Our Kind of People

This Gulfport High senior on the autism spectrum is breaking school records

Zachary Davis does well in school, likes video games and is trying to figure out where he will attend college next year. He is like any other teen, which his why he didn’t think it was such a big deal when he was inducted into the National Honor Society his junior year and National Technical Honor Society his senior year.

“I just thought I worked hard so I deserved it,” he said.

But to his teacher and his mom, it is a big deal, because Zachary has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

“I’m pretty sure Zach is the first student on the (autism) spectrum at Gulfport High School to be inducted into both organizations,” said Peggy Farrar, a Learning Strategies teacher at Gulfport High. “If not, the instances of that happening, at least while I’ve been here, are few and far between, especially for him being in both.”

Hanging with Mrs. Farrar

Farrar has known Zachary all four years he has been a student at Gulfport High. He’s been enrolled in her Learning Strategies class since his sophomore year, even though he will say he doesn’t really need the class.

“Students who take my class are usually pretty aware of where they are functioning and excelling, and they just need to fill some of the gaps in other subjects,” Farrar said. She used an example that some students on the autism spectrum might take a special interest in one or two particular subjects, but that causes them to fall behind in other subjects, and that’s where her class comes in.

However, Zachary uses the class almost as a reprieve from the normal school day as he takes mainly advanced-level classes.

“Academically he’s surpassed me,” Farrar said.

He feels comfortable talking to Farrar and is able to use her computers for homework and any college admissions work he needs to do. He’s even used the time in class to tutor another student in math, a subject he’s particularly adept at.

“I couldn’t take her class this semester because I had to take a required health class, but I still go to her classroom after school and use her computer,” he said.

Looking ahead to college

Having a place where Zach feels comfortable is important for him. When talking about his college plans, he prioritizes being comfortable on campus over other factors such as educational quality.

“Millsaps is my first choice ... but my best friend might get into William Carey with me,” he explained. “If he does, they said they would let us room together on campus. At Millsaps, they said they might be able to get me a private room. Of course, a lot of it depends on money and what scholarships I get.”

Attending a private, smaller college is a priority for Zach. He prefers a class size of about 20 to 30 students, similar to the size of a typical high school class, instead of the hundreds of students in one lecture common at most public universities. The smaller class sizes would help him be more comfortable in the new environment of a college campus after being in classes with some of the same students since middle school.

“Since I take a lot of advanced classes, about half of the students I know them because we’ve taken these classes for years,” he said. “It helps.”

Learning about Asperger’s

As a child, Zachary was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a “high-functioning” form of autism that displays less severe symptoms.

“Children with Asperger’s frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in a different way,” reads the Autism Society website.

That was how Julie Boyd, Zachary’s mother, knew something was different about him.

“As a baby, he was so delayed in his speech and motor skills,” she recalled. “His doctor thought he had hearing issues at first. He was in therapy for two years to get him to where he needed to be to go to a regular school, but around kindergarten and first grade, doctors realized something was definitely going on.” He was officially diagnosed at age 7.

Since then, Boyd has worked on educating herself on what a child on the autism spectrum needs and how he behaves compared to other children his age.

Children on the spectrum typically have difficulty with social interactions and understanding non-literal phrases. They might avoid eye contact when speaking with others and conversations might become one-sided.

However, that doesn’t describe Zachary. In addition to being in the National Honor Society and National Technical Honor Society, Zachary is also involved in the Mu Alpha Theta math honor society, Gulfport High’s robotics team, The Literary Club and Anime Club. He’s also volunteered for Harrison County Head Start and Harrison County Humane Society.

“He almost had a part-time job at Jaks in Biloxi, but the only thing that stopped him was he doesn’t have his driver’s license,” his mom said.

Life at Gulfport High

No one at school treats Zachary like he’s any different, Boyd said. If they do, it’s not in any negative way.

“He’s become a little bit more open to everything, not just math and sciences but English and social studies as well,” Farrar said. “It’s his dedication and his ability to focus and have a goal and achieve it. I think people with differences get overprotected so expectations are lowered, but his really drive him.”

Farrar has gotten to know Zachary well over the past four years.

“The relationship he and I have is one where he feels comfortable,” she said. “People on spectrum have difficulty with communication and nonverbal communication. He’s very timid. He’s really had to come out of his comfort zone the last four years. He’s really blossomed.”

Farrar has had decades of experience working with people who have a variety of differences since she decided to become a special education teacher.

“I’m glad this is the profession I chose because I get to work with these kinds of kids for over 29 years at Gulfport,” she said. “I’m from Rhode Island, and when I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I always knew; school is in my blood. It’s all I’ve ever done from kindergarten through high school and adults in group homes.”

Farrar is considering retirement soon, but it’s a difficult decision.

“It’s the best job in the world,” she said. “You don’t just have a kid one year. Some you have for seven years. They are like family.

“I get paid in money and paid in a lot of other ways, too.”

Having a support system

Zachary has a great support system in his mother as well. Boyd has done her best to make sure any accommodations Zachary might need, such as longer test times or working away from larger groups, are provided to him. Not only does she do her best to educate herself on characteristics of children on the autism spectrum, but also to educate others.

“When Zach was diagnosed as a kid, I was depressed and blamed myself,” she said. “I was wondering what happened during my pregnancy to make this happen. I’ve since learned that this is something that is passed along genetically and doctors still aren’t sure what makes it present itself. Now I just do my best to be there for Zachary and push him when he needs it. I push him because I know he can do it.”

Ultimately, Boyd hopes her son can be an example of what students with differences can accomplish, especially with a supportive educator like Farrar.

“I hope that Zachary and his mom can be an inspiration to other people,” Farrar said. “When they get that diagnosis and they despair and think the worst is happening; it doesn’t have to be that way. The outcome can be phenomenal. If there’s one parent out there that’s worried about their kid, they hopefully will understand and realize they can be successful no matter what.”

Yolanda Cruz: 228-896-2340, @yolie.cruz93

About the series

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.