Brian Ellis (’20), a senior at Hope College who is majoring in business, also runs cross country, track and field and sings in the chorus ensemble. On top of completing his education, he is writing a book, jams out in the music building (even dabbles in writing some music), enjoys a good nighttime sauna and likes comedy. What you might not know when meeting Ellis is that he was diagnosed with autism and Aspergers when he was four or five years old.
“It was a flimsy diagnosis: quick and careless,” Ellis explained to me when recounting the diagnosis that has deeply affected his life. “Autism kind of Aspergers, kind of a weird combination. Not full-on either, just kind of hybrid.” In this article and the one following on March 25, I will share Ellis’ story and his views on autism at Hope and in the world. “I have a unique personality, but that’s not my Aspergers,” Ellis told me. “People wouldn’t know if I didn’t tell them.”
Autism is defined as “a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior.” Aspergers is defined similarly as “a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.” The main difference between these definitions appears in the ability to socialize, with Aspergers having more difficulty with social cues or heuristics.
Ellis, a native of Holland, Michigan, went to two preschools: Rose Parks and OAC. “At first, OAC didn’t want to take me. They thought I was too high-functioning, but my Mom got me in there. I was a lot different back then—I don’t know what you would think of when you think of autism—my parents didn’t know what I would be like when I grew up, so they put me in there,” Ellis said. “They had a room with a bunch of hammocks, and there was a trampoline. I remember getting stung by bees,” he continued, reflecting on his preschool experience. Many of the other children there had more severe disabilities than what Ellis experienced.
Kindergarten was relatively normal for Ellis. “I went to Waukazoo [Elementary School]. I was in school with everyone else. That was a pretty normal time. On my first day of kindergarten, I was on the bus and trying to act older than I was and guessed that two plus two equaled four, so they thought I was a first-grader,” Ellis said, laughing. “The way they taught wasn’t the best for me. I was kept on really easy books, like letters of the alphabet book. It was pretty easy for me, but they wouldn’t move me up.”
“They would take me out of class for that [reading], but I didn’t know that I was different. I don’t think I knew I had autism back then. I thought I was like everyone else,” Ellis said about his early elementary school years, up until third grade. “My mom said there were kids who weren’t nice to me, but I don’t remember that. I played football at recess every day. I was fearless. I would charge. I played almost every position in my time.”
In fourth and fifth grade, Ellis began attending a Montessori school. The Montessori approach to education involves following the child’s interest to develop their natural interests and activities instead of using formal teaching methods. The technique involves lots of self-directed activity, hands-on learning and encourages children to communicate and teach one another. “At Waukazoo if you didn’t get something they would just move on, and I would be intimidated to ask questions because other kids would get it. I thought I could get my way through. By fourth grade I accelerated educationally, I think because of the Montessori way of teaching because it’s individualized and I actually had people helping me,” Ellis said. “I got three grades ahead in reading and a couple of grades ahead in math. I lived a pretty normal life.”
Performance, which has become an important part of Ellis’ life, started for him in fourth grade. “I sang ‘What’s New Pussycat’ with two backup dancers. That was a life-changing experience, the taste of the limelight,” he said. “At fifth-grade graduation, I won the teacher’s award, basically saying I was the favorite I guess. I had a good work ethic. I confronted my teacher one day about how he was stressed, and he admired my courage to do that. I took him outside and gave him the rundown on how he was acting. And he took it very well. I think that’s why he gave me the award.”
He then attended Black River, and Ellis remembers being well-liked by many of his classmates. Only a few things stood out to him about middle school in particular—he played soccer and basketball and was part of musical theater. “I was Collin from ‘The Secret Garden,’” Ellis shared. “That’ show I really discovered my love for performing. The scenes where Collin stands up were very moving and powerful.” In the musical, a young boy named Collin, who has been confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, develops the ability to stand and walk again.
In eighth grade, Ellis’ soccer team “played the cross country team and they won. And then we raced and they won. So I decided to do cross country freshman year,” he said. “I really came into my own. I was eccentric, charming. Anyone who knows me knows that. I got interested in world politics (for lack of a better term) in my free time. Not in the healthiest of ways, it was kind of like Illuminati stuff. I didn’t agree with a lot of the stuff I was reading but it was interesting and enchanting. Exotic.”
“I was really well-liked at Black River [High School],” Ellis continued. “I won homecoming king sophomore year, and senior year I won prom king. Black River was a strange place. I remember this kid who used to pick on me before we’d go to class. I told on him a couple of times. We had our ups and downs. Sometimes I’d get along with him because he’s clever. Other times he was just a jerk. There were people that were lesser jerks, that were fair-weather friends. They weren’t loyal, just kind of jerks. It built character. I learned to dish it out. It’s all child’s play now, but at the time it hurt.”
In his later high-school years, Ellis began to struggle with some medical issues. “I got sick before one of my performances, and they prescribed Prednisone. After taking that for a while I couldn’t sleep and became very paranoid. I was very numb physically, and I didn’t feel pain as much. I turned an ankle and didn’t feel it. I stopped running, gained a lot of weight. They put me on heavier medication. I was pretty depressed, and I missed a lot of school to recover,” Ellis shared with me. “My teachers were very accomodating.” Unfortunately, during this time Ellis had to take the ACT test. “I couldn’t focus, and I did really poorly. I didn’t feel motivated anymore because I saw my identity in being smart, but I’m not the best test-taker even though I’m not bad at it either.”
