BRATTLEBORO -- As a teenager living with autism, Casey Metcalfe recognizes the challenges his disability creates.
Many teenage boys have trouble talking to girls, or making new friends, but when your social skills are hampered by a brain disorder, navigating high school can grow frustrating and desperate at times.
Casey, 17, is used to accepting what his learning disability prevents him from accessing, but lately, he has been getting used to finding out how the same disability can create opportunities.
On Tuesday afternoon, just after 3 p.m., Casey and his parents left their Brattleboro home to drive to Connecticut's Bradley International Airport, where Casey was going to get on an airplane, alone, for the long flight to California and then on to China.
Casey's improbable journey began about a year ago when he assertively introduced himself to a Chinese couple that was having language difficulties in the grocery store.
Like many children with autism, Casey obsessively concentrates on different interests at times, and over the past few years his has been Chinese culture.
He studies Chinese history and has become fluent in Mandarin Chinese through classes at Brattleboro Union High School and with a private tutor.
So when he was walking through Hannaford last summer and noticed the Chinese couple, he demanded that his father go up and introduce himself.
The Hus were impressed that the American teenager spoke
Casey's parents invited the Hus over for dinner and over the past year Casey and the Hu's son, Jefferson, have become close friends.
Jefferson even spent the Thanksgiving break at Casey's home on Macintosh Lane in Brattleboro.
From their first few times together the Hus extended an invitation for Casey to visit China, and this week, after some doubt, fear and hesitation, Casey's parents, Prudence Baird and Tim Metcalfe, put their youngest son on an airplane and sent him half way around the world for an experience that might never have happened had Casey been born without a disability.
"This is a boy who was never supposed to be able to read or write or speak," Baird said during the final few days leading up to Casey's flight. "When a parent learns that her child has a learning disability it is so hard. I want people to be inspired and keep going despite everything else."
Casey suffered from oxygen deprivation at birth and he was nonverbal for almost four years.
As his parents learned more about autism, and accepted Casey's diagnosis, they experimented with different therapies to help him communicate.
Some worked and some didn't.
Through the years Casey had a long list of obsessions from the color yellow, to clocks and then elevators.
Around 2004 Casey became interested in paper money, and in the men on the bills.
That led to an interest in politics, which eventually led to his focus on China.
In sixth grade, at Putney Central School, he began to take Chinese language lessons.
The picture language fascinated him, his mother said, and that same learning disability, that made it so hard to interact with his fellow students, drove Casey to master Mandarin Chinese.
At a Brattleboro Chinese restaurant this week Casey chatted with the owner, made jokes, and even sang a Chinese folk song.
Baird said when the Hus first suggested that Casey come to China, she was not sure he would be ready.
As the parents of a child with autism, Baird and Metcalfe have been busy enough helping Casey prepare his own breakfast and clean up the bathroom sink.
The thought of sending him to Shanghai for 10 days seemed like some other family's journey.
Baird said over the past 17 years she has been continually amazed by what her son can accomplish, and by his knack to live within the disability.
"When your child has a disability he misses so many conventional milestones," Baird said. "There are so many regular teenage activities that are closed to him, your heart aches because he misses so much."
So as the talk of a trip to China became more realistic, Baird and Metcalfe focused on how they could make it happen and not on why it should not.
In preparation for the trip the couple even tried a test run by sending Casey to Canada, which was a complete disaster.
Baird and Metcalfe drove to Montreal to meet him, but Casey's flight was canceled and they had to find someone to stay with him back home in Vermont.
They continued having some hesitations about the China trip, but Baird said it was too late to turn back.
For the past 17 years, Baird said, doctors and therapists and specialists have been telling the family about Casey's limitations.
Now it's time to see what might be possible.
And the trip is only a first step
"From the day he was born people have been telling us what he would not be able to do," Baird said. "Casey has outperformed every benchmark we ever set out for him. He built his own bridges to the life he is about to embark upon."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.