Dreaming big: 17-year-old with autism is graduating from USC Sumter today with focus on genetics


Don't you ever tell this 17-year-old she won't achieve her goals because she has autism or because she has Turner's Syndrome or because she's (really) short because she will prove you wrong in about three minutes.

Aiyana Hayes, quickly described by her mother as short and very sassy, emphasis on very, is set to graduate from USC Sumter today after studying genetics and biology. Those fields are no coincidence, as seems nothing in the curly-haired girl's life.

Everyone has 46 chromosomes. Most everyone, that is. The first 11 are 22 pairs, then there's the sex chromosomes, and most people have an x and a y, as Hayes explained by hardwired memory. Sometimes, you only have an x and that's it.

Turner's Syndrome is a chromosomal condition affecting girls and women who are missing part or all of their second sex chromosome. The most common features are short stature and lack of ovarian development, but, like with any disorder, there are varying degrees.

Hayes also is on the autism spectrum. Asperger syndrome, or Asperger's, stopped being used as a separate diagnosis in 2013 and is now part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, according to Autism Speaks, but that's where Hayes sits on the spectrum. Indian-style, usually.

Common traits of this part of the spectrum include high focus and persistence, attention to detail, strong verbal skills and intellectual ability.

"They're doing a lot of studies on it, and they think they've ID'd one gene that's associated with Turner's syndrome, so that's what I want to do," the teenager who started USC Sumter at age 14 said the day before her last final on Monday.

Hayes said she has loved USC Sumter and her time there. She enjoyed the smallness of it and her ability to walk around.

"It became my home away from home," she said. "They helped me find my thing."

If her thing is genetics, she's had multiple homes.

Stephanie and Toby Hayes married 20 years ago this November at the age of 19. They're putting the finishing touches on their 20th move. With six kids, Aiyana being the oldest.

Being the oldest, it took a while to diagnose their first-born. Most autistic kids don't talk and seclude themselves from outside interaction. Their daughter is the opposite.

"It used to be hush-hush," Stephanie Hayes said. "They just said we were bad parents and that we couldn't control her. She was talking very well when she was very young, like in kindergarten. She would say things like, 'Excuse me, miss, but "

"Very eloquent," Toby Hayes said.

"Very eloquent. And her dad is a genius, so I just figured she got his brain," Stephanie Hayes said.

Aiyana used to tell her parents how stupid she thought her kindergarten teacher was because she would always ask the class questions like, "What day is it?" and "What color is the sky?" Shouldn't she know what day it is? Why does she have to ask her class of kindergartners?

"She's a lot like Percy Jackson," Stephanie Hayes said, referring to the fictional demigod protagonist in Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" adventure novel series. Jackson's dyslexia was mistaken for stupidity because he couldn't read, but the boy really can't read English because he is hardwired to read ancient Greek. "You have to parent to each kid's strengths and weaknesses, push their boundaries and test their limits."

"Each kid really is different," her husband said.

Just because their first of two daughters - two girls sandwich four boys - has autism does not mean she is a vegetable, can't participate in society, can't be smarter than probably much of society. She had a final in the morning, but it's not like she didn't read her textbook as soon as she got it and hasn't read it five times since.

Her parents did enroll her in a special needs school in San Diego when she was around 12, bringing her to existential hardships and find reason in her life. As a 12-year-old.

She went to a school where she said she found it hard to fit in. Unlike every other of the 80 students there, her parents were still married. She said it was hard seeing a lot of the kids left by themselves because their parents didn't want to deal with them. A third of them lived at school.

"We would both go to teacher meetings together, and, you know, it's a big ordeal to go there for two hours," Toby Hayes said. Especially with five younger children often in tow. "The teachers would say, 'You know, you don't have to both be here.'"

They did have to be there. Through all the doctors visits and the diagnoses, through all the moves, the adjusting, not being close to family pretty much ever, the family of eight stuck together.

"She knew the sacrifices we were making. She was aware of that," Stephanie Hayes said.

The mother, long, dark-dyed red hair flowing over her 7-year-old daughter's shoulders as Alyssa sat in her lap, the quietest of the always sarcastic, joking, energetic, imaginative bunch, grew up basically in a hospital, always sick and sore from medicine from severe childhood asthma. Now, the "modern hippie," as her eldest calls her, grows herbs and home medicines to help with Aiyana's moods and symptoms.

All that moving may seem like it would be a trigger for someone with autism. The spectrum tends to see people who like rhythm and don't like change. More stereotypes broken.

Aiyana does like doing the dishes. The repetitiveness is calming.

That is, when she isn't helping her 10-year-old brother Landon memorize lines for his leading role as Horton in his school play "Seussical: The Musical" or helping the oldest boy, 15-year-old Chandler, learn to drive.

Being an older sister has helped her hone social and communication skills. They help her, too.

"Alyssa teaches me to embrace my feminine side," she said. "Micah is the heart of the family. Lucas is Lucas, for sure."

She returns the favor and helps her siblings.

Chandler volunteered at his school all year helping autistic students. His family didn't find out until his teacher invited them to an end-of-year ceremony. He knows how to treat them. Push their boundaries. Test their limits.

Aiyana Hayes is a lot of things. She's short. She has Turner's syndrome. She is an older sister. She has autism. She wants to be a geneticist. She knows it's not a coincidence.

"I'm very spiritual and very religious. I grew up in a church, but I really learned it myself when I was 12," she said. "I started having more and more deep experiences with God and learn he has a plan for me, and my family and their support made a huge difference. They're part of that plan."

Everyone has a gift, she said. It just needs to be realized.

"One of my pet peeves is that they limit autistics," she said. "When they say OK, just stay in your corral. With the right motivation, even they can do something great for the world."