By Eric Stevick, Herald writer
SNOHOMISH — If Nick Eveland felt anxiety, it didn’t show.
He was a model of equanimity: his expression calm, almost serene.
There was an ease in his gait that defied his awkwardness as he climbed the stairs to the Comcast Arena stage and met the gaze of 4,000 people waiting for him to say something.
Nick, who has autism, did not lock eyes with anyone. He knew better.
Nick thinks in musical patterns. His brain is a jukebox with a seemingly endless playlist. Familiar faces are like quarters dropped into the slot. Nick naturally composes and stores melodies for the people he gets to know. Their tunes play back in his mind each time he sees them. The musical bookmarks help him tell how people are feeling.
If Nick recognizes too many faces at once, the dissonance can overwhelm him.
On graduation night, Nick could not risk the sensory overload.
His eyes found safe pockets within the crowd.
Nick was one of three seniors selected by the Glacier Peak High School Class of 2013 to speak on their behalf at commencement.
His presence at the podium was remarkable in many ways.
Midway through his junior year, his classmates knew little about him. He really had no friends. In some ways, he’d been a phantom whose lone head shot in the yearbook documented that he was, indeed, a student at Glacier Peak.
By design, Nick walked the halls when they were empty. His brain wasn’t wired to handle the din of 1,600 students coursing through the corridors. Likewise, he stayed away from the cafeteria and all-school assemblies.
Sometimes, he’d put on his headphones and flick the noise cancellation switch to block out the cacophony around him.
For more than two years, it all had been a weary trudge for the lonely teen.
Then he blossomed.
“To watch him evolve over the course of time into the person he was at graduation, that was something you watch in the movies,” teacher Teri Corwin said. “It is not something you see in real life.”
Fittingly, the theme of Nick’s flawlessly delivered commencement speech was “Change.”
Perhaps no one in his senior class had changed more in four years than Nick Eveland.
* * *
Autism can be perplexing, vexing, fascinating, exasperating and most certainly heartbreaking for parents whose children fall within the spectrum of complex neurodevelopmental disorders.
When a baby is born, there are no obvious signs that something might be amiss.
Instead, autism creeps up on unsuspecting families over weeks, months and years, and dashes dreams.
The autism spectrum is immeasurable in its depth and breadth and as unique as each of the millions of people it encompasses. The most profoundly affected require a lifetime of round-the-clock care. Others, such as animal science professor Temple Grandin, are brilliant. Grandin describes herself as a visual thinker with a brain that operates like Google Images.
English writer Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant who thinks in numbers and once recited pi from memory to 22,514 digits in a little more than five hours. In his mind, numbers have their own shape, color and feel.
It is no wonder then that Nick’s dad, Peter Eveland, likes to say: “If you have met one autistic child, you have met one autistic child.”
For Peter and Vicki Eveland, both academics with doctorates, the reality that their oldest son was different from his peers began to sink in when Nick was in kindergarten alongside other children his age. They noticed little things as first: his weak motor skills, his struggle with scissors, his poor handwriting, his lack of understanding social rules.
It was worrisome enough that the Evelands consulted with a developmental pediatrician who referred Nick to a psychologist for evaluation. The written report had a long list of medical conditions including depression, obsessive behavior and sensory integration disorder.
Vicki kept returning to three particularly troubling words: pervasive developmental disorder.
She learned that many people on the autistic spectrum are first diagnosed as having PDD.
Their pediatrician crossed out the psychologist’s diagnosis. He explained that he didn’t agree. He didn’t want Nick labeled.
The couple began taking Nick to an occupational therapist to help him improve his fine motor skills and tackle his difficulty swallowing.
“I see all kinds of autistic kids, and he is on the spectrum somewhere,” the therapist told Vicki.
In the waiting room, the mother of an autistic boy offered her assessment: “Your child is Asperger’s, right? I see all the signs.”
Just like that, a complete stranger stated what doctors were reluctant to conclude. Sure enough, Nick later was diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that includes many of the social and behavioral impairments of autism, except for difficulties with language.
“I knew he had some health issues, but putting the name autism to it was very scary to me,” Vicki said. “In your mind, you think you are going to have this perfect child. I was in such a panic. I just wanted to stick my head in the sand.”
The Evelands worked hard with Nick. They got him help and sought a balance in their expectations.
Nick was 10 years old when he learned to tie his shoelaces.
In middle school in Florida, he was a target for teasing and often cried at home when no one was around.
Nick was 13 when his mother decided it was the right time to break the news to him that he has autism.
He didn’t cry or complain. For weeks, he just asked questions, wanting to know more.
“I always kind of felt that I was a little off, but I never thought that I was different,” Nick told classmates in April. “You don’t think you are different until you are told you are, I guess.”
* * *
The family moved to Snohomish County in 2009. His freshman year at Glacier Peak was supposed to be a clean start for Nick.
