Carter Johnson’s brain is like a database of information—especially reptiles and birds. The Litchfield Park 17-year-old is autistic, which made going to school in his early years exceptionally difficult. But his love of learning and a little help from those around him gave him opportunities to excel. He is now on track to graduate from Arizona State University next year.
His mom, Emily, said Carter has always been very intelligent. She started homeschooling Carter in sixth grade, but he soon knew more than the curriculum. So, he enrolled full-time at Estrella Mountain Community College at the age of 13. It was at EMCC he felt like he fit in.
“I found where I belonged,” he said. “I thought being there that my age would be a problem, but I found many friends. They loved my age.” At EMCC, he took classes that have changed the course of Carter’s life—biology and sign language.
Already knowing a few basics of sign language, as there was a deaf student at his church and he wanted to be able to communicate, Carter hoped to learn more. At EMCC, his sign language skills greatly improved. The EMCC professor was deaf and Carter said he had to learn to converse very quickly.
And of course, when Carter sets out to learn something, he doesn’t do it halfway.
“I think the main reason I learned sign language so well was because I practiced a lot,” he said. “When my mom would drive me, I’d practice signing the road signs. I’d sign at home while I was talking.”
Now fluent, Carter teaches a free sign language class every Sunday night at his church to about 30 people, plus he interprets at a number of places.
Love of Animals
As far as biology goes, that’s his passion in life. He gained a true appreciation specifically for conservation biology when he took a class at EMCC from Jarod Raithel. Carter loved that class, and he gained a lot from his professor.
But it was also the professor who gained a lot from Carter. In a letter of recommendation, Raithel had this to say about his young student: “Coupled with his intellectual curiosity, Carter also has an extremely strong work ethic – he never simply ‘showed up’ for class, but was always actively engaged in his own learning, pushing himself to connect broad ideas.”
Last year, Raithel received a grant to develop EMCC’s Animal Ambassadors Community Outreach Program. Carter volunteered and helped develop best practices for the care and maintenance for a number of animal models they housed in the lab (gopher snakes, ball pythons, corn snakes, bearded dragons, chameleons, aquaria, rodents, fruit flies, flatworms).
Carter expanded his knowledge, even more, this past summer, through three internships where he helped rehabilitate animals so they could be re-released into the wild: Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, Wild at Heart, and Liberty Wildlife. He still helps at Phoenix Herp and Wild at Heart.
Carter has gotten to know the animals so well, that caring for them is second nature. One red-tailed hawk that Carter works with loves him so much, it has recognized Carter as its main caretaker. And there’s no doubt it’s because Carter has spent so much time with it and learning about what makes it tick.
“Basically I feed, clean, and rehabilitate them,” he said.
Emily wasn’t sure about all the animals at first, as she was unfamiliar with them; plus she wasn’t sure what Carter could possibly do in the future as far as a career.
“One time he called home and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’m bringing home 40 doves to rehabilitate,’” Emily said.
“After that, I just brought animals home without telling her first,” Carter joked.
After seeing how happy the animals made Carter, and all the possible places he could work someday, Emily’s since changed her mind and loves what Carter is doing.
“He gets calls from animal hospitals asking him questions about caring for certain exotic animals,” said Emily. “He has helped perform surgeries on birds of prey and reptiles.”
Carter also started an Instagram called @conservationcarter, where he shares photos of some of the animals he works with.
What is it about the animals that he loves so much?
“I got to know them,” he said. “I can predict what they are going to do next. They all have different personalities.”
The sky is the limit for Carter as he continues to learn. But he said that really, everyone can have the opportunity to be passionate about something.
“I believe that everybody is smart,” Carter said. “If you find something you enjoy, you can be smart in that.”
After he graduates from college, Carter plans to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And then, of course, “work with animals.”