Florida's First Choice for Autism Support

Speaking from personal experience, I know that going off to college as a young adult on the autism spectrum can be an overwhelming prospect, one that many will not be able to overcome. The thought of leaving home for college is scary for every high school graduate; I mean, we’re still kids at that point. But considering the unique challenges that face so many on the autism spectrum, it can be exponentially more difficult. My first attempt at university immediately following high school was, to be completely honest, a train wreck. However, I believe that every failure you make it through brings you one step closer to success, and I learned and grew a lot from that time. Now almost three years later and with much more experience and knowledge under my belt, I have a far better understanding of what it takes to be successful for those with autism looking to make it in college. I would like to share these thoughts with you all, in hopes that it will give you a better idea of how to overcome certain obstacles.

The main issue that I and so many others face is the sudden leap into independent living. No longer will mom and dad be there to bail you out of your problems, or sit you down and force you to do your homework. It’s harsh, but that’s just the way the world works. Preparation BEFORE going to college is absolutely essential. Now, assuming you were diagnosed with a disability before the age of 16, you should have had an Individual Education Program (IEP) set up throughout high school. The IEP is all a part of “transition planning,” which, according to this article, is training or experience, “from hygiene to banking to job training, driver’s education, sex education, college admissions and more,” all things which are never really covered in school, but are immensely important life skills.

But it doesn’t stop there; in fact, the journey is just beginning. Once you get to school, there are plenty of resources available to you, and it’s essential that you utilize them as much as possible. At USF, there’s the Students with Disabilities Services and just about every university has something similar. These people want to help you, but it’s your responsibility to go to them, they will not come to you. If you take away any one thing from this, it’s that you need to become an effective self-advocate. Is there pressure on you to take on more of a workload than you’re comfortable with? Make sure to let the advisor know. You only have to take a few classes at a time, there’s no rush to finish college as soon as possible.

On the Autism Speaks website, there’s a large and comprehensive list of resources for post-secondary education that I suggest you take a look at. Most importantly, remember to relax and pace yourself, stress can ruin your life in college if you let it!

  • G. Sosso

It’s no big secret that high school can be a challenge for anyone, not just those on the spectrum, but for many of them, the struggle is greater than any other. They’re still growing up, many have yet to learn any true applicable life skills, and classes can be a challenge if the teacher is incapable of keeping the pace of their lessons at an acceptable level for all of their students. Many go through that phase where everything their parents say is wrong and they’re always right (don’t worry we all do it). These are just some of the many issues which can make high school so difficult. I know for me personally, high school had its ups sure, but on the whole I barely made it through at times, often only passing due to the intervention of my mom or dad chatting with my teachers and getting me back on the right track. Here, I want to discuss some issues facing students with autism in high school, and perhaps some solutions that can help resolve the main issues.

Nowadays, students with ASD participating in general education classrooms is trending. Many are beginning to feel that just because a kid has autism, doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t receive the same knowledge as everyone else. For those who may not be “in-the-know” about what autism is, some of the most common characteristics are difficulty in social situations, an inability to spot sarcasm or tone of voice, repetitious actions, and a general aversion to change. According to Veronica Fleury of UNC’s Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, “Many educators find that they’re not prepared to adapt their instruction methods to meet both state standards and the diverse needs of students with autism.” In a similar study, it was noted that students on the spectrum had a disproportionately high participation in the STEM fields compared to the general populace, regardless of gender or income. If that’s really the case, then it’s apparent that high schools need to prepare these students with the necessary skills for achieving their goals, as STEM fields are some of the most difficult to succeed in.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially if you are a teacher, is that a lot of individuals on the spectrum have unique (or at least different) learning styles. When planning for instruction, keep in mind that for the most part, students with ASD are visual learners, literal learners, and require consistency, according to this resource. For example, out-of-nowhere pop quizzes and numerous hands-on activities aren’t going to be very effective for most, as they’ll quickly lose interest and won’t absorb a single word coming out of your mouth. Be forthcoming and explicit with your expectations, don’t leave anything up for interpretation or else the student may not understand what they’re supposed to do in a given situation.

Additionally, try to keep the student engaged with other members of the classroom. If given the chance, many with autism will clam up and not want to socialize at all. This simply isn’t going to cut it in the real world, so try to prepare them by having them participate in group work. If you follow these tips, dealing with your student should be much easier.

> G. Sosso

Out of all the issues we try to address here at CARD, there is perhaps none more important than how can we help kids on the spectrum, who just finished, or are finishing, high school successfully transition into the adult (working) world? It can seem like a monumental task at times, even downright impossible, but it’s not! I was in the exact same position when I graduated from Lakewood Ranch High School back in 2013, and my life sort of stalled until I found CARD, and of course the Learning Academy. They helped me a lot, and hopefully I can do the same thing for anyone reading this.

