After years of autism challenges, Nick Johnson lands NASA gig


June 15, 2013|By TODD KLEFFMAN |
  • Rose Johnson and her son Nick check out a flight simulator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where Nick is working as an intern this summer.
Photo submitted

Nicholas Johnson has never been one for crowds. 

When he was younger, a trip to a restaurant or retail store often would send Nick into loud shrieks and convulsive movements. Once, during a trip to the grocery store when he was about 8, he began rocking back and forth so violently while riding in the cart that he tipped it over in the middle of the aisle.

It’s no wonder that his parents, Rose and Paul Johnson of Danville, are so proud of how far their son has traveled since he was first diagnosed with severe autism more than 20 years ago. For them, it is like he has journeyed to Mars. 

Nick, 23, landed a 10-week summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., working among the country’s top scientists, engineers and technicians that build, launch and monitor instruments that advance our understanding of the universe. He started last week creating computer databases and building security firewalls for the space agency, and already he’s feeling in his element.


“You know the story of the Ugly Duckling? Well, Ihave been kind of like the ugly duckling all my life,” Nick said in a telephone interview last week. “Now that I’m here at Goddard, I’m turning into that beautiful swan and learning to fly.”

Robert Spector, acting chief of Nick’s NASA unit, described the intern’s responsibilities.

“Our goal for Nick is that by the end of the summer program, he will have developed a database that will assist project managers navigate the rigorous procedures and guidelines that govern all information technology projects at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,” Spector said in an email. “He will have an opportunity to learn about the disciplines of designing systems based on users’ requirements, designing and automating forms, and database design and administration. 

“Along the way Nick and his fellow interns will be given the opportunity to participate in NASA training and planned group activities such as the Center Tour, lectures, future career opportunity events, and various social events that are part of the internship program.” 

That Nick is working at NASA would probably come as a big surprise to those professionals who first diagnosed him with “probable autism” when he was 3 and living in Florida. Some suggested Nick be removed from his home and placed in a center with other autistic children as the best way to prepare him for his future.

“We were advised very early on that Nick should be in a vocational school to learn how to retread tires or make fishing reels,” Paul Johnson said.

Though they had little understanding of autism — a mysterious mental condition characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships, and obsessive behavior — Rose and Paul were disinclined to consign their son to a life of drudgery at such a young age. They realized he was developing differently — he didn’t communicate verbally until he was 5 — but they saw flickers of intelligence, even if they could not make sense of his actions.

“I saw he was capable of more than that. He was very bright when he was very young. His brain just works differently,” Rose said. “It was just little things he did when he was playing. Instead of rolling cars along, he’d turn them over and watch the wheels spin. He would take all the condiments out of the refrigerator door and line them up.”

The family decided to return to Kentucky, where they felt Nick had a better chance to develop to his full potential. They began intensive therapy sessions, both at home and through Eastern Kentucky University’s Child Development Center and social services, and they enrolled him in Estill County public schools to work on his social skills.

“I wanted him to see how the real world works, not just his imagined world in his head,” Rose explained. 

Mainstreaming Nick into public schools was no small feat. Many teachers and classmates were afraid of him because of his unusual behavior. He had to eat behind a curtain in the elementary cafeteria because the sight of other kids eating — a bit of gelatin dribbling down a chin — would make him physically sick. He was often shunned.

“I came into a classroom once and saw him sitting by himself in the corner while the rest of the kids were in circle time. I said ‘You call this inclusion?’” Rose recalled. “I had to butt heads with principals. I was at his school all the time, first as a volunteer and then I became a teaching assistant.”

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