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Colin Harris delivering his winning speech.

Kids Inspiring Kids: Champion Colin

meet the winner of this year's Foley & Lardner MLK Jr. Oratory Competition

Did you know that glossophobia—or fear of public speaking—is incredibly common? Some estimate that 75% of the population has some level of fear or anxiety when it comes to public speaking. In other words, if you have this fear, you’re nowhere near alone. But one 11-year-old from Dallas doesn’t have any part in that statistic.

Colin Harris from Dallas is this year’s Foley & Lardner MLK Jr. Oratory Competition winner, and he has autism.

Colin Harris holding his first place award from the Foley and Lardner MLK Jr. Oratory Competition.

Originally from Chicago, Colin and his family moved to the Dallas area in 2012. After observing him, a nurse practitioner asked his mom Jasmine if Colin had ever been screened for autism. That conversation led to Colin’s diagnosis.

At that time, Colin only knew five to six words and couldn’t form full sentences, so he started speech therapy. After two years, Colin could read and speak in full sentences.

From there, Colin was able to go into general education and his parents wanted him to get into more activities. “Colin didn’t really like sports, so [academic activities] was the way to go,” Jasmine explains. In first grade, Colin joined Boy Scouts, where he experienced a total confidence boost, according to his mom.

As he got older, Colin decided he wanted to apply to the Vanguard program at JP Starks Elementary School. The program accepted him to the program in fourth grade. “That’s when a world of all these cool activities and opportunities opened up,” Jasmine says. Colin took part in the talented and gifted (TAG) program and traveled to NASA with the Vanguard group—experiences his mom says motivated Colin to do more, including participation in the oratory competition for the first time.

“Last year … he got second place at his school,” Jasmine says. “He got a taste of the competition, so he decided to study more of Dr. King’s message and the cultural, economic inequalities and became really passionate about it.” Obviously, stopping at second place wasn’t an option for Colin.

“He was really excited to participate and said ‘I’m gonna do it again,’” his mom explains. Since the competition is only for fourth and fifth graders, this year would be his last shot. “He was so motivated to go all out. He said, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’”

And Colin did go all out. He won first place at his school. Then he went to the semi-finals where he made the top eight for finals, then he won first place at finals.

(Cue the fanfare.)

“This was huge, just thinking about where he started and the obstacles he had to overcome to get to that point,” Jasmine reflects. “I mean, at 3–4 years old and not talking, not being able to have a simple conversation, having only a handful of words, all that and to win the competition was huge.”

And his autism diagnosis? He views it as a gift. “At first he didn’t know what autism was, and as he got older, just a couple years ago, he started asking about it,” Jasmine says. “We do the Autism Speaks walk every year and we told him it’s about celebrating differences. We told him just because you’re different, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. We wanted to show him you can use all those things that make you different to set you apart in the real world. Once we told him that he was like, ‘OK, I have autism, and I’m kind of awesome.’”

And there were no nerves to be found the day of the competition. “I asked him, you know, ‘Are you nervous?’ and he just said, ‘No, I’m not nervous,’” Jasmine notes. “He said, ‘I’m just really excited. I’ve practiced my speech, I’ve practiced my choreography.’ I think he was more excited to get to ride in the private car from the school to the competition more than anything else that morning,” she says. “He said he felt like a superstar, like a celebrity. For all the things he’s been through, getting noticed and seen the way that me and his dad see him, for the first time he felt like, ‘OK, other people can see what mom and dad have seen the whole time.’ With the competition, he realized ‘I am special, and I can do this.’”

So what’s next for Colin? “In the last few weeks he’s been pretty consistent in saying, ‘I want to be a paleontologist, I’m gonna be a model for Hugo Boss in my spare time and I’m gonna continue doing public speaking,” Jasmine laughs. In fact, since winning the competition, Colin has already had a couple speaking gigs, including an invitation from businesswoman and philanthropist Nancy Nasher. “That was huge for him,” his mom beams.

And Colin’s win is having ramifications far from home.

“He’s excited because he knows that [with] the platform he currently has, he’s been able to help people already,” Jasmine says. “He’s excited to bring awareness to autism. There have already been people from all over the country, from Canada and Florida, reaching out saying, ‘Our son is four and he’s not talking yet, this has really given us hope.’”

Ultimately, Colin’s goal—at just 11 years old—is to help others like him. “He just really wants kids like him to know they’re not alone, that they can achieve anything they want to achieve,” his mom explains. “To kids like him, sometimes hearing that is exactly what they need; and when it’s coming from someone like him—who didn’t have this perfect start—when they see this, they’re like, ‘OK, my son or daughter is having troubles … but we can help them find their voice.’ Colin wants to help people find their voice.”

Photos courtesy of Rex Curry/Foley & Lardner LLP.