Nate Christensen seems like a typical almost-18-year-old boy. Now in his senior year at Bingham High School in South Jordan, he plays the trumpet in the marching band. He took a longtime friend to the school’s homecoming dance. He loves popular music artists from Justin Bieber to Owl City. He enjoys playing “Just Dance” on his family’s Nintendo Wii and writes a blog in his free time. He admits that his favorite class at school is his sports class.
But two things set him apart. One is that he’s earned 132 merit badges — every possible Boy Scout merit badge he could earn. The other is that Nate is autistic.
Nate's mother, Sandy Christensen, said that Nate tests somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum. One wouldn’t easily guess that when talking to him.
Autism is known for causing marked impairment in social interaction and troubles with communication. But once you get Nate talking about anything that has to do with the Boy Scouts of America, the conversation flows with ease.
“Did you want to see two badges that I liked most?”
“Don’t you notice the badges that are gold framed?”
Nate’s 6-foot-3 frame might be intimidating at first, but he’s anything but. He sits on the sofa in his living room, holding his hands together in his lap, proudly wearing his Scout uniform and sash. He points to a grape soda pin, a tribute to Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” talking about how that’s actually his personal favorite even though it’s not an official badge.
He tells things his way, which doesn’t always add up with Mom’s way, and gets embarrassed when mentioning how much his mother records on the family blog (“Just trust me. She writes everything about us").
As he details his merit badge experiences — scuba diving being one of his favorites and backpacking the hardest — a sincere, humble and knowledgeable young man emerges.
“It’s a lofty goal for any kid,” said Brett Palmer, a neighbor who has helped Nate earn many merit badges as both a Scout leader and merit badge counselor. “The fact that he has autism I don’t think anybody knows just what an accomplishment this is.”
“He hated (Cub) Scouts,” Nate's mother said. “He didn’t want awards, he didn’t want people looking at him, he didn’t want any of that kind of stuff.”
When Nate was 11, he started noticing how many badges another young man in the ward had and decided it would be neat to have that many. It wasn’t until he saw a Deseret News article a few years ago about a Scout earning all of the merit badges that his goal really took flight.
Nate’s mother said that it was terrifying prospect at first.
“Nate kind of always knew he could do it,” she said. “But as the adult trying to make sure that that happens, it’s a little harder.” She added later that she never stopped believing in him.
Nate says he was “really glad” when he finally finished. Though the goal was daunting, he figured it was just a good idea.
“I thought that it would make me learn easily, to have all of the knowledge,” Nate said. “I thought that it would be a good goal to have a lot of knowledge.”
His mother agrees, calling it a perfect goal.
“It’s a way of working with autism, because the things you learn in Scouts are a very basic knowledge.” She cited badges about plumbing and automotive care as examples. “It just seemed like to me just a whole bunch of little handbooks to help him learn how to be a functioning adult.”
All in the family
Nate’s six-year journey has been an adventure for his large family as well. With 12 children from ages 1 to 27, Nate had quite the support system.
“I thought that was an incredible task and feat not only for Nate but for the entire family,” said Bob Elder, who’s been the family’s home teacher for 18 years and helped Nate pass off some merit badges. “Not only did Nate grow from it, but the whole family grew.”
Nate and his mother talked about how often Nate’s older brother Neal helped him with badges. Neal and Nate and their younger sister went to the gym together to help Nate get the rock-climbing badge. The family was there to cheer him on as he biked 50 miles. Uncles took him shooting and water skiing.
“The family has always been behind him,” Sandy said.
She explained that the whitewater badge was one they had worried about the most from the get-go. The Christensens knew they’d have to make a trip somewhere and there would have to be planning and certification. The badge requires that a certified BSA group supervise.
The family packed up for a trip to Colorado last summer. Sandy was pregnant with their youngest, so she waited behind with her husband Carl. After taking the necessary class, seven of the Christensen siblings, with older brother Neal leading, went out on the river.
“It was pretty amazing,” Sandy Christensen said. “We have video and it just looked like such a fun thing for them to have that opportunity.”
Nate’s siblings have also spent a great deal of time on their personal Scouting goals.
“We are firm Scouters here,” their mother said. She has been a Girl Scout leader for 18 years. “We’ve been doing it a long time with no end in sight,” she said.
The Christensens have put five of their 12 children through the Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs, each earning Eagles and the Girl Scout equivalent, the Gold Award. But, Sandy said, Nate has gone above and beyond what she and her husband expect of their children.
