It is also the word that robbed her of first place in the California State Junior High Spelling Bee. But Sam, who lives with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, outlasted 48 other eighth-graders in the longest bee in 17 years.
“It wasn’t that stressful,” she said.
Sam’s grandmother and soon-to-be adoptive mother, Michele Driscoll, disagreed.
“It was when you missed that first word,” she said, referring to the word “pinniped.”
“Because it was a word I knew very well and probably one of the last words I would have expected to miss,” Sam countered.
Sam, an eighth-grader at Redwood School, is in her third year at a public school after being home schooled for most of her elementary school years. She reads Science News and Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” books and gets really excited about K.A. Applegate’s “Animorphs” series. Sam’s also at home with words like monomania and propinquity.
“You can tell she’s a speller,” Driscoll said.
Sam competed in the California State Junior High Spelling Bee Championship on May 3 at Miller Creek Middle School in San Rafael. She advanced to the statewide spelling bee after placing first in her grade at the Del Norte County Unified School District spelling bee in March, spelling the word xenophobia correctly.
Sam also won last year’s districtwide seventh-grade spelling bee, Driscoll said. But the district only sends its eighth-grade winners to the statewide contest, paying their registration and offering a travel allowance, she said.
At the statewide bee, all 49 contestants took their seats in the school’s auditorium. The speaker gave out the word, defined it and used it in a sentence, Sam said. The students then had 15 seconds to write the word down.
“After the 15 seconds were up, they would do the chime and you were supposed to put your pencil up. So that means stop writing,” Sam said. “The person who was checking the word would come by. If you got the word right they’d just mark a ‘C’ on your paper. If you missed it, they would first mark an ‘X’ and then re-write the word correctly.”
According to Driscoll, students were allowed to get four words wrong before they were dismissed from the competition. She said the event’s first-place winner, a Placer County student named Aditya Mishra, who spelled all the words correctly, had also won last year’s bee.
Sam said her Asperger’s gave her both an edge over the competition and presented some unique challenges. An autism spectrum disorder, people with Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interest.
“Some autistic kids just make spelling their thing. It’s what they do,” Sam said. “Autistic kids are often kind of monomaniacs. Aspergians are more likely than other autistic kids to try to communicate with others verbally or sometimes even written.”
Some people who are autistic also have a heightened reaction to sensory stimulation, Driscoll said. She said she thinks it was this characteristic that made Sam more sensitive to the chime used at the spelling bee.
“It was like an electric spark,” Sam said.
Driscoll and her husband Ralph Johansen have been Sam’s foster parents for about three years and expect to become her adoptive parents by next month. Sam had lived with her parents in Santa Cruz for about eight years and had limited interaction with kids her own age because she was home-schooled, Driscoll said.
Sam and her father were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at about the same time, Driscoll said.
When Sam first came to Redwood School as a sixth-grader, district officials thought she would only be able to withstand two hours a day, three days a week in a regular classroom, Driscoll said. But Sam proved them wrong.
“She just jumped right in and mainstreamed herself immediately,” Driscoll said. “Everybody was just blown away by the fact that she was so willing and so able to make that huge step. And she hasn’t turned back, she’s just kept going.”
Sam gets into the spelling bee every year and always does well, said Jeff Slayton, Redwood School’s principal.
“Samantha’s a great student,” he said. “We’re very proud of her.”
Sam will enter Del Norte High School next fall. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Sam was very specific.
“First I want to go to Mars,” she said. “Then I want to come back and be a teacher.”