Struggles with dyslexia and dysgraphia motivated Ava Simmons and her family to find their inner geniuses and inspire others to do the same
By Anna-Rhesa Versola| Photography by John Michael Simpson
Ava N. Simmons, 10, was in first grade at Spring Valley Elementary when her teacher asked students to take turns reading aloud to the class. Ava remembers struggling to make sense of the scrambled letters she saw on the page. “I was being teased and bullied a lot, and kids used to call me names, and it really hurt my feelings,” Ava says about her reading difficulties. “Whenever I had to read words, I would try to make another situation so they would forget all about me reading out to the class, and it worked.” Ava would rip paper, ball it up, and throw it at kids who laughed at her. After repeated trips to the principal’s office, Ava’s parents knew it was time to formally investigate.
“[Teachers and administrators] were saying I had behavioral issues, and I was also failing reading,” Ava says. “At first, they said I had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], but when I got tested again, they said I had dysgraphia and dyslexia. I see the words differently. I write them backwards and read them backwards.”
The diagnosis and assessment process took two years, concluding in 2021. Ava’s parents and the school put in place a 504 plan, which is a blueprint of how a school will remove barriers to learning for students with diagnosed learning differences. The goal of a 504 is to give the student equal access at school, by allowing certain accommodations, including additional time to complete homework or using assistive technology like a text-to-speech scanner. Ava says she felt relieved by the diagnosis because it explained what was happening with her. She decided it made her special, “because I’m not like other people,” she says, so she transformed herself into the “STEM Princess” and assembled a team of supporters known as the Team Genius Squad – “Senior Advisor,” grandma Mary Foy; “The Safety Guy,” dad Terrence Simmons; “Lab Assistant,” mom Tita “Tia” Simmons; and “Assistant Director,” older sister, Chyna Jeter.
Ava’s grandmother, Mary, is a semi-retired senior clinical data manager who encouraged her granddaughter to follow her interest in science and math, just like Ava’s mom and sister did; Chyna works in global asset management at KBI Biopharma, and Tia is an analytic chemist by training and is associate vice president and head of global research and development quality at Merz Aesthetics in Raleigh. Tia supported Ava in the creation of her own YouTube channel filled with fun videos about science experiments, like how to make a battery with lemons.
Team Genius Squad registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2021 with a mission to promote science, technology, engineering and math for all learning abilities. Ava authored a book, “Ava Discovers Her Inner Genius Using STEM,” documenting her journey, and the enterprise grew from there.
“I’ve accomplished many things on my bucket list,” Ava says. With her family’s help, she continues to create scripted YouTube presentations of her science experiments and her in-person workshops where she leads kids in conducting their own tests. She also travels with PBS North Carolina’s Rootle Roadster Tour, which takes her to schools and educational events at places like the Museum of Life Science and Marbles Kids Museum. She even formulates her own product line of slime and lip gloss, and designs jewelry and affirmation stickers. Kids and their families can order kits from her website containing these items as well as a lab coat and safety glasses, experiments, a color activity book, a workbook and much more. Her dad, Terrence, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, helps with the mailing logistics.
Though she still faces challenges with dyslexia and dysgraphia, Ava says she won’t let it hold her back. “Everybody’s a genius, but you gotta identify what your genius is within,” Ava says.