He lasted just three days before the ache inside his belly became unbearable. Gastrointestinal disorders are common among people on the autistic spectrum, and Nick had suffered greatly over the years.
That October, Nick was admitted to Seattle Children’s Hospital. The muscles around his intestines would tighten so hard he couldn’t pass waste.
Nick winced at the slightest touch. Traditional treatments failed. Nick became increasingly withdrawn.
“We were on the brink of losing him,” said Peter Eveland, former dean of students for the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Eventually, a pain specialist made inroads with Nick. He taught him how to shut down the part of the brain that transmitted pain signals. He convinced him he must “cowboy up” and tough it out.
On Dec. 4, nearly three months into his freshman year, Nick was well enough to return to class.
The quirky new kid was hopelessly disconnected.
“I just wanted to shrink up within myself,” he said.
The staff looked for ways to help him through the school day.
They brought him into the main office and introduced him to Sandy Brandt, who works at the front desk.
Nick was told that Brandt would be his lunch buddy.
Initially, Brandt did the talking for them both. Nick would eat his peanut butter sandwich in silence and stare down at the blue carpet.
They ate lunch together for three years.
Over time, obligatory two-word responses turned into sentences and sentences became conversations. It was always a progression of baby steps.
For a long time, it was easier for Nick to get to know his teachers and staff rather than his peers.
Stefanie Celix had Nick in a learning strategies class his freshman year.
Once, she mentioned she liked the characters in “Cars,” an animated movie.
A couple of days later, Nick handed her a picture he had drawn at home of Lightning McQueen, a red race car.
Nick had reached out. Celix was ecstatic.
“I was trying not to appear overly excited, but inside you want to jump up and down and hug him,” she said.
Four years later, Nick’s drawing still hangs in her classroom.
* * *
In the Dr. Seuss classic “Horton Hears a Who,” an affable elephant in the Jungle of Nool hears a faint yelp for help coming from a floating speck of dust.
The tiny particle is home to a village of Whos too small to be seen. Only a big-eared, kind-hearted elephant can hear their cries.
In his junior year, Nick was cast as a Who from Whoville in the Glacier Peak production of “Seussical the Musical.” It was not a major part, by any means, but it was plenty challenging for a novice with autism who feared his steep learning curve could burden the rest of the cast.
In some ways, it was the perfect role: Nick knew what it was like to feel invisible.
Nick agreed to try out for the play at the urging of his English teacher, Patti Wade, who also taught drama. He liked to talk with her about his favorite musicals.
Wade was aware that Nick had a high-functioning form of autism. She also knew he was smart and she’d heard that he could sing.
“Gradually, he had been coming out of the shell,” Wade said. “I saw the potential in him and I wanted him to give it a try.”
Nick’s instinct was to politely decline, but he fought that impulse. There was something “so welcoming” in his teacher’s approach, he couldn’t say no.
Darren Oke directed the production. He’d been told that Nick had autism and no acting experience. He saw enough in him for an ensemble role in the chorus. He grew to like the boy who largely kept to himself when he wasn’t on stage.
At least once a week, Nick would thank Oke for putting him in the cast and ask how he could do better.
Erin Wygant played Gertrude McFuzz, a leading role in “Seussical.” Popular, confident and beautiful, she had been singing and acting for years.
One day, when Wygant was sitting in the audience at a dress rehearsal, she found her eyes drawn again and again to a bold and boisterous figure with wonderful facial expressions. The boy was in the background.
“Who is this kid?” she thought to herself. “He is so good.”
They might have been going to the same school for nearly three years, but Wygant had no idea who Nick was. At Glacier Peak, Nick had been as invisible as a Who.
Offstage, the animated boy was quiet, reserved and awkward.
“It was shocking to see the different sides,” she said. “The paradox is huge.”
After another rehearsal, the cast was listening to the director’s feedback. Wygant’s thoughts drifted. She began thinking of her grandfather, who had recently died. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Somebody placed a crumpled Kleenex on her knee.
“Don’t worry,” Nick said. “I haven’t used it.”
Nick Eveland made a friend that day.
“That moment I will not forget,” Wygant said.
Other cast members also were taking a liking to the autistic boy who was just grateful to be a small part of something special.
“You really appreciate someone with his pluck and attitude about things and that really grew on everybody,” Oke said. “What I noticed about him personally is he had a sensitive and kind personality.”
In his peach overalls, baby blue cap and curly mustache, he became a marvelous Who.
One night after a performance, the cast met at an Applebee’s. Nick showed up with his mother and brother, Tyler, who played in the orchestra. Tyler wandered off to hang with friends, leaving Nick and his mom in a booth.
That’s when Dana Brager, a lead in the play, told Nick the cast hoped he would join them at their table.
Nick wandered off.
Vicki Eveland sat alone, overjoyed.
