CUMBERLAND — “I remember hearing Barbara asking the first question and handing me the microphone. It was something about what could I remember about the first time I met her. When the microphone was placed in my hands, and I brought it to my mouth to speak, something changed. A strange calm came over me, and suddenly everything seemed far away, and it did not matter that those in the audience were strangers. I was there to tell them something important, and I was going to do it.”
Hannah Ray, a Cumberland Foreside resident and senior at Cheverus High School in Portland, wrote those words after presenting, along with her therapist Barbara Baum-Freethy, at a conference in Massachusetts last April on the social and emotional complexities of girls with Asperger’s syndrome.
“From then on words came out of my mouth, almost of their own accord,” Ray recalled. “Every word, every sentence came naturally. I went through my drawings and explained what each meant to me spiritually and mentally. I used those as a way to explain my main point; while it is important to teach those with Asperger’s all kinds of gestures and phrases, it is also important to remember that their spiritual needs are just as important.
“I joked, I laughed, and I told about my life as a girl with Asperger’s. I told of the painful elementary and middle school years and how I could not understand those around me. I told of the ‘angels of my life,’ otherwise known as the ones I could never do without. I told how I use my song writing and drawings to let out my emotions. I even displayed two drawings that I had done in the middle of school to prevent my emotions from getting the best of me.”
Hannah’s powerful presentation, which resulted in a standing ovation from the therapists and parents in attendance, led to an invitation to speak at another conference in Portland last October.
Ray wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s – an “autism spectrum disorder” often marked by high intelligence and narrow, sometimes obsessive interests and a lack of social skills – until she was 11 years old.
“In a way, I was relieved,” she said. “I wasn’t just some oddball; I belonged to some sort of group. I thought, ‘Hey, I love Asperger’s.”
Ray has compiled an excellent academic record at Cheverus, prompting Guidance Counselor Valerie Webster to say “Hannah’s story is really quite impressive, and she is a lovely young woman.”
When she’s not working hard to maintain an “A” average, Ray enjoys tapping her creative spirit: playing the piano, songwriting, drawing, painting and writing. She is also working on a fantasy novel, explaining that, “with fantasy books, you can let it all out. Anything goes.”
As to the future, Ray hopes to attend a top liberal arts college and then go on to graduate school. She ultimately plans to become a therapist, specializing in Asperger’s.
“Parents sometimes give up on kids with Asperger’s,” she said, “and I want to change that.”
Ray offers sage advice to all young people, such as “take your studies seriously and don’t skip classes.”
As for kids with Asperger’s, she says, “Don’t hide your awesomeness. Flaunt the gifts you have. People like differentness more than they care to admit.”
Hannah Ray of Cumberland Foreside: “Parents sometimes give up on kids with Asperger’s, and I want to change that.”
One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: email@example.com.