Why we must step out of our comfort zone to understand and support people with ASD’s.
By Tracey Cohen
A vision statement rings hollow without methodical implementation to fulfill the dream.
Oakland University in Rochester, MI prides itself on offering many training opportunities throughout the year to support its faculty and staff thus supporting its vision to “unlock the potential, of not some but all individuals.”
Inspired by the rising number of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enrolled at the University, Kristin Rohrbeck, Director, Oakland University Center for Autism Outreach Services (OUCARES), and Sarah Guadalupe, Director, Disability Support Services (DSS), came together in 2017 to put together an autism training that would be made available to all Oakland University faculty and staff.
“Many students with ASD register with the DSS office for additional academic assistance, but we also know there are many students with ASD who do not disclose through DSS,” Rohrbeck explained and continued, “Sometimes students with ASD are faced with unique situations in classrooms and across campus; faculty and staff need to know the best practices to help those students succeed in higher education.”
After months of planning, Rohrbeck and Guadalupe’s inspiration came to light.
Tuesday October 30, 2018, nearly two hundred Oakland University employees attended a workshop “to learn about autism spectrum disorders and practical strategies to support people with ASDs in higher education.” The workshop featured presentations by Dr. Temple Grandin, a world renowned speaker, expert and educator in autism and animal psychology, and Maureen Ziegler, a certified autism education and intervention specialist with the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) Project at Grand Valley State University. The result was a wealth of practical information learned in a lively, entertaining atmosphere which I, even as a part-time facilitator was privileged to attend.
As a woman on the autism spectrum having to struggle alone the majority of my life living undiagnosed until the age of thirty-nine, I was heartened to witness so many individuals genuinely wanting to understand and support people with ASDs. And for me, both Grandin and Ziegler’s presentations struck home.
While impossible to recreate all that was shared, what follows are invaluable takeaways from the day’s event.
Having grown up in the 1950’s, Temple was taught social skills in a very formal and strict manner to which she credits much of her success.
“Social skills need to be taught at a young age as if in a foreign country,” Grandin adamantly noted throughout the morning. “Give kids household jobs in elementary school. They should not reach college without knowing how to shop for groceries. Have them help serve during family meals and holiday gatherings.”
Stressed over and again throughout the morning, Grandin insisted –
“We don’t want to throw them into the deep end but these kids need to be stretched.”
Temple further advised:
– Be very specific with instructions and the expected outcome.
– Help kids find friends through shared interests.
– Give limited choices, too many will overwhelm.
– Kids need time to respond.
Temple emphasized this point by encouraging us to think about the brain of a child with ASD like a phone with one bar. And in my personal experience, this is not only true for children but adults as well.
Referencing the late Stephen Hawking’s advice to other disabled people to “Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well,” Grandin stressed the importance of focusing on the things people with ASD can do.
And while Grandin herself has had many “meltdowns” and anger throughout her life, she stressed the importance of “learning how to cry.”
“Something must be done with all that emotion,” Grandin acknowledged. ‘Once people with ASD can learn to cry and find constructive ways to deal with being upset, the sooner they will encounter less trouble and far more success.’
While there unfortunately is no secret formula to learning these skills as each individual must find their own way, it is an important goal for which to strive and keep in the forefront of one’s mind.
Points made by Grandin that strongly resonated for Guadalupe were the “importance of skilled trades” and giving students the opportunity to “try on careers” before getting too far along in their chosen career path.
“We need to work on making more internship opportunities available,” Guadalupe acknowledged.
While Grandin made for ‘a hard act to follow,’ Ziegler was no less formidable.
– She stressed how we expect the social and cognitive skills of people on the spectrum to match…but they surely do not.
– Expectations for people with ASD need to be raised and we must “preserve their dignity of risk,” in short, the right of every individual to take reasonable risks essential for dignity and self esteem.
– People on the spectrum speak the truth, they’re honest not divisive.
– People with ASD do not have theory of mind, the natural ability to recognize and understand the thoughts, intentions, beliefs and desires of others. This can be taught and learned, but it is exhausting to remember and practice.
Stressed by both Grandin and Ziegler is the importance of using a variety of teaching methods and making accommodations as relevant and needed.
While the information presented far exceeds my ability to convey everything in a mere article, I hope that this information will be taken to heart and further explored, a desire much in tune with the closing remarks of the day from Dr. Janet Graetz, Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Child Studies.
“After today, we have two choices; we can explore or excuse. We can decide to not act on the information learned today or we can step outside of our comfort zone and find ways to implement this new information.”
Every individual who chooses the latter becomes a hero to people on the autism spectrum.
I implore you to venture that extra mile and be our hero.
Tracey Cohen, a lifelong competitive runner, author, speaker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of thirty-nine. Sharing her own struggles and discoveries, she aims to empower others to learn, accept and find peace in an ever complicated neurotypical world. Tracey lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan with her treasured Labrador Retriever, Bailey Kennedy.
Tracey is also a facilitator at Oakland University Center for Autism Outreach Services (OUCARES) and author of Six Word Lessons on the Sport of Running. She can be contacted at http://www.growingupautistic.com/tracey and firstname.lastname@example.org