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Graduating at 15, overcoming adversity in the classroom with autism

Posted at 10:31 PM, Jul 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-19 23:31:02-04

HUNTSVILLE, Texas  — Nehemiah Juniel is soon to be Sam Houston State University’s youngest graduate at just 15 years old.

With graduation approaching in a few weeks, Nehemiah shares with how he has overcome more obstacles than just being the youngest in the classroom. He’s navigated college while having autism.

“The day someone had diagnosed me with autism really tried to explain back to me, the very first thing I said back was ‘finally someone gets me,’” said Juniel.

His dad Raphael Juniel said it was their family therapist that said they should look into autism for Nehemiah.

“That was the best thing that could have happened for us as parents and for Nehemiah,” said parents Raphael and Corie Juniel.

Nehemiah said it was the best feeling, for people to understand him for him.

“Having people understand me as a person, it was the most important thing ever because people would get frustrated with me,” said Juniel. “They wouldn’t understand why I had to be so specific about things, why I had anxiety about a lot of things and when I was diagnosed with autism, it clicked for everyone else.”

His mom, Corie Juniel said he would show signs of autism around nine years old.

“You’d go in his room and cars would be lined up by color, so like dark to light, or the crayon box,” said Juniel. “He would dump all the crayons out and then reorganize them in the way he felt they should be in the box and those were repetitive behaviors.”

Nehemiah describes his autism as being curious and finding ways to make sense of it, even if others didn’t.

“But curiosity would lead to me deconstructing things, trying to figure out how it functions, how things work, and I didn’t have the knowledge to put everything back together,” said Juniel. “I wasn’t necessarily being deconstructive; it was just having misplaced curiosity.”

His parents said he is still a kid that enjoys playing the piano, riding his bike but also reading the encyclopedia for fun.

“He’s a great kid who happens to have autism, who happens to be 15 [and] graduating,” said Juniel.

The local NAACP chapter in Huntsville saw the story from KRHD and decided to help make Nehemiah’s dreams come true.

“When I saw your KRHD news post, the local NAACP and Walker County Democratic Party, we were so excited and so we decided to take action to assist Nehemiah in getting to Route 66,” said Servanie Sessions, Walker County Democratic Chair.

Sessions with the Walker County Democratic Party came together with the local NAACP to give Nehemiah a donation.

“And I thought, well he’s going to graduate so we got that part taken care of, so let’s see if we can get him to Route 66,” said Sessions. “That’s one of his dreams, so let’s help him get there.”

Nehemiah was overwhelmed with joy when he realized the Huntsville NAACP chapter wanted to meet him.

“It was an incredible feeling to be recognized on that kind of level,” said Juniel. “The NAACP has been around for a long time spreading good news about black achievement and things like that and so ... for them to notice me was a shock. I was never expecting to get recognized on this kind of level. I was very happy.”

His parents were also shocked to hear from the NAACP as well.

“I was shocked,” said Juniel. “I was super surprised like how in the world did y’all even hear about his story and it was through KRHD.”

They say to have the NAACP reach out to them was something they never imagined to happen.

“They were like we heard the story,” said Juniel. “We saw the piece and we want to meet him, give him a token of our appreciation, and show how proud we are of him. So we were not expecting the NAACP to reach out to us.”

Dr. Richard Watkins serves with the local NAACP chapter and said the Juniel family deserves resources for them to complete their education.

"The challenges that they’ve had, with the high intelligence that exists in the parents as well as the children, not having access to resources that will provide the best education for these young people,” said Dr. Watkins.

With Nehemiah’s dad being a disabled veteran, Dr. Watkins said he will work hard to make sure some benefits can be found and used to go towards Nehemiah’s medical school journey.

“We just know this community is going to adopt this family and we’re going to do everything we can to help them with the resources that they are going to need because they are really an exceptional family,” said Dr. Watkins.

The NAACP chapter in Huntsville is most proud of Nehemiah’s success and looks forward to the impact he’ll make on the community.