By Ron Sandison
An interview with life coach and student mentor Caitlin Smith
1. How old were your when you were diagnosed with Asperger’s?
I was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s when I was fifteen when my parents finally decided to take me to get evaluated after years of struggle, anxiety, and emotional overwhelm. My mother insists she’s known I’ve had Asperger’s since I was two. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school when I got the “on-paper” label that brought its array of challenges and benefits.
2. What was your greatest struggles having Asperger’s?
My greatest struggles with having Asperger’s occurred before college when I could relate to my peers on the spectrum at Mansfield Hall (a college academic and residential program designed to support college students with Asperger profiles). Before I became a mentor at Mansfield Hall during my senior year of college, I felt detached from the world, depressed, and constantly paralyzed with anxiety, overwhelmed, fearful, and insecure. The more I developed, the more my Asperger’s was seemingly “hidden” and masked by my charming social skills and smooth dialogue I’ve taught myself over the years by observing others. This growth earned me cool friends and popularity, but got me into academic trouble at the end of high school and beginning of college because my shyness and anxiety crippled me from acknowledging and seeking support in fear of what would happen to confront my needs and the possibility of my friends finding out about my past and diagnosis.
My main struggle was more explicit. I grew up in northern Vermont and went to the same school from kindergarten to eighth grade with the same ten peers. Going to a union high school with combined towns that collectively add up to a 1,400 student community, the transition was beyond overwhelming; it paralyzed my ability to function. The significance of the transition brought out the most obvious Asperger traits married with my OCD thoughts and behaviors which included an exhausting routine of continually bending over to touch the floor every two steps to write my name. It hurt my back and most of all, my mind.
My headaches were so severe and chronic that I adapted to suffering and it became my normal way of life. The bending over was even worse physically and increasingly embarrassing when I had a cross-country running race and I was the esoteric oddity of the meet. People looked at me with concern. The seemingly irrational impulse and need for me to engage in the bending over was so physically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelming that I had no energy or attention to focus on school which filtered on paper as worthy of being sent to a vocational or alternative school. I stayed in mainstream education; my parents were forced by the high school to make a decision to take me out of school or have me somehow quit these dangerous behaviors for my own sake but also for the sake of others in the hallways.
I was then taken to Boston for an official neuropsychological evaluation to confirm speculations of my Asperger and OCD diagnoses. In addition to my diagnoses being confirmed, I was prescribed Fluvoxamine (an SSRI and anti-depressant) to intercept my obsessive thoughts to then bring an at-ease halt to my compulsive behaviors. Within months, my bending over stopped completely; however, my social life seemed eternally stained with embarrassment and insecurity.
3. What impact has Asperger’s had on your social interaction and dating?
I am currently in my first relationship. I felt embarrassed to be in a relationship and wasn’t ready in high school and the beginning of college. I have had several crushes consistently since I was a small child; I didn’t feel comfortable, mature, and safe enough to act on them prior to my current self. I worried about all of the dynamics of dating, specifically how I would look with the person from other people’s perspectives, what hidden rules I would be expected to follow and attend to throughout the relationship on top of my already-existent day-to-day stress. I didn’t know how to engage in any sexual activity and was afraid I would be awkward or a turnoff to my partner. These fears have persisted my entire life. I have been shy and have contacted my crushes on Facebook messenger and get ignored, rejected, and my persistence was deemed creepy and crazy. The trauma of the feedback I got from being continually rejected set me back from trying and brought me to a further state of insecurity.
4. What college are you attending, and how did you pick your school?
I graduated from Saint Michael’s College with a B.A. in Psychology. I picked my school because I went to church there as a kid; it was familiar, close to home, my parents went and met there, and it was small enough for me to seek support and run cross-country and go skiing.
5. What advice would you give to fellow college students with Asperger’s?
The best advice I have for a student with Asperger’s is acknowledge your challenges and strengths to yourself and to your support team, use your resources because you are paying for them and they will get you significantly aid to personal and academic success. Join a team, a club, and/or check out the town and go skiing, surfing, attend music festivals, and check out cool internship possibilities, and make connections with peers, professors, and the community of the school and town.
6. What do you like best about college?
I enjoyed being a significant and valued part of a community where I was best supported to thrive and present the best version of myself. I loved the idea of starting fresh from high school and being who I wanted to be. I loved growing into who I am today by leaving home and seeking out support for myself and developing my own sense of intrinsic motivation.
7. What advice do you share with young adults with Asperger’s?
I support individuals with Asperger’s as a previous student mentor and current life skills coach at AANE (Asperger/Autism Network of New England). I support these individuals by providing direct social feedback, providing executing functioning and organizational support, developing self-care routines, and working alongside them with navigating an ambiguous and elusive social world.
8. What are some of your interests in research?
During my time student mentoring at Mansfield Hall I conducted my own original qualitative research titled “Social Perception and Interpretation among College Students with Asperger Profiles”. I personally selected students who I had developed strong, rich, and trusting rapport with to interview about their narrative and social perceptions with Asperger’s.
The data show six highly prevalent, recurrent, and consistent themes: Romantic Relationships, Family Relationships, Risk Aversion, Self-Concept, and Intelligence and Academic Development. The data show perception as reality; the interpretation and perception of the event is the emotional and cognitive reality for the individual and thus provides real emotional and physical experiences that the students have consciously and continually internalized throughout development through trial and error. I continue to work on my project with college students and adults with Asperger’s comparing thoughts with behaviors related to perception, fear, and trauma.
9. What were 3 keys to your success?
Caitlin Smith is an experienced life coach and student mentor who works with college students with diverse learning abilities, including Asperger’s Syndrome and similar cognitive profiles. She has researched qualitative studies in the Asperger/High-Functioning Autism field and has given several presentations, speeches, and talks on the topic. You can contact Caitlin Smith at email@example.com or Facebook
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is a Board Member with The Art of Autism and an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron on his website spectruminclusion.com or email Ron at Sandison456@hotmail.com.