Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Autism Awareness Month 2015

It's hard to believe an entire year has gone by since last Autism Awareness month!  

Stay tuned for lots of exciting posts! 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Special Olympics: Athlete Riley Blatz

Special Olympics: Athlete Riley Blatz

Riley is an awesome young man who I have had the pleasure of working with for 3 incredible years.  Now he is off to pursue his dream of competing at Nationals in New Jersey this summer!  Rock on Riley!

Awareness Visuals

These posters were designed and developed by yours truly, Mr. Mike Sexton, and a few incredibly talented students.  They are currently being displayed within the halls of RRHS alongside some enlightening information on Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Rock On Dragons! 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Catching Up With...Kim!

Kim is a former student of mine who graduated last year.  She has contributed to the blog in the past via her Senior Spotlight post, video interviews with yours truly, and various blurbs embedded in my posts.   I caught up with Kim to see how life has been after high school. 

Ms. D:  What do you miss most about high school? 
Kim: Well....being with my friends and teachers.  I miss hanging out with my friends and chatting with them.  My teachers made me feel special. 

Ms. D: What are you doing now that you have graduated? 
Kim: Taking care of my nephew Brian. He is 3 months old.  He was born 3 months premature and has many medical problems.  His lungs didn’t develop, he has a cyst in his brain, and has very bad acid reflux.  Brian is a strong baby.  I’ll do anything to be with him.   It’s a responsibility, but it’s fun.  At first it was hard being an aunt, but now it’s really easy. 

Ms. D: Do you have a job? Go to college? 
Kim: I do not have a job but yet but someday I want to be a sports manager.   I would really like to study sports management and hope to go to the University of Texas. 

Ms. D: What has been the hardest part about having Autism and being "in the real world" (out of high school)? 
Kim: Getting into college.  The hardest part so far has been taking the required assessments. 

Ms. D: What advice would you give to a senior with Autism on what to expect after graduation? 
Kim: Be sure to have your career and college plans set up.   Decide now what is important in your life, even if it will change later.  
Ms. D: What hobbies or things do you do for fun now that you are out of high school? 
Kim: going for walks, play video games, and play sports.  I really like to play soccer and pool. 

Ms. D: You ask me one! 
Kim : When can we start the get together for summer?

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Letter to My 16 Year Old Self

Dear 16 Year Old Me,

Please don’t change.   I know you probably wanted to hear something much more practical, as I am sure you are struggling with figuring out who you are.   While it may not seem like it at this stage in your life, that struggle is going to make you great.   Without the challenges you are facing now, you would grow up to be “normal”.  I know that “normal” is what you believe you want.   But listen…“normal” is just a setting on the washing machine.  “Normal” is boring and monotonous.  Everyone has the potential to be that.   You are not just anyone.  You are YOU.  Right now you have no notion of just how powerful that is.   I suppose if I were to prescribe you some sort of action I would advise you to stop trying to fit in so much.   Quit “over-trying.”  Stop being afraid to stand out.  Just be who you are.   Find confidence in that.  Take comfort in knowing that you will be more than okay, you will be INCREDIBLE.  And while you feel alone right now, there are many more like you in your future endeavors.   Many more that will need your help someday.   And these awful experiences you find yourself in these days as a teenager will allow you share what you have learned with those in our future.    I could reveal many secrets regarding what life in the future, but that would spoil the many great and wonderful surprises that life has in store for you. Just be who you AUT to be. 


Your Future Self 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

100 Words or Less: What Happiness is to Me

Rocking rhythmically while suspended in a hammock.  Summer break.  Family.   New socks. Stars against an indigo sky.  Puppy snuggles.  Hugs.  Baseball. Memories of grandparents.  Swimming. Kindness.  Helping others.   Familiarity.  Taking off my AFOs at the end of the day.  The beach. Being understood.  Swimming. Rainbows.  Netflix marathons.  Lazy days with friends.  Giggling.    Knowing all the words to a song.   Patterns. Freshly cut grass.  The cadence of rain on the roof.  A condiment free bacon cheeseburger.  Flapping.  Little arms wrapped around my neck. Not having to do the dishes.  Queso.  Organization.  Fishing.  Friends. 

Meaningful Friendships Part 3: Autistic Struggles with MEANINGFUL Friendships

The Struggles with Autism in Forging Meaningful Friendships

Having Autism poses many barriers to developing and cultivating genuine, meaningful friendships.   Most of the barriers discussed here are not as significant once a friendship has been firmly established.  However, they can potentially prohibit the beginning stages of friendship from developing and can cause relationships to end well before they have had the opportunity to take root.  

