When he was 5, Thomas Dean Simmons was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. But with a strong support system, Simmons learned early that his differences weren't a hindrance but a strength.
Video game technology has always been a passion of the McCracken County High School senior and was encouraged by his family, especially his late mother, Surrisa Simmons, who died during his junior year.
"When I was very little, my mom gave me a game and I always liked to play games," Simmons said.
"I've always thought gaming was a way to help me learn about technology, so I've always taken a special interest in how video games were made."
His talent and passion led him to compete at the state level in Action Skills at SkillsUSA, a career and technical student organization, during his sophomore, junior and senior years. He placed at regional, state and national levels, including eighth in the country by demonstrating his favorite skill -- playing video games.
Simmons, the son of Shaun Simmons, is the Paducah Bank Teen of the Week.
Each week in the online edition and Tuesday in the print edition, The Sun features a teen selected from nominees submitted by guidance counselors throughout the region.
Near the end of the school year, one of the students profiled will be named Teen of the Year and will receive a $5,000 scholarship. An additional student will be chosen for an Inspiration Award and receive a $1,000 scholarship.
Simmons is a four-year member of McCracken's gaming club, and he has recently taken on a leadership role within the group. He is a current member of the National Honor Society with a nearly perfect grade-point average and is a member of Heartland Baptist Church, where he serves within the puppet ministry and Connect Ministry, serving children, youth and adults with mental and physical disabilities.
In June 2017, Simmons had the opportunity to complete a virtual reality social cognition training program at the University of Texas in Dallas, an experience he described as extremely beneficial in managing his autism.
Simmons' grandmother, Sandy Sams, said the training served as a promising and motivating platform on which to safely practice and rehearse social skills for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
"It really helped him with communication," Sams said. "Because Thomas Dean, with Asperger's, sometimes has a hard time expressing his thoughts and his feelings. But the training really helped."
Sams spoke of Simmons' talent for video games, noting he has been playing -- and beating -- video games since he was just 18 months old.
"It was just something that he was comfortable with and as he got older, he just got better at them," she said.
"He'll get a new game and within a day, he has won all of it and is ready for a new one. We felt like that was the training he needed to go into also."
After Simmons' mother passed away, Sams said she began looking for places that trained individuals in video game technology.
"I found one that's in Plano, Texas, and it's called nonPareil Institute," she said. "It's a technology training center, but it's for individuals that are on the autism spectrum."
Sams said she and her family were hesitant to send Simmons so far away, but were pleasantly surprised when they discovered that another location would be opening this year in Orlando, Florida, just 45 minutes away from relatives.
"We feel like this is a God-answered prayer for us," she said.
In eight years, nonPareil has grown to serve more than 200 adults with autism within two training sites. Those training and working at nonPareil have built market competitive products, while also gaining the skills to become more independent, self-sufficient, and contributing members of the community.
Aside from video games, Simmons has in the past shown talent in tumbling on a competitive level, as well as at home football games and pep rallies. He has gone on to win United States Tumbling Association awards at the local, state and national levels for tumbling, trampoline and double mini. He placed top 10 in the nation in power tumbling and was a member of Mat Katz Power Tumbling Team at Lakewood Gymnastics for nine years before pursuing other interests.
"I think his tumbling really gave him a lot of confidence that he could do anything he set his mind to," Sams said. "I think we will see Thomas Dean's name on some video games one day that he has developed because that's his passion."
Simmons credited his mother as being his number one supporter.
"She was the greatest mom," he said. "I do miss her a lot, we all miss her, and every time I saw her helping kids, it gave me inspiration to help others, too."
He said he is grateful for his family and their support.
"I've always been told that Asperger's is not a disability, but that I was made this way, and all people are different," he said. "I just see the world as black and white, and I've learned to use that to my advantage."
By: Emily Smith