* * *
That April, Nick received an invitation to “Be The Change” day. The program aimed at building a sense of community within the school. It was a chance for students to have heart-to-heart conversations about the challenges they face.
“I thought maybe this would be the place where I could say the sad stuff I needed to say,” Nick said. “I felt like these people wanted me to go, that people were actually reaching out to me.”
Nick flagged down John Bonner, a history teacher, and warned him he might leave if he became too anxious.
The students were divided into groups. Nick ended up in one with Bonner’s daughter, Katherine, a striking young woman with long, flowing blond hair. Nick had long admired her from afar.
Nick did not hold back.
He talked about what it was like to live with autism, his daily struggles making simple connections with people, the help he needed learning how to make friends.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore,” he confided.
His classmates embraced him, hugging him that day and thereafter.
“He opened the door for us to be a part of his life,” Katherine Bonner said.
Nick had plunged headfirst into life’s deep end and discovered that he could swim.
In his senior year, he won a lead role in the fall production of “13 Past Midnight.” He portrayed the deliciously villainous Victor Winslow. Wygant, who was the fall homecoming queen, played his wife and wondered how a such a warm and down-to-earth boy could pull off the part of such a horrible man.
Armed with his headphones to muffle the chaos, Nick attended his first football games. He joined clubs, became a loyal fan of the girls’ basketball team and left encouraging notes to staff and his classmates.
He also wrote a list of senior year goals. After three years, he broke the news to Brandt that he was ready to eat lunch with his classmates. She was thrilled.
Nick enrolled in a leadership class during his final semester because one of his goals was to do something that really mattered. He convinced Corwin and the school administration to let him host a special presentation during National Autism Awareness Month.
Nick created a video asking students and teachers what they knew and didn’t know about autism. He included slides that dispelled myths.
As Nick’s big day approached, he began to fret, wondering whether anyone besides a smattering of his leadership classmates would show up. It was, after all, taking place during a free period. No one was required to be there.
The performing arts center was packed.
More than 460 people streamed into the auditorium; others spilled into the hallway.
There was Nick on stage alone wearing a hand-lettered sign across his chest that read: “Different, but not less.”
He described how his brain can get overwhelmed by sights and sounds, how he has trouble processing abstract concepts and often takes things too literally, how he can be too blunt and oblivious to social cues.
It was then that he explained how his brain thinks in musical patterns, how just by looking at someone, their tune pops into his head.
He noticed Corwin smile and sang her melody for all to hear. Tears streamed down his teacher’s face and those of the people around her.
His talk ended in an ovation.
* * *
Nick had one last item to strike from his list of senior year goals.
He had asked Katherine Bonner if she wouldn’t mind previewing the slides and video presentation before his autism talk.
They had become friends since the “Be The Change” day the year before, and she had been voted student body president her senior year.
Bonner read each slide carefully for typos.
The last one blindsided her. It read: “”Will you go to prom with me?”
She emailed Nick her answer: Yes.
“I was humbled when he asked me,” she said. “He is someone in the school who is admired. Nick is everyone else’s advocate.”
Nick really hadn’t expected her to say yes.
“Katherine is so perfect at a lot of things,” he said. “I was afraid to ask anyone. I had to keep thinking who would be a friend who I could trust who would at least be nice about saying ‘no.’ “
His brother Tyler, who is as socially smooth as Nick is awkward, said he was proud of his courage. He then asked Nick if he knew how to slow dance. Nick had not thought that far ahead.
Tyler took one of Nick’s hands and brought the other to his waist.
The brothers, 19 and 16, slow-danced across the kitchen floor.
* * *
Nick sometimes wonders what he would do if he could just take a pill that would eliminate his autism.
For all his many hardships, he likes the way his mind works, the details he sees in rocks and stars, the melodies that play inside his head.
“I sometimes think or like to ask God why I am the way I am, but, you know, there are reasons for things like this. It’s not always good to have it. It’s hard, but there are things that it does that can be good.
“If I had to change, if it was all or nothing, I would keep it because it is part of who I am.”
Nick also wonders sometimes if his friendships will last, if his classmates were just being nice to him because it was the right thing to do.
Those doubts makes no sense to Wygant.
“Sometimes, I don’t think he realized how much he was revered,” she said. “He was so humble. He didn’t give himself the credit he deserved.”
In his commencement speech, Nick thanked the faculty and students who never gave up on him.
“Don’t let the pain of this world change who you are,” he urged. “Instead, change the world with your greatness.”
Nick assured them it is possible.
“Why? Because we already have,” he said.
Nick himself is testament to that.
About the author
Eric Stevick has been a reporter for 32 years, the past 23 at The Daily Herald. During that time, he has written several articles about children with special needs and the challenges their families face. His interest in their stories is both professional and personal. His grown son, Ian, is nonverbal and autistic, and lives with several physical challenges. Ian was 17 when he learned to tie his shoelaces. His family continues to celebrate each and every milestone.