First Encounters

While the potential to forge new friendships lies within every interaction we have with others, the person with Autism often is limited in the number of opportunities they have to meet new people.  There are many reasons for this, but to begin with, a person with Autism might struggle with how to become involved with others in the first place.  How to how to join a club, join in a game being played, or join in on a conversation may elude someone with ASD.   If one is limited in the number of encounters they have, the odds of finding a friend with whom one is compatible with is drastically reduced. 

Fear of meeting new people can also keep the person with Autism from having the opportunity to develop deeper friendships.   For many of us, previously failed attempts at making friends haunt us.  We avoid putting ourselves in situations that bring painful memories to the surface; therefore we also miss out on the sweet rewards such situations can produce. 

A communication barrier to forming these relationships is the difficulty with making small talk.   Most Neurotypical people are able to engage in these chit-chat conversations effortlessly, which could potentially lead to further interactions based on newly discovered common ground.  However, many in the Autistic community cannot seem to grasp the concept of small talk and struggle to engage in it. 

Another obstacle is the inability to choose appropriate topics for conversation.  A person with Autism might make comments that are inappropriate or irrelevant to a given situation.   Often times this can lead the potential friend to view their Autistic counterpart as odd or weird and deter them from making any further attempts to get to know them. 

Not being able to read body language or facial expressions can also be a hindrance when it comes to forging new friendships.   Body language tells us a lot about a person.  Making eye contact can assure a person that one is interested in what they have to say.  Standing upright with arms relaxed is a sign that one is paying attention, while crossing ones arms makes a person appear unapproachable and standoffish.   Being able to understand that a person who is tapping their foot and looking at their watch is becoming impatient is an important skill to have.   Understanding an appropriate distance to stand from another person is a concept that Autistics struggle with often.   If I stand too far away, it appears as though I am not interested in what you have to say or that I am offended by you in some way.  And if I stand too close, I appear intrusive and off-putting.  For many with Autism, reading body language is a FOREIGN language, and these signs are misinterpreted or missed all together. 

 Take for example two people in an office building as they approach an elevator.   As they wait, the Neurotypical person asks the Autistic person where they got their shirt.    The Autistic person responds by saying it was a gift from his grandmother.   Instead of making a statement that returns the conversational ball back to the court of the Neurotypical person, the Autistic person continues with a story about his grandmother and how she isn’t doing very well, and maybe even goes into some unsavory details about the condition of her health and her recent medical procedures.  The Autistic person carries on, unaware his conversational partner lost interest about six floors back, and the Neurotypical coworker presses the button of the closest approaching floor so he can take the stairs the next seven flights just to avoid hearing any more about it, ending what was once an opportunity for two people to potentially engage in conversation about their shared taste in clothing. 

There were several Autistic “faux pas” in this example.  The inability to engage in small talk led to the person with Autism dominating the conversation.   Another was his inability to recognize when his conversation partner was no longer interested in the topic.  And finally, the topic of his grandmother’s medical condition was not appropriate for the given situation.  

Further Impressions

If we survive the first encounters and a person decides they want to get to know us better, there are additional challenges that both parties must endure.  

Those of us on the Spectrum can be rigid in our thinking.    Because of this, we might appear to be close-minded, judgmental, or even “know-it-alls.”   We might not seem very forgiving of others’ mistakes when we feel as though we are right.   Our limited interests might prevent us from being flexible in participating in activities our potential friends might enjoy.    This lack of flexibility can be detrimental in a relationship, causing a person to bail out before the friendship boat sinks.   

Our unusual and stereotypical behaviors can be bothersome and embarrassing for those around us.  People might view our behaviors as immature and childish and can be considered to be off-putting to potential pals.    When we are at the movies and our excitement cannot be contained, flapping and squealing can draw unwanted attention.   Echoing sing-song voices in the mall while shopping for shoes can really put a damper on things.  This might cause others to think twice about hanging out with the “weird kid” and the relationship might be over before it even really got started. 

