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Asperger's advocate: Fargo man travels world speaking about autism

Zach Zaborny has become an advocate for post-secondary opportunities for young adults on the autism spectrum. David Samson / The Forum1 / 3
Kat McMahon holds her son Zach Zaborny, who weighed only 1 pound, 12 ounces, when he was born and spent the first six months of his life in the hospital. Special to The Forum2 / 3
Zach Zaborny with his mom, Kat McMahon, on May 2 at the Minnesota State Autism Conference in Minneapolis. Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO — When Zach Zaborny was born, he weighed less than 2 pounds, but he's gone on to make a big impact.

The 25-year-old Fargo man, who grew up in Overland Park, Kan., spent the first six months of his life in the hospital and the first few years of his life on tracheotomy and feeding tubes. By 8, he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism spectrum disorder.

Like others with Asperger's, Zaborny, who calls himself an "Aspie," is highly intelligent and focused (with a tendency to be hyper-focused) but struggles with certain social skills. He hasn't let that stop him, however, from receiving a post-secondary education, which he believes is possible for many young adults on the autism spectrum.

Since first meeting with representatives from Autism NI (Northern Ireland) during a solo trip to Europe last winter, Zaborny has taken on the role of autism advocate, traveling the United States and abroad to share his experiences as a college student with Asperger's.

"My goal is to help inform the world about the opportunities available for students on the autism spectrum after they graduate from high school and to let people know that there is hope as the transition into adulthood takes place," he says.

His work, which is mostly self-funded, landed him an invitation to speak at the 2015 Asia Pacific Autism Conference in Australia, the home country of Tony Attwood, a world-famous autism researcher and professor Zaborny hopes to meet.

Zaborny, who works several jobs in the Fargo-Moorhead area to support himself, didn't think he'd be able to go because of the cost, but, through his GoFundMe page, he quickly received the funds he needs for the September trip.

"Donations started rolling in, and after 24 hours, I had about $1,000. After two days, I was over halfway there," he says.

Since it was created, his GoFundMe page has raised $4,280, more than the amount required to send him Down Under. The remaining funds will pay for his travel to two more conferences. Also on his schedule for 2015: Colorado, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona and Ohio.

His mother, Kat McMahon, will join him for at least two conferences, giving attendees both the child's and the parent's perspective, which she says would have been valuable to her when Zaborny was a child. "I wish that when Zach was growing up, we had had that type of resource available," she says.

When a teacher first mentioned autism, McMahon didn't know what it was, but as she read about it in a book the teacher lent her, a lightbulb went off. She knew it described her son.

"Zach was diagnosed at 8, which is considered a later diagnosis," she says. "Back then, they said it was ADHD. I just knew that something else was different. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I just knew that that wasn't the diagnosis."

Many children with Asperger's are good at math and science, but Zaborny's gifts were in language and writing. McMahon was always impressed by his ability to retain and recall information.

"He would find something to talk about and talk about it in such depth or study it so intently and be able to throw it back out to me, I thought he had a photographic memory," she says.

Although some parents wonder whether their child with autism or Asperger's will be able to go to college, that was never a question for McMahon. She says Zaborny knew that college was the next step for him.

"It was a new beginning," she says. "Before people knew about his Asperger's, they just thought he was 'different,' and no one wants that stigma," she says.

Through his talks, Zaborny, who says he didn't fully come to terms with his diagnosis until college, is using his experience to help change that stigma and help others like him lead productive adult lives.

"I believe that people can do anything they put their minds to," he says. "Obviously, there might be certain limitations, but within reason, I think people can do anything."


Five tips for college success

In his presentation, Zach Zaborny, a 25-year-old Kansas State University grad with Asperger syndrome, provides these five tips for college students on the autism spectrum.

1. Disclose that you have Asperger's to roommates and college professors. Do so as soon as possible.

2. Try to live with someone you know.

3. Get involved with campus activities.

4. Develop a support system outside of campus.

5. Take time to relax.

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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