In 2016, the year that he earned a B.S. degree in computer information systems (CIS) from Pfeiffer University, Patrick King mounted the stage at the University’s commencement and sang Stephen Schwartz’s classic “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin.
King’s classmates were already familiar with his musical gifts. He won the 2012 Pfeiffer Idol competition his freshman year, and he had been a mainstay in The Pfeiffer Concert Choir (now called University Singers) during his junior and senior years. But his performance that fine Saturday morning in May about five years ago was especially meaningful: King has autism. He was expressing his appreciation to Pfeiffer for enabling him to thrive in spite of his disability, for treating him not as a lesser student but as one “who was gifted in different ways.”
The song “Corner of the Sky” is “all about finding your place in the world,” King said. “Pfeiffer helped me to do that. When I was done singing, everyone gave me a standing ovation. But I think Pfeiffer deserves the standing ovation. The University and its people created the environment for me to succeed.”
That environment was a rich one for King. He was a member of the men’s swimming team from 2012 to 2015,* started and led the Gaming Society Club, and even developed a computer game called “Isles of Legend.” He not only sang in The Pfeiffer Concert Choir under the direction of Joe Judge ’87, Pfeiffer’s current Director of Vocal and Choral Music; he also studied voice with Judge and with Steve Harrill ’78 (now retired), an Assistant Professor of Music who directed two musicals in which King appeared, Smoke on the Mountain and Smoke on the Mountain 2. King also presented two voice recitals.
Before graduating magna cum laude, King won two awards: Outstanding Choir Member and The Nancy Henderson Computer Information Systems Student Achievement Award, which recognizes an outstanding CIS student. (Henderson taught at Pfeiffer from 1964 to 2002, first as an English professor and then as a CIS professor. She held the title of Professor Emerita of Computer Information Systems from 2002 until her death, in 2014.)
Dr. Ali Sever, who chairs Pfeiffer’s CIS department, served as King’s principal advisor for four years. He lauded his former student for being “organized, intelligent, and helpful, both in and out of class.”
King, formerly of China Grove, N.C., now lives near Seattle, where he works as a Service Engineer on a team at Microsoft that “works on keeping important servers healthy by remoting into them.”
The Pfeiffer environment that laid the foundation for King’s college and career success rested on several factors, including some special accommodations provided by Dr. Jim Gulledge ’79, the Director of Academic Support Services. The accommodations included affording King a private dorm room, which was crucial because a person with autism often needs a place to decompress alone. King was also given extra time on tests, and allowed to take them in a separate room.
King vividly documents his experience in Optimism for Autism (2014, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), which he co-authored with his mother, Susan Jane King. He succeeded at Pfeiffer “in large part because of the energy that Susan and David King, Patrick’s father, had invested in Patrick prior to his matriculation,” Gulledge said.
“Patrick’s early developmental markers were not encouraging, but his mom just refused to accept defeat as an option,” he added. “When Patrick arrived at Pfeiffer, he received a great deal of kindness and encouragement from our students, faculty and staff. He blossomed.”
During a recent interview, King reflected on his Pfeiffer experience, and he talked about what he’s doing now.
Patrick, thank you for granting us an interview. How did Pfeiffer get on your radar and why did you decide to attend the school?
Honestly, when I was about to graduate from South Rowan High School, Pfeiffer University was not even on my radar. I had applied and was accepted to UNC Charlotte and was planning to attend there. But everything changed after I competed in a regional swim meet. Eric Anderson, then the men’s swimming coach at Pfeiffer, contacted Greg Yanz, my swim coach at South Rowan, and told him he was interested in recruiting me. Coach Yanz reached out to me and my parents. We prayed about it and decided to take a campus tour and meet Coach Anderson.
What were your first impressions of Pfeiffer?
The minute I stepped on the Misenheimer campus, I liked the feel of it. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. I liked the smaller classroom sizes and the fact that I could navigate around a smaller, picturesque campus much more easily than that of a larger university. I met with Dr. Gulledge, and he talked about the many systems the university had in place to help me succeed. I did not get that type of welcoming from other schools; in fact, it was difficult to get in personal contact with the administrators at these schools who could help me. Also, I connected with Coach Anderson right away, and he became a great mentor and friend right from the start.
