Autistic teen finds niche in FFA

When Klein High student Katie Zirkle announced she was signing up for Future Farmers of America, no one was more surprised than her parents.

While the teen loves animals, anything unexpected, especially social situations and large crowds, can cause her alarm. Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, at 7, Katie struggles to understand the social cues that make navigating the world easier for her peers.

However, in February, the teen surprised everyone when she appeared on stage in front of hundreds of strangers to auction off her Reserve Champion Fryer Rabbits.

“That was difficult for her,” said her mother, Margaret Zirkle. “Not knowing what would happen. We had to work through it.”

Katie also managed to break a school record for her Reserve Champion Fryer Rabbits after local businessman Chris Gillman purchased them for $3,500. Last year the reserve champion fryer rabbits went for $1,400 while the grand champion went for $1,000.

At a time when reports of bullying and teen suicide in Asperger’s sufferers are making headlines, Katie’s ability to find a niche may be more important than ever.

The statistics speak for themselves. More than 40 percent of children with autism have been bullied, according to Dr. Alan I. Rosenblatt, author of “Autism Spectrum Disorders: What Every Parent Needs to Know.” Research shows at least 50 percent of Asperger’s sufferers have admitted to wanting to kill themselves.

However, Katie is finding ways to inspire others and turn her disorder into a strength. Because people with Asberger’s often have strong interests in particular topics, they can often research their topics of interest with passion.

Katie, it turns out, has always loved learning about animals and caring for them. One year, the teen took a class on equine science. For her birthday, she requested riding lessons from her parents.

“I was looking for a club where I could learn animal facts,” she said. “FFA was the closest thing they had where I get to learn animal facts.”

All that has made Katie a real leader in the classroom, said Kat Doyle, a teacher’s aide who works with Katie.

“She excels at her studies and she’s always willing to help other students and share her expertise. We’re really grateful she’s here,” she said.

Katie was first diagnosed with Asberger’s at 7 when teachers at her former school in Spring ISD recognized Katie might be different.

“Katie had unusual speech, when she first started talking,” said her mother. “She was very delayed with everything.”

Since then, Katie has received treatment through her classes at Klein ISD, which has allowed her to find her niche, said her mother.

“We had it diagnosed early, so she had classes all these years to help,” she said. “Many students in the FFA helped Katie. It’s always wonderful seeing students help the students who need it most.”

Now Katie is focusing on school and has lofty goals after graduation. She wants to earn enough through FFA to help pay for college with the goal of becoming a zoologist, a career that will allow her to work with animals and do research.

“She’s more willing to try new things,” she said. “People underestimate her until they give her a chance. Then she shows them what she can do.”