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Lucas Brown: Learning to soar

How can you be a leader when you struggle to communicate? Or plan a complex, multi-part project when you have a tendency to focus on one task to the exclusion of all others? Lucas Brown knows, and the answer involves a lot of hard work.

When the Rosemount High School senior received his Eagle Scout award last Sunday, he joined a select group. Only about 5 percent of Boy Scouts ever achieve the rank, and the list includes men such as astronaut Neil Armstrong and director Steven Spielberg.

With apologies to the first man on the moon and the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark, most Eagle Scouts never had to overcome the kind of obstacles Brown did.

Brown earned his Eagle award despite being autistic.

Becoming an Eagle Scout is all about demonstrating leadership, but that can be a challenge when you're living with a disorder that throws up roadblocks to dealing with other people. People with autism have a tendency to talk a lot without giving others a chance to speak, and they often have trouble picking up social-interaction cues that come naturally to most people.

"I don't know a lot of autistic kids who take on leadership roles," said Nancy Ross, a special education teacher at RHS and one of the people Brown paid tribute to at his Court of Honor Ceremony last weekend. "They usually stay in the background.

"I think it's very impressive what he's done."

Staying in the background doesn't seem to be Brown's style. He was diagnosed with autism early, but he's never shied away from getting involved. In addition to Scouts he's an active member of Rosemount High School's National Art Honor Society.

Brown's mom, Ruth, deserves a lot of credit for his activity level. She made sure her son was involved in a number of activities when he was growing up.

Brown joined Cub Scouts when he was in first grade and moved on to Boy Scouts in seventh grade. He left the organization for two years early in his high school years to join his school's chess team -- "I just got bored with it," he said.

Brown had a lot of success as a chess player, but sitting in front of a chess board never had the same appeal as camping and exploring the outdoors.

Brown returned to Scouting in his junior year with the specific goal of earning his Eagle rank. Doing so, he said, would open doors to scholarships and look good on a resume down the line. Once he officially qualified for the award he got letters from senators, Governor Tim Pawlenty and President Barack Obama.

"Even though it's an auto send-out, it's still a letter from the president," Brown said.

Achieving the rank was no small job, though. Brown had missed two years of Scouting, and he had several ranks to go through, each of which he had to hold for several months. His autism made it difficult for him to pick up some things that come automatically to some people.

"If it was an activity, even after they explained it I had a hard time," he said.

Brown was determined, though. He gave up his job at AMF Lanes. He missed so many National Art Honor Society meetings he was nearly kicked out.

Focusing on getting the job done is one area where Brown's autism might actually have helped a little. People with autism tend to focus intensely on the job in front of them and refuse to quit before it's done.

"For an autistic kid, they've just gotta get it. They just keep working on it," Brown said.

Eventually, Brown got to the point where he could work on his Eagle rank. He had to choose a project to complete and ultimately settled on painting a mural in a portable classroom that will be used by the RHS theater and dance programs. The mural includes ballet slippers, the comedy-and-tragedy theater masks and a music clef that includes the notes for the school song. He also built a storage cabinet for the room.

Brown had to find others to help him with the project. He could not do any of the work himself, only give direction.

Brown had to find a way to understand the job from other peoples' perspectives. And he had to orchestrate a multi-step project. Neither came naturally to him.

Brown worked his way through it, though. When he was done, his project was reviewed by a panel of Scout leaders. He had to explain what he had done and what he had learned. When he was finished, his work was accepted and he officially became an Eagle Scout.

It was a big relief, and Brown celebrated.

"I just went to Baker's Square with my mom and we had pie," he said.

Now that he's achieved his Eagle rank, Brown is moving on to his next challenge: college. He plans to study welding next year at a technical college. He would eventually like to build custom motorcycles.