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Farragut student creates unique Robotz

Have you ever become frustrated when assembling a new piece of furniture or tried replacing a light fixture with no success?

John Ryan Lee, a non-verbal, autistic student at Farragut High School, has a knack for these time-consuming tasks, and uses his creativity to capitalize on his talent. John, 21, has been making Robotz, small robot men, spiders and other creatures, some that can provide electricity, since he was 13.

“It started at a young age. He was just obsessed with light fixtures, ceiling fans, and would install them everywhere,” said Susan Lee, John’s mother. “He has actually gone next door [to a neighbor’s house] and put new light fixtures in, and they haven’t noticed for a week.”

John’s uniquely designed Robotz, which usually consist of a junction box for the body, conduit for the legs and arms, light fixtures for the head, and anything else John can find, have become very popular with friends and family. John’s father, John E. Lee, works at Jones & Lee Supply Co. Inc., a division of Mayer Electric, a wholesale electrical supplies company, where John finds most of his pieces.

John might not seem different among his six classmates at FHS, but his ability to assemble intricate pieces of furniture, light fixtures, clocks, fans and just about anything else he can get his hands on is very unique.

John uses only a picture diagram to piece together furniture that now fills the Lees’ home. He will get frustrated and take apart the pieces, but he always finds a way to complete the project, Susan said.

John has learned to communicate using small picture exchange cards, said Becky Comer, John’s teacher at FHS. The cards could have a drawing of a chair, certain foods or other objects that he uses to show what he needs or wants, Comer said. One of John’s biggest successes at FHS has been learning to use these exchange cards on a more regular basis, Comer said.

“He’s just phenomenal, very easygoing,” Comer said. “Sometimes when he laughs he gets going so hard he starts rocking in his chair.”

John’s opportunities have really stemmed from his parents’ willingness to work with him and encourage his interests, Comer said.

John will graduate in May, and will then have the option of going out into the community to work, Susan said. Although there are jobs available for John, finding a community for him to thrive in is also a priority.

Through raising a child with autism, Susan has become extremely interested in providing a more accepting and opportunistic environment for John in the future. Her search led her to become an active member of Breakthrough Corporation, an organization opened in 1999 that focuses on improving the lives of adults with autism.

Breakthrough Corporation leaders are trying to open a residential campus-like facility for adults with autism, who have left the school system, Susan said.

“There is a major need for this community,” Susan said. “There is not anything like this in Knoxville, specifically for autistic adults.”

The facility would provide nurturing, cost-effective housing options, connections with family, education, meaningful work and leisure activities, and training for family members and care workers.

Breakthrough leaders are currently searching for an appropriate piece of land and funding for the facility, Susan said.

While plans are being made for the facility, John’s family will continue to help him find a job.

“He’s got to stay busy,” Susan said. “I think his dream job would be putting display light fixtures or fans up at Home Depot. Whenever we go in there he just looks up with wide eyes.”

The 5th Annual Autism Society Golf Tournament will be held at Willow Creek Golf Club in Farragut, Monday, Sept. 18. Proceeds benefit Breakthrough Corporation and the Autism Society of East Tennessee. The top four winners will receive a Robotz trophy made by John.

For more information about Breakthrough Corporation, contact Dana Hampson, executive director, at 865-521-6430.


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