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Autism & College

A large number of children growing up with autism have a difficult time thinking about what “comes next.” Because of the difficulties that come naturally with childhood and adolescence, along with the unique challenges presented by ASD, many parents are more focused on simply getting their child through high school, and who knows what comes next. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but everyone has to leave the nest sometime. I’ve previously discussed the possibility of jumping straight into the working world, which is a perfectly acceptable path to take. College isn’t for everyone. However, there are many advantages associated with going to college, whether it be for an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree. Currently, I am attending Hillsborough Community College, earning my AA degree, before I transfer to USF for my bachelor’s. I couldn’t be happier with my decision, and I’m proud to say that I know I’m going places; making something of myself. That sense of validation and self-worth is one of the many reasons going to college is a positive thing for those on the spectrum. But there are others as well!

Let’s not beat around the bush here. A college degree makes for a happy and healthy bank account. While it is more than possible to be successful in life without a higher education, the numbers don’t lie. This article paints college in a very favorable light, but I’d like to focus on the chart included herein. The more school you complete, the more you make and the lower your chance for unemployment. And as we see here, the autism demographic has a major unemployment problem, unparalleled in almost any other group out there. If you can find your passion, something you’re talented at and enjoy doing, then go for it and you can make a fulfilling career for yourself. And best of all, you won’t have to worry about financial strain while doing it.

As we all know, however, money can’t buy happiness. Love, family, friends, etc. are the true path to a satisfying life, and one of the most important aspects of that is love for what you do. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Like it or not, getting a college degree opens up the door for so many different career paths that are unavailable to those without a higher education. Those on the spectrum often have a wide array of quirky and creative interests; luckily, there’s a major/degree out there for just about anything you can think of. Take well-known and outspoken autism advocate Temple Grandin for instance who, according to her Wikipedia page, got her bachelor’s degree in human psychology, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science. Now there’s someone who’s really made something of themselves.

Perhaps most importantly is that, simply put, having a degree correlates strongly to increased happiness. As shown in every source I’ve found, such as this one, a college educated population is a content population, and considering the depression epidemic common throughout the autism community, this can only be a good thing. Personally, ever since I started my journey towards a degree, I’ve been feeling much better about myself, and I’ve never been happier!

_ G. Sosso

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Loneliness & Autism

Image result for lonely picture

 

We’ll be shifting gears this time around to talk about something a bit more serious. There’s been a trend in my blogs to write about subjects which hold significance to me for one reason or another, as I find it much easier to write when you can personally relate to the topic at hand. This week is no different, as I’ll be discussing loneliness and how it affects people on the autism spectrum. Due to the socialization issues faced by those with autism, making and (perhaps most importantly) keeping friends can be a daunting task, despite our pure intentions. This lack of companionship can be highly damaging to anyone, let alone individuals on the spectrum. However, I promise if you just keep at it, and stay true to yourself, eventually good friends will come along. But I digress, let’s get into it.

From what I could find, apparently there used to be an idea that people with autism didn’t feel lonely or, at the very least, weren’t as severely impacted by it as others. I find this idea dubious at best. One study from the University of Missouri measured “loneliness, number and nature of friendships, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.” It was discovered that among this demographic, a lack of close friends increased depression and anxiety, while lowering self-esteem and satisfaction with life. This holds true for myself and everyone else I’ve ever known with autism.

It is possible that many people, mostly children, with ASD may not understand the connection between loneliness and real friendship. Making acquaintances is one thing, but having a true friend who’ll be there for you through thick and thin is difficult for so many of us. According to Tony Attwood, a well-known figure in the autism community in Australia, children with autism have weaker friendships than their neurotypical peers and don’t understand that their loneliness stems from that. “Whereas typical children define and understand loneliness as being alone (with no one to play with) and feelings of sadness, the majority of autistic children define loneliness as only one dimension of being alone. They tend to not attribute an emotional feeling (e.g. sadness) to their loneliness.” That degree of sadness that they don’t quite understand leads to intense feelings of depression and loneliness which is almost impossible to break out of.

As I’ve alluded to, the true cure for the devastating effects of loneliness is to forge strong friendships. A few years ago, I made 2 friends who are the best I’ve ever had, and for the first time I feel truly happy in my life. I feel better about myself than ever before. And this idea is definitely supported. From the first study I referenced, it was found that a “greater quantity and quality of friendships were associated with decreased loneliness among adults with autism spectrum disorders.” Interacting with the social world we live in can be challenging, and even scary at times, but as I said before, just keep being you and one day the right people will notice, and make a great friend in the process.

  • G. Sosso

Autism & Creativity

There are many thoughts and ideas people have regarding the autism community. Some of which are true, while many are not. But one of the well-documented positive stereotypes is that people on the spectrum possess more creativity than the general population. I can say from personal experience that almost everyone I’ve ever met with ASD has excelled at either art, design, writing, or other creative outlets. It may be anecdotal, but I definitely feel there is a correlation, not just in how they express themselves, but also in how they think. Furthermore, according to several recent studies done on the subject, there may in fact be actual evidence to support this claim.

