Happiness is helping dad and big brother put together a new patio set and being the best helper they can ask for.


“That’s our Sam – always with a big yes and never a complaint when we need help around the house,” mom Amy Johnson said.

Sam’s family includes mom Amy, a native of Yankton and employed at First National Bank; father Jeff who has been a police officer here in Yankton for 21 years, and two siblings Hannah and Jacob.

But life is not always so rosy for 11-year-old Sam.

Day-to-day, Sam deals with Autism, specifically Asperger’s Disorder.

“We had him tested when he was about five years old, in junior kindergarten and they suspected he would probably be on the spectrum,” Amy said.

In addition, Sam was very hyperactive and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It didn’t surprise the couple as Sam’s older brother Jacob was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in fourth grade and Sam seemed to have the same tendencies and behavioral concerns as 17-year-old Jacob. The couple thought they probably didn’t recognize these issues when Jacob was that young.

The Yankton School District took Sam through two days of testing because although he was high-functioning he was hyperactive and had trouble with socialization Amy said.

Sam was always a well-behaved child, but he always had a very narrow view of what was going on around him. His view was all that mattered and often had one-sided conversations, talking about what he wanted to talk about and didn’t interact with others. “If Sam liked Legos, he talked about Legos, no matter what else was going on,” Johnson said. “He struggled with social cues from adults like moving on to another topic which he doesn’t recognize.”

Tantrums were never in Sam’s wheelhouse, but he is a very particular person and creature of habit. Amy said changing his routine causes a lot of tremendous anxiety and she compares it to a fear of the unknown. He needs to know what’s going to happen and exactly how things are going to go.

“It really causes a lot of anxiety for him when what he expects to happen doesn’t happen,” Amy said.



At suppertime Sam always asks how many bites he has to take or exactly what time his friends are coming. Amy believes it’s his way to have some measure of control in,


what is for him, an uncontrollable world filled with chaos. His little brain is moving six different directions all the time, thinking of anything and everything all at one time.

Sam is never out of control and he is on medication albeit a pretty low dose with good success Amy said. Most children with these issues are on some type of medication. For Sam, it gives him a little relief and settles his brain, so he can focus better.

Sam’s lack of attention is one of the first things Amy and dad Jeff recognized about him when he was little and one of the first markers for ADHD children. Amy laughs when she describes how fidgety he is, realizing he moves constantly to expend all the energy he seems to have.

Sam will be starting fifth grade this fall, looking forward to seeing his friends. Amy said he does have an Individual Education Program plan through the school district and one of the directives is he goes to the Resource Room every day for additional classroom help. The school district is very helpful and involved in meeting Sam’s needs.

One of Sam’s special nuances is he is very literal. He has no imagination and doesn’t understand jokes. He struggles to visualize for instance, a fictional book. He can’t picture what is happening on the pages, so the Resource teachers help him with reading and he also has difficulties with math.

Another resource for Sam is a Speech Therapy individual who works with him on how to use his socialization skills correctly. The resource person works with him on his skills depending on his maturity level and developing social skills was only introduced to him this last year in fourth grade. In his early years they focused on scholastic skills and helping him make adjustments in the classroom.

As Sam looks to the future and Middle School next year, the resource staff wants to help him make the transition to the active class schedule he will be faced with as easily as possible. Socialization will be an important skill needed to maneuver the halls with more classmates and a greater variety of teaching styles.

“Sam has a great group of friends who all share the same issues, same little quirks on the spectrum of their disorder but Middle School will be a big pond,” Amy said. “Some are more empathetic and emotional, some have more difficulties with social skills, but they balance each other.”

The work with the speech therapist includes talking with Sam about what ifs. “What if this happened Sam, what would you do,” and after hearing his response, the therapist may offer another option like, ‘Sam, what if you did this?” The idea is to put Sam in another person’s shoes, so it is not such a one-sided conversation. Amy believes the philosophy focuses on repetition of a variety of interactions in order to reinforce more positive behavior patterns.

