school is over and her senior project is behind her, it won’t just be a memory. She plans to continue her work in autism awareness. “I’ve helped promote a Sampson County support group for parents with exceptional children,” says Thompson. “I plan to continue assisting the support group, and we want to try to start an Austism Society chapter here in Sampson County.”
With her dedication and cheery “can do” attitude, Thompson’s senior project will certainly continue to reach far beyond the school walls.
For information about the TEACCH autism program, visit www.teacch.com.
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 123 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.