Tech Student A Role Model For Other Autistic Students

Sam Shreffler’s confidence has improved drastically since auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance. Photo by Alicia Keene

After watching a full season of the show “So You Think You Can Dance”, Sam Shreffler decided he would try out if auditions came near enough to Lubbock, but what he did not know was how much one audition would affect him.

When auditions were called in Dallas last May, Shreffler, a student at Texas Tech’s Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research’s Transition Academy, decided to test the waters and audition for season nine of the show.

After a roller coaster of events and emotions, Shreffler said he went into autopilot when his turn to audition arrived, though after his performance he was not asked to move on to the next round, he said he felt he did all that he could have done.

“I felt like I gave everybody here something new to see,” Shreffler said. “When they see me again next time, they are going to really see what I am capable of.”

The 23-year-old Ross employee said this experience opened up many doors and gave him a passion to continue his dancing.

Janice Magness, the director of the Burkhart Transition Academy, said she thought Shreffler’s decision to audition was a big goal for such a shy person, but the positive response he received afterwards boosted his morale.

She said everyone cheered for Shreffler, the judges told him how brave he was, he received a standing ovation, the video went viral on YouTube, the Burkhart center received emails and phone calls from people all over the country, and he became a local celebrity.

She said she thinks he felt acceptance, recognition, and affirmation from other adults, which helped him realize that he took a big step.

“He does not brag about it but you can tell he is proud,” Magness said.

Magness said Shreffler has told her he was bullied in school from a young age, which hurt his self-esteem, and became scared to branch out because he feared what people would say or that he would be tormented.

Three years ago, Magness said Shreffler’s mother told her he wanted to join the academy because he did not have the courage and did not feel ready to face college yet. She said she thinks college students may have frightened him, and he may have been scared he would be bullied.

Magness said she has served as a mentor to Shreffler since he arrived at the academy by helping him realize his great potential, improve his self-esteem, and be successful at employment.

She said Shreffler is aware of his social deficits, and the deficit that holds him back the most is his lack of self-esteem, which has greatly improved.

“Even though his self-esteem has been lagging, he still believes in himself,” Magness said, “and he knows he is highly intelligent, and he knows he has a lot to offer. He has just learned to kind of do it in a quiet way because he does not want to get rejection.”

Even though he still has scars from his grade school years, Shreffler said he has been able to put everything in the past and keep looking forward to the future with an open mind and open heart.

“I would still say that there are still some things that need to be worked on,” Shreffler said, “but I am definitely feeling a lot more confident that I can be able to tackle these tasks with no fear.”

Director Magness said when Shreffler first came to the academy, she thought he was too high functioning and wanted him to go to college instead because he was intelligent and had a good vocabulary.

“Some of the research people gave him some kind of vocabulary test, and he scored like a person going to graduate school,” Magness said.

He ended up fitting in perfectly, she said, and as a senior about to graduate in August, he has become a leader and role model to the students.

“He really is kind of the leader of our classroom,” Magness said. “Everybody looks to him for guidance. They say, ‘well, what would Sam do?’ He is a real asset to our room.”

Shreffler said the Burkhart Center has helped him confirm that he is creative, and he is capable of being a leader.

“I can be able to teach people and lead them in the right direction,” Shreffler said. “In the Burkhart Center, I have always been watching out for others.”

Magness said she thinks Shreffler is, and always will be, a good ambassador for the Burkhart Center.

She said she will be sad to see him leave, but she wants him to do more, such as pursuing his interest in interior designing.

Shreffler said having autism has gifted him in a way that sets him apart from everyone else because he has a gifted intelligence and quirk of being in the background and outspoken.

About Alicia Keene

Graduate Executive Director
Alicia Keene is a dual master's student from Austin, Texas studying mass communication and business. One day, she hopes to work for a prominent news publication in a major city as either a reporter or producer.

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