What were the biggest autism-related challenges of transitioning to life in a small residential college and how did you overcome them?
Well, individuals with autism need structure, predictability, and routines. I chose to live on campus, so I had to develop structure and routines for success in my new environment. After a while, though, I was spending all my down time in my room, and I got pretty restless and bored. Dr. Gulledge suggested I do some of my studying in the Stokes Student Center, so I would set myself up there with my headphones on. The great thing about that was that people would stop and talk with me, which made me feel a part of things and like I belonged there.
Dr. Gulledge called your performance in the 2012 Pfeiffer Idol a pivotal moment in your finding success at Pfeiffer. What’s your take?
I wondered if people would understand and accept me at the university, but the swim team and the chorus gave me a “family” on campus where everyone welcomed and supported me. In fact, at the Pfeiffer Idol show my freshman year, the entire swim team showed up and cheered me on when I sang -- and I won! Yorlliry “George” Moreno ’13 was captain of the swim team when I joined it. He became a good friend from the start and encouraged the other team members to welcome and encourage me.
Now that you’re living and working in an environment that is far away from your family and Pfeiffer, what are some of your biggest autism-related challenges and how are you overcoming them?
Sometimes, figuring out social cues can be a challenge. I have had lots of experience figuring out social cues in our country, but Seattle and Microsoft, in particular, are international cultures. I work with some people who present very different social cues, so I am trying to figure those out. I ask a lot of clarifying questions. It’s very nice that Microsoft provides me with a community mentor and a work mentor from whom I can get help in interpreting things.
Optimism for Autism says that in 2012, you and your mother served as the keynote speakers at a Special Needs Mini-Conference at Catawba College. But that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to your work as advocates for people with autism.
Yes, before I moved to Washington, my mother and I spoke to 40 groups, reaching teachers, parents, therapists, community organizations, autism groups, and churches. Our goal has always been to increase awareness and understanding of autism and to spread hope. We were featured on radio and TV newscasts. We also met individually with people who have had autism impact their lives and encouraged them; those were some of our most cherished encounters.
You and your mother also spoke at Pfeiffer, correct?
Yes, we made a presentation for Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day at Henry Pfeiffer Chapel, which was packed. The students embraced us and what we had to say. I feel like Pfeiffer embraces diversity instead of shying away from it, and we are all better people for it. I met other students at Pfeiffer who had different challenges, but we all felt at home there.
Do you still do this kind of advocacy and, if so, what form does it take?
Now that I live in Seattle, my mom and I are doing advocacy work individually. Microsoft had me speak at an international symposium on “Autism in the Workplace,” where I was one of four people who spoke about his or her experiences as an individual in the workplace who has autism. I got to address elements that were both helpful and challenging. I feel like a little understanding goes a long way in helping individuals with autism be successful at work and in life.
Swimming and singing were among your major extracurricular interests at Pfeiffer. What are your current interests outside of work?
I continue to work on another video game that I am developing myself. I would say it has around 35-plus hours of gameplay. I am still working on it during Monday evenings when I have people playtesting it with me, and some have even streamed it on Twitch. I joined a local church and a group of young adults there who do Bible study together. I like to take walks and listen to music. The Pacific Northwest is such a beautiful part of our country, and I enjoy exploring it.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
Going from a participant in major meetings to actually running them now. Being given a platform for autism awareness and acceptance in the workplace. Learning new skills and applying them in my work (Microsoft says it’s looking for “learn-it-alls,” not “know-it-alls.”) Working for a company that values neurodiversity and proves it in its hiring process.
A support system that rests on faith, family and friends seems to have made all the difference for you.
Yes, that support system has carried me through my life. Since I have challenges related to my autism, I ask God to help me every day, and He does. I ask people to pray for me, and they do. I know God gave me this gift of autism for a reason, and I hope He gets the glory through it. My family and friends have encouraged me all along the way. I know what a difference that makes. I hope I can be that type of person for others.
*Editor’s Note: The last season of competition for the men’s swimming program at Pfeiffer University was the 2014-2015 season.
Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.