The toughest merit badge that Merokean Alexander Eagen earned during his six years in Boy Scout Troop 225 was swimming, the 18-year-old says. He remembers tiptoeing to the edge of the big lake at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp in Calverton, in Suffolk County, in the summer of 2012.
He could only stare at the water, petrified to jump in. Swimming was the final merit badge he needed to attain Scouting’s highest rank, Eagle, so he was frustrated that he couldn’t finish it.
Many scouts have trouble hopping in the lake. The water is cold and dark. For Eagen, however, the leap was especially difficult. “He had a lot of trouble diving in,” recalled his mother, Valerie, a hydrogeologist for the Nassau County Department of Public Works.
“It’s hard. It’s just very scary,” Alex said of swimming.
Eagen was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at age 2. The exact diagnosis was “pervasive developmental delay — not otherwise specified,” which means that no one can say precisely why his cognitive functions and social skills are impaired. They just are. Estimates are that he is six years behind normal, or “regular,” development. Still, he completed the Eagle rank on time, by his 18th birthday, without taking any shortcuts or receiving any time extensions, even though, according to Scouting’s rules, he could have taken years more to finish the requirements, given his autism.
A scout needs 21 merit badges to achieve the Eagle rank. Eagen earned 31. Only 7 percent of all scouts reach the top rank, according to the Boy Scouts of America.
Eagen stood at the edge of Baiting Hollow’s lake for two days, eventually mustering the courage to dive in. He suffered a sunburn in the process, but he completed the swimming merit badge.
“Never, never give up,” he said.
That, in a very real sense, is the theme of his life. He did not talk until age 6, and only after intense therapy did his speech slowly evolve. He communicated in sign language before he could speak. Now, his mother noted, it’s hard to keep him quiet.
“Alex can do it,” Valerie said. “It just takes longer. It just takes a little more patience.”
A boy’s life