- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The best part of Boy Scouts, Liam Reynolds says, is archery.

When the 21-year-old earned his merit badge, he shot a bullseye, just like the hero of one of his favorite movies.

“I fired my arrow at the middle target to get a score like Robin Hood,” he said, pointing to the badge on his uniform.

Over his seven years in scouting, Liam Reynolds has earned 28 other merit badges - first aid, horsemanship, personal management and more - on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, a remarkable achievement for a young man diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Since the Boy Scouts established the rank of Eagle Scout more than a century ago, only 2 percent of scouts have attained the honor. But there’s no record of how many had autism.

“I knew firsthand because I went through the program,” said Aidan Reynolds, Liam’s father, a lawyer in Baton Rouge. “It is a daunting task.”

Those diagnosed on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with social interaction and communication. While most people with autism complete high school, the unemployment rate is high - more than 60 percent - and most live at home with their parents.

When doctors found Liam Reynolds had autism at age 2, “the initial diagnosis was absolutely grim,” said his dad.

One specialist suggested institutionalization, but the family didn’t accept that, instead working constantly with him and finding therapists who could help.

When the young boy grew old enough to join the Cub Scouts, at 8 or so, Aidan Reynolds didn’t think his son was ready.

“It was always a goal, but I didn’t want to set him up to fail,” Aidan Reynolds said.

Boy Scouts was a large part of Aidan Reynolds’s life growing up. He learned important lessons, especially perseverance, he says, and he hoped his son could have the same experience.

“All I wanted to do was learn how to camp, learn how to fish, kayak, rowboat,” Aidan Reynolds said. “I just loved the program.”

When Liam Reynolds was 14, a childhood friend of Aidan Reynolds‘ who was the scoutmaster of Troop 103 in Baton Rouge called to ask if the adolescent would be interested in joining. Aidan Reynolds was concerned, but agreed and signed on as assistant scoutmaster.

He was hopeful Scouting would give his son the friendships he wanted for him.

“He doesn’t get the phone call, ‘Hey, let’s go hang out at the mall. Hey, let’s go to the movies,’” Aidan Reynolds said. “This is the perfect opportunity for him to be with his peers, be outdoors, learn how to canoe, do all the things that I loved doing when I was a kid.”

The decision to join was the right one, Aidan Reynolds says.

The troop made him one of their own, right down to protecting the young man at summer camps if others began to pick on him, Aidan Reynolds said.

As a Scout, Liam Reynolds went camping with the troop and learned to shoot arrows and ride horses. He also became the troop historian, recording all the meetings and campouts with photographs.

“You loved Scouts from the moment you put that uniform on,” Aidan Reynolds said to his son.

“Yeah,” his son answered, smiling.

Because he started late, Liam Reynolds needed permission from the Boy Scouts of America to continue past age 18. He kept amassing merit badges and began planning for a service project to become an Eagle Scout.

After visiting Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital because of a seizure, Liam Reynolds decided he wanted to help sick children there. The hospital staff said they desperately needed supplies for their art and horticulture programs designed to comfort kids during their hospital stays.

Liam Reynolds raised more than $5,000 on an online fundraising site and began buying art supplies at discount stores.

“We probably ended up buying 5,000 or more items,” Aidan Reynolds said. “We literally turned our downstairs in its entirety from the front door to the living room into a warehouse.”

On Sunday, Liam Reynolds received his Eagle Scout badge at a Court of Honor ceremony. He plans to remain active in Scouting when he’s not working at his job at McDonald’s or pursuing his dream of becoming a baker - his specialties are chocolate chip cookies and strawberry pie. He wants to be like his grandmothers, he says.

“You know how easy being a baker was?” Liam Reynolds asked. “You just have to follow the recipe and put the right ingredients in.”

No matter how much his son accomplishes from here on, Aidan Reynolds says he is incredibly proud of him.

“He has exceeded all expectations,” Aidan Reynolds said. “He’s a wonderful son and a remarkable young man.”

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