According to the Autism Society via the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of “June 2014, only 19.3 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. were participating in the labor force – working or seeking work. Of those, 12.9 percent were unemployed; meaning only 16.8 percent of the population with disabilities was employed (By contrast, 69.3 percent of people without disabilities were in the labor force, and 65 percent of the population without disabilities was employed).” The difference between the 2 is enormous, and clearly speaks to some sort of correlation; such a gap cannot be mere coincidence. Now, to be fair, part of the blame does lie on those with the disabilities. Less than 20% of people on the spectrum were looking for work, and that is a huge part of the problem.

Many employers hear the negative stereotypes associated with workers with mental disabilities, and don’t want to take the risk of hiring them. Things like laziness, the inability to follow orders, taking longer to accomplish tasks, lack of social skills, etc. are just some of the reasons companies aren’t hiring from this demographic. And it cannot be denied that, for many young, and even full-grown adults, these things are an issue that plagues them. But, just like any other problem, it can be fixed if both the boss and employee are willing to work together and be understanding. Perhaps if more companies realized this, they could see some of the positive attributes people on the spectrum can bring; i.e. resourcefulness, creativity, unique perspectives and the ability to point out the little details others might miss.

So now we know a few of the issues, but how can we go about fixing them; i.e. making the transition? I think this article sums it up quite well, “For young adults who go directly into the employment world, it will also be critical for them to focus on their strengths and what brings them the greatest joy. They will want to explore different areas of the job market. Different work environments may help different individuals to excel. There are many opportunities for supported employment, where the employer offers supports to a worker with different challenges. Other individuals will require less support and may do better independently.” Basically, you need to find your passion, and there are many organizations that can help you out with that, including CARD!

Source: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/.

 

G. Sosso

Father’s Day

Father’s Day is coming up and I wanted to devote this blog to all the wonderful fathers out there! Earlier this month, I got to visit with local autism dad Olando Rivera, former champion kick boxer and owner of the B.A. Warrior gym here in Tampa. If you’d like to read about my visit and get some great input from a primary source, please feel free to check out here.

It’s no real secret that compared to mothers, fathers don’t receive nearly the same amount of appreciation for what they do. To be fair, there are (mostly cultural) reasons for this. With many families in America, the dad is out working most of the day while the mom stays home and raises the kids. There is no study to support the claim that women naturally have more compassion than men do, though according to this article, women express compassion more often through “nurturing and bonding behaviors,” which is advantageous when taking care of a child with autism. Like most things, however, these are just generalizations, and not always the case. There’s a national trend lately that’s seeing more and more dads act as the primary caregivers in the household. Pew Research reported in June 2014 that at least 2 million men are stay at home dads in the US alone  and that number has surely risen since then. So the men are there, and they’re not going anywhere! And this is in no way meant to marginalize the impact or importance of moms; quite the opposite in fact. The mom is the wheel that keeps the whole family spinning, and without them we’d all be lost. This is more about giving thanks to the dads out there, who are just as important and should be respected as such!

To all the moms out there: please, encourage your husband to take a more proactive role in your child’s life. If you read what Olando had to say, follow that advice. His bond with his son is so strong because he got involved, broke down that barrier that so many kids on the spectrum erect, and both father and son are stronger for it. Ultimately though, it’s up to the dads to take that big step. Olando had a great quote: “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” This is very true. A very similar thing happened to my own dad a few years ago. Before I got my diagnosis, my relationship with him was rocky. Not terrible, but we never really connected all that well. After the diagnosis, and after seeing a family therapist, he completely turned things around; he “changed his situation.” Now he and I have a wonderful relationship and I love him dearly. Its stories like Olando’s and hopefully even my own that we’re trying to create more of here at CARD, by raising awareness leading up to Father’s Day.

This Father’s Day, remember to give your dad a big hug, maybe get him a little gift, and most importantly, let him know how much you love and appreciate him!

  • G. Sosso

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the most prominent dads in the Tampa Bay autism community, Olando “The Warrior” Rivera. The former kickboxer, whose record boasts several championship titles, now is a successful business owner running the B.A. Warrior Gym and soon opening the Warriors for Autism Fitness & Sensory Center specifically designed for individuals with special needs. The center inspired by his own son and other children on the spectrum will have a sensory room, zip line, rock wall and various activities that are geared toward children and young adults with sensory sensitives.

As you can imagine, I was a little nervous meeting someone with his résumé, but it turns out he was a really nice guy who seemed to genuinely care about all the kids that walk into his gym. As I was listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel like it could be the plot to a movie; star athlete who had it all, life tries to knock him down, comes out in the end happier than ever, knowing family is more important than anything else. Listed below are the questions I asked Mr. Rivera, followed by his responses. Hope you enjoy!

olando

Coach Olando helping a young boy on the Sensory Center’s rock wall

 

Q: Please describe your mission here at the B.A. Warrior Training Center. We can all read it online, but I’d like to hear it straight from your mouth.