Certainly, during these early years in Beadle School, Sam was relatively safe every day with the same students in his class and the same teacher. In Middle School, he will be placed in a variety of forced interactions with many other students and moving to different classrooms with different teachers. Sam has already expressed concern about Middle School looming on the horizon, the transition and the unknowns, and Amy understands his apprehension.

“I know how poorly he deals with change and lack of structure and know those first few days will be very difficult for him,” Amy said.

Amy said she can ask Sam a question and he will answer but he will never respond with a question. There is never any back and forth. It doesn’t occur to Sam to ask a question. She adds though he is a very enjoyable child even though he is messy and that exasperates her. She can follow his trail through the house whether it be the Legos he was playing with or fruit roll-up wrappers. He just drops as he goes – leaves a path.

“I admit it is a struggle for me and I know Sam struggles, too,” Amy said. “It is very upsetting for him if he gets in trouble, almost like a physical pain for him. It is part of the spectrum disorder called rejection sensitivity and he cannot physically handle someone yelling at him, especially Jeff or me. He cries and says he’s sorry.” The family hopes that will improve with maturity and only time will tell.

Another disadvantage Amy sees for Sam is he has not discovered his own voice so thinking for himself is a challenge. He tends to follow what someone else does but he is also very literal and very factual. Physics is his favorite topic and he will walk abound the house spouting facts. Interestingly enough, his older sister Hannah is a junior in college studying Physics as her major and they bond very well, talking about their favorite science. They even enjoy the same TV shows and Amy says their brains work similarly.

Sharing facts with another person would be Sam’s choice rather than any social interaction. He would rather talk about the moon and stars or dark matter than ask how someone’s day went.

“There’s a smart little brain in there and sometimes it’s a struggle to get it out when there are so many other things rattling in there, it’s hard to wade through it all,” Amy said. In his narrow-minded world, science is his interest and he excels in that area. The other subjects are not so important. He loves to watch videos about science all day long and prefers that to a book. Siri helps him to find things on the Internet because he struggles with spelling and is very phonetic. He also struggles with complete sentences because he cannot understand the structure of Grammar. His vocabulary is quite extensive, but he cannot bring the words to paper.

The couple sees the frustration in Sam’s struggle to learn and how badly he wants it to be right. He worries about grades even though they have always encouraged all their children to work hard, knowing he is harder on himself than others are. Knowing his anxiety will grow as the subjects and classwork gets harder is a concern for the Johnsons.

Sam also has learned the value of work as he knows he has chores every week and works hard to make sure the jobs are completed. He understands the importance of caring for his home and cleaning up after one’s self, which will serve him well when he is an adult.

But really all Sam cares about is his science. He has no interest in band, choir, music or art. Sports have no attraction nor does swimming. He participated in a two-day robotics camp in Vermillion this summer and completed a week-long activity here in Yankton called Camp Invention for the third year. He came home with a lot of projects which they had created and also talked about recycling and environmental concerns during the week. The activities are very Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) based.

“The activities for children like him are few and far between here,” Amy said. “I wish more people would be ‘thinking outside of the box’ for activities for children who are not sports-minded.”

Amy and Jeff are very proactive about making sure Sam’s needs are met so he is successful in school. There is a good support system in the school and other parents with children like Sam need to be diligent, so their children’s needs are addressed. Advocating for better services is a continuing challenge.

Diagnosing children with Autism and other disorders in the spectrum is becoming more common Amy believes. There are many forms of the disorder from low functioning children to high functioning with maybe nothing more than social quirks so there is more acceptance now. There is a willingness to recognize and diagnose children now.

“Before a child was said to having learning disabilities and they went for special help,” Amy said. “Sadly, those children were often ridiculed and bullied but today, a child goes to the resource room and it’s no big deal.”

Amy would like to encourage parents if they have any suspicions about their children, to not be proud. Ask questions, whether it be the pediatrician or a teacher. Teachers are with the children everyday and if a parent has a suspicion, the teacher probably has the same suspicion.

Good help is there; parents just need to take the step and do it.

“We do admit Sam knows a lot of things we don’t, and we just let him talk,” Amy said with a laugh. “Yep, Sam. Really, Sam? Some days are an education for us, too.”