Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Devoted history student with Asperger's fights for his high school diploma

From the intro to a story in The Tennessean:

Ryan McFolin (pictured) flips through his 600-page book Bhaghavad-Gita, or "Song of God," a popular religious text on the scriptures of Hinduism.

"It's about transcendental knowledge, attaining the supreme and divine and demonic natures and visions of faith," he says.

The McGavock High School senior can rattle off facts about theology and history that most adults don't recall or never knew.

But as he talks about his desire to teach his passions at the college level, his attention turns suddenly to his grandparents' gray tiger cat, Sally. "She likes to play," he says as she rolls onto her back.

Ryan, 18, can get off subject when he is worried, not uncommon for a person with Asperger's syndrome, a form of the brain disorder autism that can include characteristics of social awkwardness.

He's worried because — despite achievements including service on the Congressional Youth Leadership Council and as a student ambassador in Australia — he can't pass Tennessee's algebra Gateway test, which he must to get a regular diploma.

There are no exceptions, state education officials say. And with no diploma, he can't get into college.

His father has sued the state, arguing it shouldn't deny Ryan his diploma, because he has exceeded all requirements for graduation outside his certified severe math learning disability.

"I am doing this on the principal of the law that President Bush signed — 'we are not going to leave anyone behind,' " said Don McFolin, who filed his lawsuit in federal court in Nashville on April 9. "Well, you are leaving a child behind. You are playing around with these kids' minds. It's not just Ryan."

Ryan has taken the algebra Gateway twice and failed both times by six points. He will try a third time in May.

"I want to go to college and eventually study for a Ph.D.," he said last week with a firm voice, although his eyes shifted down with an air of uncertainty.