For much of his life, Kenji Kellen felt like something was off.
When he tried to make friends, he’d say the wrong thing, try to be funny, but end up offending someone.
At Belmont Abbey College, he struggled both academically and socially, and left after a year.
“I would try and go out to parties and be the center of attention, acting like an idiot.... I really offended a lot of people there.”
He moved from one low-wage job to another, sometimes getting fired for inappropriate behavior that he didn’t seem able to control.
About eight years ago, he was fired from a mailroom job at a bank after using the computer at work for personal things. “I had been written up other times,” he said.
He finally sought advice from a counselor whose testing and referrals led to a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
“It clicked,” said Kellen, now 40. “It made sense. It’s making sense. It’s part of me.”
For the progress in his personal life and his advocacy for others with disabilities, Kellen recently received the Jack B. Hefner Memorial Award from the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities. The award honors the late Hefner, who served on the council for 22 years. Hefner and his wife had 12 children, including a son with developmental disabilities.
“I still stumble and mumble with the Asperger’s,” Kellen said. “But I’ve accomplished more with my life in the eight years since I found out about (it) than in all the time before.... That part of my life, that chapter had to be closed.”
Kellen was born with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis. When behavioral problems arose, Kellen said his father always blamed them on “the neuro” condition.
When he learned about Asperger’s syndrome, Kellen realized that many of the symptoms are similar and that others with Asperger’s also have neurofibromatosis.
That was eight years ago. At 32, his life started to change.
He found a small support group of three other men who met regularly to share their struggles. Under Kellen’s leadership, the group has grown to 40 people who meet the third Wednesday of every month from 6 to 8 p.m. at Fuel Pizza in Park Road Shopping Center.
Those meetings are social events, but Kellen felt the need for something more serious. Partnering with the agency Mecklenburg’s Promise, he created a spin-off that allows people to discuss how to cope with problems on the job or in personal relationships. This group meets on the last Friday of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Mecklenburg’s Promise, 1041 Hawthorne Lane.
“He did that on his own initiative,” said Curtis Overcash, a community guide with InReach, a nonprofit agency that supports people with disabilities. Overcash nominated Kellen for the award.
Kellen doesn’t qualify for financial assistance or other support because his disability isn’t severe enough, Overcash said. “Anything he has ever gotten, it’s because of his persistence.”
Today, Kellen holds two part-time jobs, at the Observer and at Babies “R” Us. He regularly rides Charlotte Area Transit System buses and has been vocal in his opposition to fare increases and thoughts on improving service. His advice has also been sought by other agencies that serve disabled people, including the North Carolina Association of Professionals in Supported Employment.
“No matter where he goes, he tries to educate people about his disability and what’s it’s like to be a person with a disability,” Overcash said. “He’s always looking for a way to create change and educate.”