Josh Clay’s boulevard of unbroken dreams

By DAVID TUTHILL

Josh Clay sometimes speaks at such a frantic speed he needs to slow himself down.

But he speaks with authority on so many topics – from theater, to the band Green Day, to the world of comedy – that you would never believe the challenges he’s overcome.

The 15-year-old was born with Asperger’s syndrome. Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions, and may exhibit compulsive behaviors and repetitive movements. They also tend to show an intense, all-absorbing interest in topics they enjoy.

Josh Clay, an eighth-grader at De LaSalle Academy in Fort Myers, played Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”

In preschool, Josh often hit milestones later than his classmates, and he exhibited behavioral tics associated with Asperger’s.

In elementary school, he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan to help him navigate the special education he needed, which seemed to work. He was on an adequate academic pace and he made good acquaintance with fellow students. Thanks to a strict school policy, bullies were virtually nonexistent.

When it was time to start middle school, other potential issues came into focus. Josh was an “out of zone” Title I student for elementary school, but a lack of room in the preferred middle schools meant Josh would have to attend the school near his address, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.

His parents, Edward and Julie Clay didn’t feel confident their neighborhood school in Naples, Florida, could accommodate him academically.

So, Edward and Julie decided to home-school Josh in sixth and seventh grade.

“Josh was academically fine in elementary school,” Julie Clay said. “He was just a little fidgety. We decided home schooling for middle school was probably for the best as he got older.”

Josh’s sixth- and seventh-grade years were successful. His mother had no plans of putting Josh back in school, but things were about to change.

Knowing his diagnosis meant he would always need extra attention and therapy, Julie Clay took Josh to a behavioral therapist before he started eighth grade this year.

The therapist told her about two things that would change the direction of Josh’s education: the Gardiner Scholarship for families with children with certain medical diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, and De LaSalle Academy, a private school for students with special needs in nearby Fort Myers, Florida.

“When I heard about (De LaSalle) I thought, ‘Wow, this would be really great for him. Let’s walk down this path and see if it’s the right fit,’” Julie Clay said.

On his first visit to De LaSalle, Josh noticed how different the school was from his previous ones.

“I saw they all had classes with kids who reminded me of me,” he said. “I got along well with the teachers, and I liked that the only homework was classwork that we didn’t finish.”

While Josh was eager to attend and blend into the De LaSalle culture, there were some growing pains. He applied for and received the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

His situation was nothing new to De LaSalle Principal Lori Riti. Under her direction, the school’s speech language pathologist, social communication , occupational therapist and counselor all work in tandem for students like Josh.

“Josh came here with some social issues, mainly with getting along and connecting in a way with other kids that was healthy,” Riti said.

Some of the issues Josh mastered at De LaSalle Academy were interpreting nonverbal communication and perception, as well as conflict resolution. The school’s specialists made tremendous strides with him. One of his closest friends at school was once a child with whom he argued and fought with regularly.

“Josh had some onboard skills, but he had to take where he was and develop much further,” Riti said. “He wasn’t successful until he had direct intensive work. I give a lot of credit to our teachers and advisors for his success.”

His achievements aren’t limited to the classroom. Josh has become one of De LaSalle’s star theater performers. He recently starred as Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”

This winter, the school’s Performing Arts Club will perform the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” De LaSalle’s stage will be designed to look like an old-time radio station, and Josh will play several roles, including the “warped and frustrated” Mr. Potter, Mr. Gower, the druggist, and Ernie, the cab driver.

A natural performer, his penchant for inspiring laughter at school is legendary.

On a recent weekday, he told one of his favorite jokes about ordering steak at a restaurant: “When they asked how I wanted it cooked, I said, ‘On a stove.’”

While Josh’s favorite band is Green Day, he strongly warns against their occasionally profane language. The family saw the band perform live in September. Since the tickets were purchased in January, Josh had to wait nine months.

It was worth it.

The show, he said, “was legendary.”

Josh said he hopes to someday attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he wants to continue improving his acting chops and hone his comedic talent.

As for his experiences at De LaSalle, he couldn’t be happier.

“For parents who want to send their kids to this school, well, it’s the greatest school in the universe,” Josh said. “It will be the greatest move you ever do.”

David Tuthill can be reached at dtuthill@stepupforstudents.org.

 

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