Badges Of Courage

Scout With A Form Of Autism Overcomes Obstacles To Become An Eagle

By DAVID OWENS
Courant Staff Writer
January 2 2007

SOUTH WINDSOR -- For many Boy Scouts, learning to tie a bowline or a taut-line hitch can be as tough as it gets.

For Robby Cvejanovich tying knots was easy. The challenge was enduring the stares and the teasing that he sometimes experienced because of his tendency to pace back and forth or talk to himself. Cvejanovich, 18, has Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

Despite his disability and the teasing, scouting became a focus of Cvejanovich's life, and earlier this year he achieved the rank that only 4 percent of all scouts reach: Eagle Scout.

The Boy Scouts of America allows some accommodations for scouts with disabilities, especially when it comes to earning required merit badges. But Cvejanovich wanted no part of that.

"He fulfilled the requirements of any other boy," said Brian Hosig, who heads the Troop 186 committee. To be eligible for the Eagle rank, a scout must earn 21 merit badges, 12 of which are required. Cvejanovich earned 29.

"I went a little bit beyond," Cvejanovich said.

People with Asperger's syndrome are often socially isolated and have eccentric behaviors, especially in childhood, that cause them to stand out. It can also be characterized by a lack of social skills, a difficulty in social relationships and a limited range of interests or activities, according to the Connecticut Autism Society.

And Cvejanovich endured teasing and taunting.

"They tended to make fun of me a little bit," Cvejanovich recalled. "I pace, I tend to talk to myself because I have AS." When there was teasing, Cvejanovich said he would "just shrug it off."

Others in the troop, as they got to know Cvejanovich and understand Asperger's syndrome, would look out for him.

"There was always that initial `meeting Robby phase' where people were put off and made fun of him a little," said Spencer Hill, a fellow Troop 186 scout who is on his way to earning the Eagle rank. "Most people were pretty accepting after a while."

As Cvejanovich grew older, those behaviors became less common, said Randy Olsen, the scoutmaster of Troop 186.

From his earliest days as a scout, Cvejanovich talked about becoming an Eagle Scout, his mother said. And she admits she was skeptical he'd achieve the rank.

"When he was 15, the spring of his freshman year [at South Windsor High School] he was mentioning that he was still hoping to do it," Beth Cvejanovich said. "But he still had a dozen or so badges he was going to have to earn. I told him I didn't think it was possible for him to get all those badges, based on the fact he was only earning three badges a year. I couldn't see how he was going to be able to do it.

"He was crushed that I didn't have confidence in him, so, of course, I felt bad."

Her son, she said, responded: "I want to show I can achieve something."

So mother and son sat down and charted a plan to earn 10 merit badges that summer. People in the community who knew Cvejanovich lent a hand.

Glen Richards, a Manchester police lieutenant who attends the Cvejanoviches' church, helped Cvejanovich with a law enforcement merit badge. And the leaders of Troop 186 did all they could to put Cvejanovich on a path toward success.

And then Cvenajovich earned the merit badges he needed that summer at a special camp session called "Eagle week."

"That's when I knew he was going to do it," his mother said.

Earning merit badges is only a portion of the requirements to reach Eagle. Cvejanovich also had to organize and complete a service project that would benefit the community. He decided to build a walkway at Wapping Community Church to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to reach the church's outdoor chapel.

Cvejanovich worked with church leaders to organize the project, suppliers to provide materials and then scouts and their parents to do the work.

Merit badges weren't Cvejanovich's only strengths as a scout. He was good at fire building and adept at knot tying, two skills many scouts struggle to master.

"Robby was the knot genius," Hill said. "Whenever we needed to tie knots in a scout competition it was always, `Robby, how do we do this?' and he'd jump in there and tie whatever knot had to be tied in that situation."

Scouting was critically important to Cvejanovich, more than it might be for other boys, because it was difficult for him to be involved in other activities, his mother said.

"If it hadn't been for Boy Scouts, he would have had no social outlet at all," said Beth Cvejanovich. "This was his only connection to humanity outside of high school. This was the only organization that offered camping and fellowship with other boys. He would not have been the kid he is today without it."

Cvejanovich received his Eagle rank at a ceremony in the fall. It was a special event for Robby and his parents.

"What was really wonderful about his Eagle Scout ceremony was that it was the only time we've got our community, family and friends together to celebrate an achievement of Robby," Beth Cvejanovich said. "We've never had that experience with him. To have 50 people show up and celebrate Robby's achievement was really so joyous."

Cvejanovich graduated from South Windsor High School and now attends the Allen Institute for Innovative Learning, a program for disabled adults who are capable of college level work but who need extra support because of their disability, his mother said.

Having her son attain his goal of being an Eagle Scout has left Beth Cvejanovich with the hope that her son will achieve more.

"It's made me feel that there's still hope that he's going to be independent one day, that he's going to eventually be able to go to college and be employable," she said.

ROBBY CVEJANOVICH, 18, of South Windsor, who has Aspergerís syndrome, a form of autism, earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Along with earning more than the needed number of merit badges, he helped organize the building of a walkway at Wapping Community Church. He is pictured at his home.