A: “The mission here, our vision, is to have a place where the kids can come in and have fun, but at the same time, not feel like they’re overwhelmed with all the noise. I can’t have it loud and noisy in here, or have a lot of bright lights, because as you know, I have an autistic son. He’s 17 now, and I want him to know that when he comes into this room, he can have fun and not squint his eyes or cover his ears and stuff like that; I’ve been through this with him his whole life, so I understand what he needs. I basically designed this place alongside my wife with the thought of helping these kids, and my son, to not only have fun, but to get some exercise. Can’t get in shape when you’re sitting at home on the computer!”

 

Q: What sort of growth do you usually see in your disciples, from when they first walk in here to when they leave for the last time?

A: “That’s another reason why I’ve been so inspired to do this program. Since I started this back in 2000, what I’ve seen throughout the years with all the kids that have come through those doors to train with me, is that when they got here they were very shy and scared, and didn’t know what they were getting into really. I’ve seen them transform from that into saying, ‘Hey this is so fun and cool!’, and it had to do with simple things that I did to help them, which I’ve also done with my own son. I figured if it works for him, I could probably duplicate it with other kids. Why not help as many of these kids as I possibly can? The best feeling is when I see some of them go from non-verbal to verbal, and actually say, ‘Thanks coach!’, it’s magical. It shows how much they truly do care. The key, I believe, is the eye contact. Once you’ve established that, and they’ll look at you right back, you know you’ve gained their trust.”

 

Q: How did getting that initial diagnosis for your son change things for you and your family?

A: “That one’s really close to the heart. When we found out, we didn’t know what it was. Who did? He was 5 when we found out, so going on 12 years now. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I’m a champion athlete, why does my son have something like this?’, and it was hard for me, as a man, to wonder how could he have gotten this from me when I’m so healthy? It caused a lot of problems between me and my wife; shifting the blame on one another, going back and forth, it was bad. But through the grace of God, we realized fighting wouldn’t solve anything, and that he’s our son and he needs us to help him. Being completely honest, I was in denial about it, thinking he’ll be fine, or “grow out of it,” but as the years went by, nothing changed. My wife Deena stayed on top of it though, making sure he always got what he needed. They called me a warrior when I was fighting, but she was the real warrior, doing what needed to be done for her kid. When I realized that, I accepted my son for who he is, and began my mission to help out other kids in similar situations.”

 

Q: There’s an unfortunate stigma against dads of children with autism, that they “can’t be as involved as the mom.” What would you say to any dads out there to convince them to be proactive in their child’s life?

A: “It comes down to the last question I answered. I was in denial as a dad, I didn’t want to believe it even existed, let alone that my son had it. I’m sure there are a lot of dads out there who go through the same thing I did. But that’s crazy, because if you think that way, then you’re not really a dad. When you’re a parent, you take your child, and you deal with the hand you’re given, and you do what you have to do to ensure they’re the best they can be no matter what’s involved. Moms are going to do what needs to be done almost always, because they carried you! They know what’s best for you by instinct, but many dads don’t have that. What I can say though, is to just remember: it’s not about you, it’s about your kid. Just love them and take care of them, and I promise you’ll do just fine.”

 

Q: Thank you so much for doing this. Last thing, can you give any general advice to all the dads out there who may be reading?

A: “It’s no problem, glad to do it. My suggestion to the dads out there: get down on one knee, look them in the eye. MAKE that contact with them, if they look away, pull their face back to yours. Let them see you, because once they do, it breaks that barrier they put up automatically. “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” Doing nothing will change nothing. I’ve seen it consistently ever since I opened this place up. When you work hard to make things better, the change you will see is contagious, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. That’s the reason I’m here today standing in this building with you, is my determination to make things better, and that is my advice to all the dads out there.”

olando 2

Olando and his wife, Deena.

 

  • G. Sosso

 

 

With Mother’s Day 2016 just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mother and how much I appreciate her and everything she does for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if weren’t for her, so thank you so much; I love you! Today I want to talk about some things that “autism moms” may experience or should know about. I’ve compiled this list from various sources, including the internet, my own mom, and the moms of some of my friends from the Learning Academy last year. I included a few entries that apply for high functioning autism, and some for low functioning, so as to not discriminate against either demographic. Some of these things may seem obvious, but honestly speaking, being a parent to kid(s) on the spectrum is a challenging thing, and sometimes being reminded of these things can be a huge help in keeping us grounded. So here’s my list of the most important things you will experience as an autism mom:

