Leighton Passehl is a young man with autism who has made a name for himself in the world of radio controlled car racing. You'll enjoy Lee's perspective on his own challenges, and on the special interest that has given him a community, a group of friends, and some impressive opportunities.
My name is Leighton, however everyone calls me Lee. I was born in Milwaukee WI; I was diagnosed with autism at age 3 in 1988. I was quite difficult to deal with when I was 2 years old. I would scream out in public and my parents stopped taking me places because of my behavior. When I was 8 years old, I had a bad reaction to a medication which put me in the hospital. I stayed there for three weeks and I absolutely hated it. After that, I was determined to accomplish something in my life that would make me feel proud and make me feel important. I had no desire anymore to be a misbehaving kid. However, easier said than done. I still needed a lot of behavior management to fit in the mainstream. I needed incentives to help me control myself. My first breakthrough was earning a trip to Disney World in 1994. For this I had to maintain behavior control at school about 6 months. We took off on my birthday in a February snowstorm. I sat in a seat for 3 hours while the wings were de-iced repeatedly. We were the last group of planes allowed to take off before the airport was closed. It was meant to be.
In the summer of 1996, my dad introduced me to the sport of Radio Control Car Racing. These cars are not sold at Radio Shack or toys R us. These cars have carbon fiber, aircraft aluminum, titanium parts, and have coil-over-oil filled shocks. They are very tunable just like a real car (angle of the shocks, tires and length of the car can be adjustable as well as many other tunable options). These cars have to be built from a kit. My dad is my mechanic and he still works on my car to this day. I competed in my first club race in early August against normal-processing adults. I won the next two races and started to gain some self confidence and began to feel part of something bigger than me alone. I still acted out when my car didn't work well, but I was just a kid.
That summer, I competed in my first big race, the Wisconsin Off Road Challenge. I was in a class for beginners getting their feet wet in the sport. I had qualified 2nd and I was hungry for a win. The race started with me and the leader breaking away from the pack. The track was real slippery and my car was hard to control. I tried to make an early pass for the lead on the first lap but the leader dove in early on me and put me into the wall. Halfway through the race, the leader began to make mistakes which allowed me to close the gap on him. As time expired, I thought I was going to lose the race but the leader drifted too wide allowing me to pass and take the lead. I won my first big race. I was ecstatic! For the first time in my life I felt like I had accomplished something that I could be proud of, and I had a future in Radio Control Car Racing.
Shortly after, the owner of the track (who is now a good friend of mine) and is the leading promoter for radio control car races around the world today, won the Tamiya National Championship in Orange County, CA. He won a trip to Japan to compete in the Tamiya World Championship. After this, I knew I wanted to accomplish this in my life too.
I gave up a lot, I gave up cartoons, trick or treating, and gave up video games, to pursue a dream. We began to travel to races around the country and win them too. The more I won the more I became recognized in the Radio Control car racing community. During the 2000 Tamiya Nationals, my parents were looking out at the ocean watching the sun set, it was then they decided to move to California for retirement.
Eight years later, we moved to Orange County,CA. By then, we had traveled to the Tamiya Nationals 8 times from 1998 to 2007. I still hadn't won the championship. We spent the entire first year at the track; tweaking, adjusting and getting the car dialed in, and made many friends with the local racers. On August 30th 2009, I would set the top qualifying position and go on to win the Tamiya North American Finals after 13 years of trying. I went on to the Tamiya World Championship in the fall. The trip to Japan was the most wonderful time of my life, so far.
Right now I am going to a community college in Mission Viejo,CA studying Japanese language and pursuing a background in gerontology. I race different cars today and have made many friends in the Los Angeles area with the help of my dad. I am starting to race nitro powered radio control cars, they are much faster. After I won the Tamiya North American Finals, I picked up many sponsorships from chassis manufactures to motors and batteries.
I like to give back and try to be an inspiration to all people with disabilities. I thank my parents for helping me throughout my life to achieve my goals my dreams, and my advice to all of you on the spectrum is to never give up and never stop believing in what you can accomplish.