And then there is what I like to call the “overs”; over-trying, over-thinking, and over-sharing are all possible turn-offs to could-be friends.    The more we over-try to fit in by changing the things we like or the way we dress, the more isolated we will become.   By trying to be someone we are not, we put ourselves out there and draw more negative attention to ourselves.   By over-thinking things, we often hurt our own feelings.  We think too much about what others think of us; why hasn’t my friend texted me back?  Do they not like me anymore?  I must have done something to upset them.  This in turn can bring about more over-trying.   And we over-think through situations that haven’t even taken place.   The more ways the actual situation doesn’t match up with what we have concocted in our heads, the more disastrous the outcome is.   When we are in the beginning stages of getting to know someone, we often over-share information about ourselves.  I might ask the potential friend to over-share as well by asking questions that are too personal or intimate for our level of relationship.   This can be overwhelming to others, causing them to head for the hills before our friendship even had a chance. 

 The Social Wrecking Ball 

As with any relationship, if we survive the beginning stages and establish that significant, substantial, meaningful friendship, there are still potential pitfalls that can be detrimental to the life of the relationship. 

 One of the struggles I have found within my own relationships is that my friends sometimes forget I have Autism.   That’s not always a bad thing; I of course do not want to be known solely for my Autism.  The point in which this becomes negative is situational.    It is particularly relevant when a I have committed a social blunder that is Autism-related and my Neurotypical counterpart fails to attribute it to my having Autism.    If I say something inappropriate and my friend is offended, it could potentially be the demise of our relationships.   However, if the friend is true enough and recognizes that my mistake was a result of my Autistic characteristics, he or she will kindly explain to me why his or her feelings were hurt by my words or actions, and we will both learn from the experience.   These are the friendships that will stand the test of time. 

Another potential wrecking ball is our perceived lack of empathy.   Empathy is the ability to share experiences and feelings with another person.  Because Autistics have difficulty imagining things or putting themselves in other people’s shoes, empathy is a tough concept.    However, we do FEEL for our friends when they are struggling.   The real problem is the EXPRESSION of our empathy.   I do not struggle with feeling.  In fact, I feel TOO much.   It is challenging, however, for me to articulate to you what I am feeling.   Identifying my emotions and showing you how I feel as you struggle is hard for me.   Many times I want to be there for my friends but find myself withdrawing instead, afraid that what I am feeling is out of place or unusual.    Instead of sharing, many of us on the Spectrum hide our feelings.   Friends who are going through tough times might perceive this as our being hard, uncaring, or indifferent to their situation.  Support is the cornerstone of any relationship, so this could potentially cause a friendship to crumble. 

Making it Successful 

So what then can we do to ensure that our meaningful friendships thrive? 

 We must first eliminate any preconceived notions in regards to friendships.   As I was growing up, I had pictures in my head of what friendships were.   As I look back, I realize how unrealistic these imagined scenarios were.    My many failed attempts to force a square peg into a round hole finally taught me that it is better to find a square hole in which I would comfortably fit (rather than forcing myself to be something I wasn’t: a round peg).  In order to forge sincere relationships with others, we can have no preconceived perceptions of what it will look like and start with a clean slate. 

It is also imperative that we be forward and put ourselves out there.   If we avoid opportunities to meet new people, we are also potentially missing out on meaningful friendships.   Despite our anxieties regarding social situations and meeting new people, participating in these situations can be very rewarding.  In addition, having a friend who can support you in these endeavors can be very beneficial.  Remember, we are not limited to having one meaningful friendship, and there is nothing wrong with established friends helping you forge new relationships.    

We must be flexible with others, unselfishly giving more than we take from each relationship.  Often you will find that it is even more rewarding to give than it is to receive.  Going out of your way to make a friends day can be rewarding for both you and your bud.   And we have to remember that relationships are not always 50-50.   Sometimes you must give more, and sometimes you will find that you will need more from your friend.   We must invest considerable time and energy into the relationship.   At times, it may seem as though we have to do this with more effort than our Neurotypical counterparts.   While this might not seem fair, the rewards far outweigh the expenses. 

One bonus piece of advice:  you are not always right, even when you are.  Nobody likes a know-it-all.  Keeping an open mind and possessing a willingness to learn from others is an important component of a healthy relationship. 

Meaningful relationships are not very scientific.  They are abstract and blurry, and there is no mathematical formula to apply.   While we struggle in many areas, those of us on the Spectrum tend to be loyal and trustworthy friends.   We will often go to great lengths to make sure we meet the needs of those we care about.    We are reliable and honest.  Before all else, we must be ourselves and stay true to our unique and individual character.   With time and patience, we will find peg that fits us.