Forest Lake Area High School senior Preston Leigh was 7 years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and has faced many struggles since. Now, he’s ready to take on the world, regardless of his fears.
“When Preston went into kindergarten at Central Montessori in Forest Lake, it was a little scary because he transitioned to the special education setting in the elementary world and that was interesting,” Preston’s mom, Heidi Leigh, said. “What’s difficult for him is not the academics, it’s the social interaction, like the give and take of a conversation and sharing. Friendships and social settings were very hard.”
Preston’s parents, Bill and Heidi, decided to get a medical diagnosis for Preston when he was in second grade.
“It was a blessing because it gave us an explanation on how his thought process worked,” Heidi said.
When Preston was in middle school, a friend invited him to work at Woodloch Stable in Hugo as a farm hand.
“That’s been my favorite job so far,” Preston said. “I would do manual labor for hours a day in the sun, and I could just do it by myself. I would just walk around on the 200-acre plot and weed whip and bale hay. They were really kind to me and they didn’t care that I had Asperger’s. They were super accepting of me and they helped me through a lot of stuff. I learned about talking to others, ironically, when I was there.”
Preston continued with special education, working on his social skills throughout middle school, and was ready to transition to the high school.
“It was really scary at first because it’s such a big school, and at the time, they were in the middle of doing upgrades and renovations. That was a little bit stressful for me,” Preston said. “It was a slow growth for me throughout 10th grade. I didn’t really blossom and do anything social until 11th grade.”
Since Preston had been building computers since he was very young, he joined the tech team during his sophomore year.
“I was really scared at first because I didn’t really know anyone at the high school at that time,” Preston said. “The one thing that helped me build connections on the tech team and building more friendships was computers.”
A turning point for Preston was when a friend asked him to try out for the spring play his junior year.
“I did try out, even though I had never sung in my life,” Preston said. “Being a part of theater, even though I was really uncomfortable at first, really helped me to learn how to talk to other people with different ideas. I’d always kept to myself and did not interact with others, except with people who were similar to me. But in theater, everyone is completely different from me. It really opened my worldview on a lot of stuff.”
After theater, Preston was inspired to join honors choir. He is also in honors band as a trombonist, where he earned all-conference honors.
“Last year Preston exited special education because he no longer needed it,” Heidi said. “There was nothing left to teach him because he could self-advocate.”
Heidi said Preston has had amazing teachers throughout the years.
“All of them genuinely cared about me and wanted me to thrive in a classroom environment and I want to thank them all,” Preston said. “Special Ed has put me on a good path to help give me a good future and allowed me to speak up for myself and advocate for myself.”
After graduation, Preston plans on attending University of Wisconsin-Stout Honors College in the fall majoring in computer and electrical engineering and minoring in math, computer science and possibly biomedical instruction.
“I’m a little afraid of the unknown, and it’s the first time I’ll be away from home for longer than a month with people I don’t know. I have toured Stout a few times to get acclimated with the environment there. So far, everyone there seems really nice and I think it will push my boundaries,” Preston said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for my parents; specifically my mom for intervening and helping me throughout the years.”