He didn't speak coherently until he was 4. He had to be taken out of preschool because he stayed alone in a corner and screamed. Doctors told his mother that he never would learn enough to become an independent adult.
Jaylon O'Neal is proving them wrong.
The rising senior is in regular-education classes at Early College Academy of Columbus and hasn't let his autism prevent him from succeeding. This year, he self-published his autobiography, "Autism: In My Own Words." He also won Georgia's top prize in the InvestWrite Essay Contest.
Jaylon hopes his book will help demystify the disorder.
"I want to be in the lives of people that have trouble coping with autism," he wrote. "I want to show children, teens and adults that having autism is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
"It doesn't mean you're dumb. It doesn't mean you're slow. It doesn't mean you're stupid. It doesn't mean you're insane. It doesn't mean you're weak.
"It means you're human and we are all different."
Meticho O'Neal became a 20-year-old single mother when Jaylon was born in 1995. They lived on the south side of Chicago, where she couldn't find the answer to her son's problems.
"It was a quest," she said. "We had doors closed after doors closed."
The first doctor who tried to figure out why Jaylon had trouble speaking suggested he might be deaf.
"I ruled that out quickly," said Meticho, now the parent coordinator at Carver High School in Columbus. "We knew he could hear by his expressions and responding to what was going on."
So she continued her search for an answer after they moved to Columbus in 1999 to be closer to family. That's when one of the teachers in Jaylon's pre-kindergarten Head Start program took an interest in him and asked special-education experts from the STEPS program to observe Jaylon.
They saw strong evidence of autism. A few weeks later, a doctor confirmed the diagnosis.
Empowered with that knowledge, Meticho dedicated herself to getting Jaylon the help he needs -- but ensuring he grows up as normally as possible. In fact, Jaylon has been in regular-education classes since third grade.
And she decided not to tell her son that he has autism until he was mature enough to understand.
"I didn't want him to become that diagnosis," she said.
Mild and severe
Jaylon's form of autism is called Persuasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. PDD-NOS is considered a mild form of autism, but it can have severe symptoms.
"Jaylon had to be taught everything, like how to make assumptions" Meticho said. "Assuming was not in his realm. Like if you were upset with him, he wouldn't know. Socially, he was a misfit. He couldn't assume your feelings were hurt, and whatever he thought came out of his mouth. That pushed people away."
So although Michael Jackson was his favorite pop star, he had to learn that he couldn't tell a woman she looks like the deceased celebrity.
Jaylon wears earplugs and sometimes headphones because he is sensitive to noise. He has a photographic memory, but he struggles to maintain self-control and combat his hyperactivity.
"He's very loyal and dedicated," Meticho said, "but he doesn't understand what's not a good relationship."
Jaylon attended three middle schools in as many years. He left his first middle school because he was bullied too much.
"It was about everything," Jaylon said. "The way I looked, the way I sounded, the way I couldn't form complete sentences, the way I dressed, how high my pants were."
He was expelled from his second middle school because his attempt at a joke was interpreted as a terroristic threat: As he laughed with a teacher, he blurted, "If I was crazy enough, I would come to the school and kill everyone!"
Jaylon wrote about that comment, "To this day, every time I think about that day, I hold my head down in utter disappointment, embarrassment and humiliation."
Sweet 16 gift
On her son's 16th birthday, Meticho finally felt Jaylon would benefit from knowing his diagnosis.
Meticho sang "Happy Birthday" while Jaylon ate a chocolate cupcake. Then she said she needed to speak to him about something important.
"Jaylon, you are autistic."
"Artistic? Mom, I already know that; it runs in the family."
"I'm being serious. You are autistic."
So she did -- in depth -- and Jaylon accepted the revelation as his mother had hoped: as a sweet 16 gift.
"I felt like I was introduced to the left side of my body," Jaylon wrote. "At that moment, everything made sense. She didn't want me to have a reason not to be successful. No excuses! Failure is not an option!"
In an interview, Jaylon added, "Now that I know I have this, I can turn a negative into a positive."
Besides his mother, Jaylon thanks the rest of the folks in his house for their support: stepfather Kenneth Sanders, brother Kenny, a rising fifth-grader at Dimon Elementary Magnet Academy and sister Jalisa, a rising eighth-grader at East Columbus Magnet Academy.