“I did get better, and I started running again. I had my heat-stroke and got defibrillated. When I came back, they [the cross country team] greeted me with a huge group hug. It was very intense. They thought I was dead or something because I was missing so much school and not doing cross [country]. They were seeing me as some kind of god-figure coming back. That’s just how it felt at the time. After the heat-stroke, no one said a word and that felt cold because I almost died,” Ellis shared. “We found my heart issue, dropping a beat. It went away with time.”
“I remember senior year I was going to ask a girl out and bake her a cake, and I heard she would have said yes through the grapevine. But, by the time I did it someone had already asked her and she said yes. So that was sad,” Ellis said, reflecting. “But I felt pretty good about myself going into college. I had to be faithful to my medication. It was still pretty heavy.”
Living in Durfee Hall was hard for Ellis to adjust to. “Going into freshman year taking a full load, living at Durfee and going to take choir. Durfee was a tough time, there were ups and downs, but I needed my sleep and I couldn’t find it at Durfee. It was unbearably hot that year with no air conditioning,” he said, commiserating with nearly all Hope students. Ellis also reflected on a sexual assault that happened at Durfee early on in his freshman year. “Somehow the RAs questioned me because I was eating dinner with my parents that night, and I held the door a lot for people. I didn’t know not to hold doors,” Ellis said. “One of them [the RAs] told me that he was going to get me, which freaked me out because he has the keys to my room. What do you mean you’re going to get me? He just walked away.”
“Living at Durfee was weird because there were a lot of dark jokes and rituals that rubbed me the wrong way because I wasn’t in a great state of mind. I couldn’t sleep, and it was getting messy. I had to drop classes. I was taking eight credits my first semester,” Ellis continued to explain his experience at Durfee. “I commuted after that. The RA who threatened me helped me move out, and I think he felt bad. I got good grades after that. I needed the sleep. Eventually, we figured out my medication, and I started one that helped me a lot; for some reason it lowered my anxiety and sharpened my memory. I have an excellent memory, but I was having memory problems because of the stress. I wasn’t as sharp as I typically would be. I was sleep-deprived, and I just held on.”
Ellis entered his second semester taking a full-time course load. During the first week of classes, a professor did not take well to Ellis’ behavior in the classroom. “We just got off on the wrong foot somehow. He just misinterpreted everything that I did,” Ellis said, describing their interactions. The professor told Ellis to drop the class despite other people in the class liking him and not having the same issues as the professor. “That wasn’t right, but I had to move on,” Ellis said on the matter. While Ellis’ family considered transferring him due to how Hope handled the issue, he remained at Hope to continue his education. “My mom explained to the professor, kind of using my autism as a crutch, but I don’t think that had to do with my autism. He was unresponsive. It was sick,” Ellis said.
Ellis made Hope’s cross country team at the beginning of his sophomore year, but went into the year feeling rather rebellious and asserted himself on the team. “I made some bonds. I was a pretty popular guy at that time,” Ellis said. “I was making conversation with new people all the time, charming people with my quick wit and sense of humor. Then I wouldn’t see them again, but it was fun to do. Sophomore year was good. So was most of junior year.” In junior year, Ellis described getting a lot of praise for his writing and insights over a summer class. “One professor told me it was one of the best essays he’s read. I was feeling good. One of my best classes was statistics, and I picked it up very well. I was top of the class. That gave me a lot of confidence,” Ellis said.
Many students, including Ellis, feel that their parents worry about them as they move to college and start a new, independent life. “My parents and therapist were worried about me because I didn’t have many friends freshman year. They kept projecting this idea of who I am even though they weren’t at college with me, and it gave me a complex about me being different because of my autism,” Ellis shared. “Now I kind of look into people to see if they have an odd reaction, like do they see themselves as superior when they’re not actually brighter or anything more than me. I’m actually pretty good at reading people, but it’s the way it became framed in my mind that’s kind of isolated me from other people because I kept framing it as ‘do people deserve to have me as a friend?’ Because I don’t baby talk other kids who have autism, but I knew if I told people early on, they would talk to me differently. They would have a different tone like I was a little kid. I think most people on the spectrum can relate to that. Before college I was very open to that, I thought I was a poster child and could show people that I can be a socially functioning, eccentric, funny, extroverted man with autism, and it would be good for the community.”
“I don’t tell people anymore, because I don’t want them to treat me differently,” Ellis shared. “My quirkiness is not my disability. I don’t want people to get that idea. I do act careless sometimes, and I leave behind social inhibitions. I don’t link that to my autism either. Sometimes I just don’t care. I recognize the heuristics, and I just think they’re dumb sometimes because they get in the way of close and emotional interactions,” he continued. “There’s this attitude among men at hope, that there is this expected stern behavior. I don’t fit that kind of image. So I just do me. I try to be authentic and genuine, although I do go overboard sometimes with my humor.”
Ellis reflected on his autism with me. “The thing with autism is that every person is different. The only reason I think I still have it is because when I achieve something great in the privacy of my own home, I’ll flap my hands,” Ellis said. “I’ve replaced that with drumming and tapping, gross-motor skills.” Ellis and I had an earnest conversation with each other as I interviewed him, and we talked not only about his life but about some of our common struggles as college students and runners. Ellis’ deeper thoughts on the stigma of autism at and beyond Hope, as well as his perspective on romance and autism, will be published on March 25.