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Long IslandSuffolk

Challenged? On quiz show, he's not

From left, Cold Spring Harbor High School students

From left, Cold Spring Harbor High School students Liam Cronin, Sonia Subudhi, Kevin Tanen and Sean O'Neil compete against Saint Anthony's High School during the taping of an episode of The Challenge. (Nov. 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Kevin Tanen has an appetite for books, an ability to retain information, and thinks quickly under pressure.

Those qualities make the 16-year-old junior a valued member of the Cold Spring Harbor High School team competing this year in "The Challenge," the television quiz show for Long Island high school students.

Tanen also has Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism seen in boys who have difficulty with social and communication skills.

Someone with Asperger's might be socially awkward, have limited eye contact and not seem to be engaged in a conversation.

Tanen has a tendency to interrupt conversations and talk out of turn, so a special-education aide accompanies him in his classes to help minimize disruptions.

Another symptom: preoccupation with one or a few interests.

"People with Asperger's tend to focus on certain things and for me it's information. I am an encyclopedia of useless knowledge," Tanen said with a self-deprecating smile.

"I like to know weird things and then look them up to make sure they are true. Like that Mark Twain was born and died in the years of Halley's comet."

Tanen showcased his skills - and his sense of humor - during a taping last week in a Manhattan studio of Cold Spring Harbor's first-round match against St. Anthony's of South Huntington. "The Challenge" airs on MSG Varsity, which, like Newsday, is owned by Cablevision.

Host Jared Cotter posed a question in the common foreign expression category: What Italian expression translates "to the tooth"?

"Al dente," Tanen slowly enunciated, to the delight of schoolmates in the audience who came to cheer for him and teammates Sonia Subudhi, Liam Cronin and Sean O'Neill.

When he fired off answers to four physics questions about wave properties, Tanen asked Cotter to "keep going" with the questions.

"I'm very excited," said his mother, Susan Tanen, before the taping. "This is really a niche for him. He has an amazing memory and this is a perfect venue for him. He loves to read everything. He reads the dictionary, encyclopedia, science books, mysteries, trivia, magazines, and remembers everything."

Team coach Jaak Raudsepp, 54, a science teacher, said, "Kevin is a positive contributor. . . . He fits in with the team, and the other team members are like his protectors."

Tanen's teammates, Raudsepp said, have learned "you don't have to be 100 percent mainstream to be successful."

Tanen has been a voracious reader since age 3 - his mother said that at first she thought he was just looking at books before realizing he actually was reading - and has competed in spelling and geography bees.

"I'm not the most interesting one in the spectrum of people with autism," he said, relating the story of an autistic person who learned an Icelandic language in a week.

He wants to be an engineer and is researching whether there is a link between premature birth and autism: He was a preemie. He has a twin brother who does not have Asperger's.

"I just want him to be happy, independent and have people around him who love and care about him," Susan Tanen said.

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