Thousands of feet in the air, Connor Watt feels at home.
Watt, 19, has taken a couple flight lessons and wants to be a pilot.
“It’s quite the sight up there,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”
Watt, who graduated Thursday from Sanderson High School in Raleigh with a near-perfect grade-point average, prefers peaceful. He has autism, and social interactions can be tough.
But Watt has worked hard to step outside his comfort zone. He played the baritone in Sanderson’s marching band, and he took part in JROTC and Boy Scouts.
He likes to take on challenges, and he’s had his share of them.
Watt was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Doctors told his mother, Jane Watt, he might need to be institutionalized, but she “didn’t buy it.” In kindergarten, teachers at a private school said he didn’t belong.
Things improved when Watt started attending Lead Mine Elementary School in North Raleigh.
“They were caring and helped me when I struggled,” he said.
Watt earned A’s and B’s throughout elementary and middle school. When he started at Sanderson, his Individualized Education Plan, created by school officials for students with special needs, didn’t include extra help on classwork from teachers. It primarily focused on improving social skills.
Nicole Stirling, his IEP case manager, had been a special programs teacher at Sanderson for eight years when she was assigned to help Watt.
“Back then, he was more withdrawn,” Stirling said. “He wouldn’t seek out relationships on his own.”
Stirling kept track of Watt’s behavior and academic performance. She collaborated with his mother and his teachers to find ways to help him become more interactive. She moved him to “upper level classes.”
“We felt like it would be a good fit,” Stirling said. “He had to self-advocate.”
With the support of Stirling, his teachers and his family, Watt made friends and improved his social skills.
“I feel more comfortable,” he said. “Now, I do my best to get to know them.”
In 2012, shortly after she met Watt, Stirling’s 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. She worried what the future would hold for her son, but Watt’s success has given her hope.
“Connor is an example of a kid who has been successful,” she said. “If he can do it, my son can do it, too.”
Jane Watt said her son showed his classmates that people with autism can aspire to the same level of success as everyone else.
“He’s an inspiration,” she said.
In August, Watt will attend UNC-Pembroke to study environmental sciences. He will have to make new friends and learn about a new place. But he said he feels positive about the change of scenery.
“Going to college is a bit nerve-wracking,” he said. “But I have a feeling I’ll adapt.”
In the future, he wants to be an environmental aerial observer, which combines his two favorite things: flying and science.
“The sky is the limit for me,” he said.
Evan Owens: 919-829-8955; @eowens12