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Stonington - When Ben Bundesmann began his freshman year at Stonington High School four years ago, "he kind of hid behind" the long hair that partially covered his face, according to guidance counselor Maureen Steinhoff.
Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome the previous school year, he was afraid to ask questions of his teachers or interact with many of his fellow students. Even sending an email was difficult. His comments were sometimes inappropriate for the social situations he was in.
Fast forward to this year, when the 17-year-old Bundesmann is not only graduating but moving on to the University of Connecticut's engineering program to study computers. His first two years will be at the Avery Point campus in Groton.
He now stands up for himself at meetings to discuss his progress, asks questions and even tells jokes.
The past year, Bundesmann has volunteered at Mystic Seaport and the Stonington Historical Society doing data entry, which has allowed him not only to interact with others but also to meld his love of computers, math and history.
"I'm really grateful for everything everyone has done for me here and all the help I've got," he said. "The teachers here have been great to me. I don't want to name just one because that would be a disservice to the others."
Bundesmann was also able to comfortably answer questions for this story, something he said he would not have been able to do just a few years ago because of the fear and anxiety he felt. And the long hair is gone, as he now sports a close-cropped hairstyle.
Steinhoff and fellow guidance counselor Carrie Dentch said they always knew Bundesmann was a bright student who did well in the classes he was interested in, but their goal was to help him learn how to overcome the fear and anxiety he felt when engaging people.
"We know he wanted to work with computers so we stressed to him that he would have to interact with people and work as part of a team," Dentch said. "He worked really hard to get where he is today."
"Ben has put forth a gigantic effort to understand why he is the way he is, what it means and what he needs to do to move forward," added Steinhoff. "He's embraced Asperger's. He's read about it and studied it. He now knows there are many famous people who have it and that was a bit of comfort for him."
Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by problems with social interaction and nonverbal communication.
Bundesmann, Dentch and Steinhoff attribute his progress to a variety of factors - a very supportive family, a great therapist, medication that lessened his anxiety and Steinhoff's Secondary Learning Strategies program, which is designed to assist students on the autism spectrum. For students such as Bundesmann, that may mean practicing how to have a conversation, asking questions, talking on the phone or working on social skills.
"I'm not really as oblivious as I was back then," Bundesmann said. "As a freshman I might say something stupid and get in trouble. Now I'm much better with that."
Dentch said that Bundesmann has some strong beliefs and he was not afraid to share them in the past, even if it was not the right time or social situation. Now he thinks through what he is going to say before he says it.
"He's become a much better advocate for himself and he's not afraid to ask a question," she said.