JOBS for AMERICA'S GRADUATES

A social experience: Paris student with Asperger's earns way to conference

It was just a few years ago that Todd and Kim Monroe's son Jordan could barely communicate both in writing and orally and his parents wondered how he would ever be able to have the typical teenage life.

Now 17, Jordan Monroe will leave this week for a national Jobs for American Graduates National Student Leadership Academy in Washington, D.C. He will be meeting and shaking hands with hundreds of kids from all over the country and be asked to speak in front of large groups. He qualified for all of this after writing an essay to be named as one of four Montana kids selected to attend the conference.

While that may not seem a daunting task to most, Jordan Monroe, a senior at Paris Gibson Alternative High School, isn't like most other high school students. He has Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others, according to the Mayo Clinic. It falls on the milder end of the autism spectrum disorders.

"I swear, this will be the fanciest thing I've ever done," Jordan Monroe said of the conference. "I am super excited. I just don't express it."

He'll be attending the conference after working on his social skills and stepping outside his comfort zone in Yenta Jaques' Jobs for Montana Grads class at Paris.

Jaques said when Jordan started attending Paris after attending East Middle School, he wasn't very expressive and kept to himself.

"He would walk down the hall and focus on the little square of linoleum in front of him," Jaques said.

But after working with counselors, teachers at Paris and his family, Jaques said she watched Jordan start to transform. A business teacher at Paris, Jaques offers the Jobs for Montana Grads class a national curriculum designed to help at-risk students become aware of the opportunities that lie ahead of them after high school through civic and leadership activities.

"It's probably the most powerful curriculum I've ever been a part of," Jaques said.

It's been a long road since the Monroes first noticed some of Jordan's differences in preschool, his mom said.

For a long time, the family believed Jordan had attention deficit disorder, but Kim Monroe said finally in middle school, doctors reached a diagnosis of Asperger's. But it didn't necessarily make things easier.

"It changed how we sought out help for him," Kim Monroe said. "It made a huge difference in our whole family's life."

He worked with his parents, doctor and counselor to understand his diagnosis, but Kim Monroe said that didn't prevent him from being looked at differently by his peers. Her son didn't write, he wasn't social and he never understood his friend's jokes.

"He just quit trying to communicate," she said.

Jordan said as part of his Asperger's, he has trouble looking people in the eye or expressing emotion. In the traditional school structure, Jordan said he felt more lonely.

"I was very nonverbal," he said.

But at Paris, he's been able to learn at his own speed, and after taking some initial classes with Jaques, he stepped into the JMG class and found himself opening up a little bit at a time. He said he's always thought of things being black or white, but in JMG, you have to work with others, and he and his fellow students got to direct the class and the projects they decided to work on. Now, he's able to see a little gray.

"He's done an amazing job of challenging himself," Jaques said.

Kim Monroe said JMG has given her son something to take ownership in, which has built a confidence within her son that she was never really sure she would ever get to see.

"There were days we'd say, 'Is he going to be OK on his own?'" she said. "We're so proud, but it's still unbelievable. The struggles we've had are so real."

He's going to continue to challenge himself at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he's already been accepted and plans to study neuroscience. Sometimes, Jordan said, it's hard for him to believe it all, too.

"When I take a step back and look, I think it's pretty incredible," Jordan said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kristen Cates at 791-1463 or kcates@greatfallstribune.com or @GFTrib_KCates.