  1. You will become very flexible. Kids with autism can often be unpredictable and don’t always have the same thought process as neurotypical children, so you will have to learn to adapt to their behavior. Don’t expect a “one size fits all” parenting style to work very well.
  2. At the end of the day, you will have the patience of a saint. For a while, your child will test your sanity, but you will come out stronger for it in the end. My mom used to be quicker to anger, now she can take anything that comes at her.
  3. No matter where your child falls on the spectrum, you will come to be thankful for progress of any kind, be it vocal, academic or social, so much more than the average parent. You may even feel happier than they do!
  4. Like it or not, you will learn basically all there is to know about autism itself. The moms I talked to formulating this list seemed to know more about autism than some neuroscientists, which I found humorous.
  5. This one is very important: please make sure you take care of yourself occasionally. You won’t be able to take care of your kids if you’re too fatigued to do anything. Treat yourself to a night out every now and then.
  6. You may or may not go crazy at times thinking about your child’s future. Just kidding… you will absolutely go crazy! All parents worry about this, but when you have the unpredictability autism brings like I mentioned before, it can really dominate your mind at times.
  7. Above all else, you will truly learn to appreciate what you have. Kids with autism are just as wonderful as those without it, and if you just have the determination, you can make them become a success through a loving relationship.

Make sure to show your appreciation this Mother’s Day, and to all the wonderful moms out there, thank you for all you do!

gage and mom

My mother and I

  • G. Sosso

For many families with autism, the name Temple Grandin is well known. While Dr. Grandin is truly inspiring and a beacon of hope, for me the hero in that family goes by the same nickname as me and many of you, Mom… Eustacia Cutler.  I can’t imagine facing the challenges and decisions she made at a time when she did not have support of her community and services such as CARD like we have now.

I just want to note that if you are reading this, and you are a Mom (or a Dad taking on the role of Mom), you are doing an incredible job! One thing that Eustacia did not have to contend with is the undue pressure of social media to contend with setting an unrealistic standard of motherhood. It is human nature to only want to share the positive aspects of your life, but in doing so a much altered reality is portrayed. It is in the sharing our own struggles and asking for help that we can help each other and then truly celebrate the successes, however small.

Let me share with you a recent episode of my life that, at the time, I thought was definitely a mom failure on my part. I’ve gotten quite spoiled as of late with minimal meltdowns for the past couple of years by my ten year old. I can’t quite say that about myself, but of her I can.  Of course she would correct me and say, “Uh Mom, you mean disasters”. So this particular disaster was triggered by me forgetting a cardinal parenting rule.  Don’t commit to something you don’t deliver. The day before my daughter had asked me if we could stop somewhere on the way to school and get a breakfast sandwich (and a donut) instead of her eating at home or school as is the norm. I said, yes, and added quickly as long as you are ready early. However, I did not expound on that or provide a definition of what ready and early was.  She got up very early that day, but about five minutes before I intended to leave I checked on her and she was still in her PJs!!! It seems getting up early only provided her a chance to get distracted and lose track of time. With my reminder she jumped into action but at this point I knew we wouldn’t be able to stop and I made her breakfast.

We got in the car and I gave her the breakfast to eat on the way. She ate it without complaint and was singing along with the radio. Then we got to her school. She asked why we were there. I said, so you could go to school. She asked about stopping. I explained she wasn’t ready so we weren’t able to stop today. This is normally where in my spoiled state she would take it in stride and the day would keep going. But this time….it stopped. We pulled up to the car rider line where the safety patrol was and she wasn’t budging. So I pulled up further where the ESE teachers and Aides were and she was in tears and repeating, “I am not ready; I was supposed to go to the store”. They tried; I was out of the parked car at this point trying all my tricks. It wasn’t working. I was trying very hard to stay calm as I had to present to about a hundred people an hour later. I thanked the two teachers that stayed out there with me for the twenty minutes and told them I would drive around to the front office. There was a part of me that thought if you had just taken her and been late you could have avoided this. But I was not giving in. I drove to the front of the school, tried one more distraction reset, “Should we park on the right or the left?” in an animated voice.  “Insistence” was in the backseat still wanting her original plan.

We parked. I think she realized at that point I wasn’t giving in and so she got out of the car, rushed through the office and headed up to her classroom. I followed behind with her backpack, getting a classroom pass, etc.  I caught up with her at the top of the stairs. She told her teacher, “I am having a rough morning”, and I passed the torch. It was reported back to me that she ended up recovering well and having a great day. The next morning, she was ready to go 15 minutes before we were scheduled to leave without prompting from me. Maybe it wasn’t a failure after all?

I have long since given up the “I can do it on my own” pretense. I often call up my fellow parents, CARD consultants, family and friends when facing a new twist and turn.

  • Michele Jewell, CARD Constituency Board Chair

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