For the past six years, Tony Helt has been at Colorado State University—but not as a student. Instead, Helt worked in the dining hall of Corbett, serving food to hundreds of students daily. Currently he works at Spoons in the food court of the Lory Student Center.
Aside from a tech certification from Front Range Community College, Helt has no formal university education. He does, however, have a strong desire to learn.
Helt’s passion is in the field of computer technology. He honed his skills with computers since he was five, and he started to build his own machines at age 11. Now at 24-years-old, his projects have become more ambitious the more he has taught himself about software and hardware capabilities. His pursuit has led him to experiment with virtual reality, which is emerging in popularity. His current virtual-reality project is a heads-up display that presents the user with data they would find useful in their everyday life.
Aside from his heads up display project, Helt has pieced together salvaged hardware to make a portable computer that runs Windows 10 and is powered by a solar battery. Acquiring these skills has taken Helt some time, but overall it comes naturally to him.
However, there is a skill that does not come so easily to Helt: social interaction. It is something he has trouble understanding on the same level of other people.
This is because Helt has autism spectrum disorder, ASD.
Generally, Helt’s disorder does not interfere with his job. But there are days when he prefers to do only a specific task.
Helt exhibits above average intelligence about computer technology. Though he considers himself to be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, Helt still has difficulty understanding social cues and other forms of nonverbal communication.
“I honestly feel like sometimes when people talk to me, I have to translate it into a language other than English that my brain operates on,” Helt said.
Adopted as a baby, Helt showed signs of the disorder early on, but there was never an official diagnosis. When Helt was 5-years-old, his adoptive father died, leaving his adoptive mother to raise him.
“It was kind of a struggle for mom and me, knowing what to do or how to solve some of the questions we had and other people might’ve had regarding me,” Helt said.
It was during that time that Helt discovered his interest in computers.
“[My father] left behind a computer after he passed away…I used it to base all my learning,” Helt said. “He was a teacher and he had a lot of cool programs on there [for kids] to learn.”
Helt learned all the basics of reading, writing and mathematics on his father’s machine. Where traditional methods of learning failed for Helt, the computer succeeded. It was an immensely powerful teacher that aided Helt’s development through age 10.
It was also at age 10 when Helt was enrolled into a program at CSU that was offered by the psychology department. After participating in the group for only a short amount of time, Helt was officially diagnosed with ASD.
“Most kids get diagnosed at age three, or earlier,” Helt said. “A lot of kids that are diagnosed later in life don’t have that success that most kids that are diagnosed early on have.”
One of the things Helt found was that being on the spectrum can be both a gift and a curse. On one hand, someone with ASD may have a higher academic intellect compared to others. But on the other hand, the lack of sociability in someone with ASD makes them susceptible to bullying. At school, Helt struggled with the feeling of being an outcast.
“It was hard,” Helt said. “I was bullied severely in junior high. I wonder to this day how I made it through it. I thought maybe I was going to take my own life or someone else was going to do it for me.”
Thankfully, it was different for Helt once he was transferred to an autism program at Fossil Ridge High School. The kids were generally more accepting of Helt, and he had another group he could relate to.
“The whole idea behind social skills groups, and even just being able to be with people who are like you, is that you can feel acceptance and togetherness,” Helt said.
One of the biggest things that was helpful to Helt was when people kept an open mind.
“When people are willing to listen to what you have to say, that really does help a lot,” Helt said. “With autism, a lot of people don’t know how to communicate well…our understanding of the world is entirely different.”
It took a lot on Helt’s part to also maintain an open mind and not be quick to anger. His mentors helped him to be more socially aware and flexible when something did not go as planned.
Helt is able to find solace in his friends and family. Helt’s girlfriend Rebecca Abbott has been especially supportive over the past year.
“With people on the autism spectrum, you have to be very patient with them,” said the CSU student studying development and family studies. “They’re great people. You shouldn’t turn them away.”
Helt has a desire to study computer science at CSU and learn as much as he can, but he admits to having anxiety about how to start that process for someone like himself.
“Everyone has potential,” Helt said. “I think everyone should be considered. I think everyone has the potential to be successful and help other people out. Giving back to the world is my ultimate goal.”