Nate earned his Eagle in 2008 with the donation of eight quilts to Primary Children’s Medical Center. He maintained his pace of earning 10 to 12 badges at each court of honor after that.
How to get 132 merit badges
When Nate decided to go for all of the badges, he sat down with his mother to print off every merit badge requirement. They put them in a binder, and it was a massive stack.
“Looking at that was a totally daunting task,” Sandy said. “It was very ‘oh my goodness, how do we do this?’ ”
They decided to slip some into another binder so that Nate could just work on a few at a time. Through much prayer and taking things a little at a time, the impossible task became possible.
Nate’s mother would mark main points in the booklet for Nate to copy down. He took extensive notes and drew pictures. With two or more merit badges to a binder, Nate now has a collection of 59.
“I saved all of my work so I won’t forget,” Nate said. He thumbed through page after page of notes. There were countless illustrations depicting safety and first aid.
The latest binder had a handwritten bracket with family members’ names on it. The family had held a chess tournament to help Nate complete the recently released chess merit badge that finished off Nate’s goal.
Getting to that final, simple merit badge wasn’t at all easy.
“I thought I couldn’t make it, but then I just had to give a little bit more time and try to work much harder to get all of them,” Nate said. He quoted something he said his mom told him often as advice to other Scouts. “Stop slacking and get on with it.”
Sandy discussed the response they’ve received from Autism News, Autism Speaks and other parents who have children with autism commenting on Sandy's blog, "Twelve Makes a Dozen." Nate is a role model, a hero to these kids, Sandy said, adding that Nate’s proven that he can do anything.
“It’s just harder,” she said. “You’ve got to be willing to work hard, and if there’s one thing I can tell you about Nate, man he is a hard worker.”
Palmer and Elder both commented on the hard work Nate and his family put into the goal.
“As a parent, I wouldn’t have that kind of energy,” Elder said.
Palmer pointed out how often people whisper about how much the mom really earned the Eagle or other Scouting honor. Though Nate’s mother’s work is especially admirable, this was not a concern among his Scout leaders.
“It still totally came down to whether he was going to do it, and it was his goal and his work,” Palmer said.
For example, Nate self-funded the majority of his merit badges.
Sandy said they were often able to coordinate merit badges to work hand-in-hand. Nate grew corn stalks to get a plant science badge. He sold the stalks for his entrepreneurship badge. He started a dog-walking business for his American business badge and to earn money for more badges.
A combination of new badges and discontinued badges, plus four limited-time badges for the BSA’s 100-year anniversary, gave Nate 132. The BSA currently offers 127 merit badges.
Badge after badge was finished, signed off and added to the crowded sash to display Nate’s work. That same work helped change his circumstance. Nate’s well aware of his limitations but said “miracles happen.”
“As I would sit down with him over the years, his abilities had improved and increased,” Elder said about passing off merit badges with Nate.
“He’s so much more confident. It’s like he’s growing up, coming into himself,” Sandy said. “He just knows what to say now.”
Nate has plenty to say in his writing. In his blog, “The Art of Autism,” he wrote, “I made this blog myself and I want it to be talking about how autism can be an awesome thing in life.” His posts are about everything from his fears to particular badges. He also writes books. He wants to write a Scouting series, a book for every badge.
“Nate’s actually an amazing writer,” Sandy said. “He’s written several full youth novel-length books, but we haven’t tried to find a publisher. We’ve been trying to finish Scouts.”
Scouting is a done deal for Nate now, but its impact will not be forgotten.
Nate said he bore his testimony at his final court of honor about “how being a Scout will always help my life.”
“I just told them I will always be a Boy Scout no matter how old I am,” he said.
Next on his list of plans is to make a special appearance, which he’s very excited about.
Nate’s been asked to appear at the Utah Kids Club “Spook-a-palooza” event on Oct. 21 and 22 at its BSA booth.
Graduating from high school is another goal he’s continually working on. In the meantime, you’ll find him at band practice, writing, singing along to his favorite “JB” (Justin Bieber) tunes or walking dogs in his neighborhood to continue his business. He’s more than “high-functioning” — he’s busy, he’s embracing his autism and he’s confident.
“That was the thing we really wanted him to learn from this because autism has a way of just beating you down, making you think that you can’t be anything,” Sandy said. “The world would have you think that, but Nate knows he can do anything now. He set a big goal, and he accomplished it. And that is amazing.”
What started as an impossible goal for an autistic boy six years ago has helped usher the boy into a promising adulthood.
“It’s been a good journey — long journey — but a good one,” Sandy said.