Meticho also credits Early College Academy for providing Jaylon "a family atmosphere."
"We all just grew together," she said. "They've always been there to help him out."
Jaylon was on the A/B honor roll his first two years in high school until this past year, when he took senior classes as a junior and received Bs and Cs.
"I was doing the same work as everyone else, but I was doing it rather slowly or too fast," Jaylon said. "There were times when I had the answer in my head, but I couldn't interpret it through my mouth. I'd raise my hand, but my brain wouldn't connect with my vocal cords."
Jaylon played basketball in middle school and has participated in drama and cross country in high school. He likes video games and art and music. He is learning to drive. He wants to attend Chicago State University, where he might study art or drama or writing. He dreams of becoming an actor, rapper or motivational speaker -- he already is an author, of course -- and maybe he will pursue all those careers.
"I'd just like to be somebody who has a keen insight on life and shares his talents with the world," he said.
Jaylon's state-winning essay in the National Council of Economic Education Stock Market Game is his analysis of Facebook. His economics teacher, Jennifer DuVall, praised Jaylon's creative ability to view an issue from different angles.
"He pays a lot of attention to details," she said, "and, in economics, that makes a big difference."
But his insight in social situations isn't as sharp.
Madison Dade, a rising sophomore at Early College Academy, said students are wary of Jaylon's tendency to hug people when he first meets them.
"They didn't understand why he acted that way," she said. "He'd be loud in class and act like he's not afraid of anything, like he was really comfortable and straightforward. Some people would laugh and think it was amusing, and some people would just back away."
Madison called Jaylon an inspiration for overcoming those obstacles.
"I actually look up to him," she said. "He goes to a school with a curriculum that is very hard, but he gets past all that, and that's something you don't see very often."
DuVall noted Jaylon has been a constructive force for the students as well.
"It's good for them to understand that not everybody is the same," she said, "because they're going to have to work with different people their entire lives."
The same day she told her son that he is autistic, Meticho also suggested to Jaylon that he write about his experience.
"He just went for it," she said.
Jaylon took about five months to write the 112-page book. In the dedication, he wrote, "To my mother, who is my rock, sword and shield, and to all the people who ran, backed out and thought that I would never amount to anything."
Meticho reflected on Jaylon's journey and marveled at how far he has come.
"I am so proud," she said. "Words can't even explain it."
DuVall offered some: "Jaylon's really a shining example of what a person can do if they're not just a person with autism."
Henry Franklin, the liaison between Early College Academy and Columbus State University, said Jaylon "has an aura about himself. He has a fixation about where he wants to be in life and what he wants to do. Regardless of people looking down their nose or trying to down him, Jaylon has stayed on the path."
The compliments Jaylon has received from the book have boosted his confidence.
"He's out the roof," Meticho said. "He's very humble -- don't get me wrong -- but it really moves him when people say job well done."
"There are many people who said I couldn't perform in mainstream society," Jaylon said. "I feel honored to be able to do that."
Jaylon is scheduled to make a presentation at the Autism Speaks national conference in Orlando in November. He also is available to speak to local groups.
"I plan to raise awareness about this disorder," he said. "You may have "I Am Sam' and 'Rain Man,' but those movies are basically stereotypes. Not everybody who is autistic acts like that. We don't take pictures of everything; we're not an automatic calculator; we all can't record exact information on airplane crashes.
" I just want to get people to understand that this disorder is alive and we do exist. We're not imaginary; this is real stuff. We may have one month in April where people want to get involved and wear blue and march all of a sudden, but what about after that? What about in May, June and July? Are you going to talk about autism then?"HOW TO BUY THE BOOK
"Autism: In My Own Words" by Early College Academy of Columbus rising senior Jaylon O'Neal is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book editions at various prices on major websites. He self-published the 112-page book through AuthorHouse. His cousin Bennie E. Braswell III created the book cover's artwork.
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism Speaks, considered the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization, defines autism and autism spectrum disorder as a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 88 American children are on the autism spectrum -- a tenfold increase in prevalence in 40 years.