A study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders took place in 2015, which came to the conclusion that there’s a strong connection between autism and creativity. In the study, 312 people were provided with a questionnaire, 75 of whom had a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. The study goes into a lot of detail, but the main point it got across was that people with autism generate more creative, outside-the-box ideas. “People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way… They might not run through things in the same way as someone without these traits would to get the typical ideas, but go directly to less common ones,” said Martin Doherty, one of the co-authors of the study. The main example provided in the study was when the subjects were asked to identify all the different uses they could think of for a paperclip. The neurotypical participants came up with more standard answers, such as a hook or pin, the ASD participants gave answers such as a potential paper airplane weight, a wire to support cut flowers or a token for a game.

Artistic ability, something which goes hand in hand with creativity, also may have a strong link with autism. As mentioned before, just about every person I’ve ever met on the spectrum had a vivid, active imagination with a penchant for art, writing, etc., myself included. Autism allows us to think about and see the world in a different way than most. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. This provides advantages and disadvantages, but I definitely think it allows the creative juices to flow in abundance. This article from the Guardian delves into the stories of several adults on the spectrum who have excelled in creative fields due in large part to their autism.

I believe many with autism skew a bit further towards being “right brained.” The right side of your brain handles creativity, while the left brain deals in logic. I believe myself to be somewhere in the middle, drawing on both in equal measure. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with either, so long as you’re true to yourself.

  • G. Sosso

Having a Sibling with Autism

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“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus

Admittedly, having a sibling on the autism spectrum can be stressful at times, especially if the two of you are close in age. Growing up, it’s unlikely you’ll receive the same attention from your parents that they do. That is, of course, nobody’s fault, but for a young mind it can be hard to comprehend why your brother or sister is getting more attention than you. There’s also the unavoidable issue that if you’re not used to the behavior, dealing with someone (especially a child) with autism can be difficult. Many are prone to outbursts or tantrums, can’t fully understand social cues, don’t take an interest in a wide variety of activities, etc. But there’s so much more to it than that. There are few things more beautiful than the bond between siblings, and just because yours may have ASD doesn’t mean you can’t form that special relationship. Here are some of the unique advantages to having a sibling with autism; hopefully after reading this, you will gain a greater appreciation for your sibling.

First of all, you will gain a unique perspective of the world vicariously through your sibling. Kids on the autism spectrum almost always have a different outlook on life, and see the world in a unique, individual way, totally outside the norm. As the sibling without autism, you will learn very early on that the world is in no way black and white. There is no absolute binary on how things can be done, but rather, just like autism, there is a whole spectrum of possibilities. With good parental guidance, you will come to learn that individuality is something to be cherished and valued, not shunned. From your experiences dealing with an autistic sibling, you will go into adult life with an open mind and the ability to see the world from multiple viewpoints. Not only does this shape an individual with compassion, empathy, and acceptance of differences, but it also inspires innovation and creativity.

This brings me to my next point: creativity. One of the few universal traits of ASD is a difficulty in communication skills. But siblings, as I mentioned before, have a special and unique bond that allows them to understand each other on an entirely different level, autism or not. Considering the uniqueness with which those on the spectrum see the world, often being very creative, that rubs off on the other sibling. Simply having that connection exist and gaining firsthand exposure to such an exceptional worldview opens the mind to new creative potential. Desires to express oneself through music, visual design, writing or the arts can manifest in grow for both siblings, creating a symbiotic relationship.

The last point I want to talk about is how it can make you a far more accepting, compassionate person. Like I pointed out, having a sibling with autism can be a difficult thing, and their behaviors erratic at best. However, I believe this also presents an opportunity to grow into a better sibling and thus a better person overall. Growing up, you naturally come to know your siblings better than anyone else, and how to deal with all their little nuances. Dealing with the worst behaviors autism has to offer all throughout your formative years molds a person into someone who can empathize with just about anyone, and I believe you become all the better for it.

I would like to recommend this blog from Autism Speaks, from the perspective of a young lady whose brother has autism. It’s a great insight into everything I’ve been talking about, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

  • G. Sosso

Technology & Autism

It’s no secret that technology has completely changed the face of society, especially in the boom of the past 20 years or so. We have things like smart phones, tablets, notebooks, smart watches, etc. which have made things so much easier for all of us. But how does this affect those on the autism spectrum? In what ways can we utilize this new amazing technology to improve life for people with autism and their families? It can act as either a learning tool or a great source of entertainment depending on the context.

Perhaps the most prevalent use of technology in regards to people on the spectrum is that of “assistive technology.” The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 describes assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, off-the-shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities,” in this case autism. One good example I can think of is an app that one of my mom’s good friends uses with her son called “First-Then Visual Schedule.” Oftentimes visual learning is the primary method for those with autism, and this $10 app helps present a visually stimulating schedule that will help people keep better track of their lives. This is just one example, there are many more out there that do a myriad of different things; here’s a convenient list on parenting.com that features 11 apps including the aforementioned First-Then Visual Schedule.

Technology is not confined to the assistive variety, in fact many use it as a way to stave off boredom. It’s no secret that children with autism particularly love video games, as they talk about here, and with the rise of casual gaming brought about by tablets, there’s a never-ending supply of fun to be had. While tech addiction is a real thing and should be avoided, sometimes as a parent you just need some time to yourself. One of the best ways to keep your children occupied is to get your kid a video game system, or even just an iPad with Candy Crush, Crossy Road or Angry Birds, and they can keep themselves busy for hours at a time. Trust me, I speak from 21+ years of experience.

One interesting thing I would like to highlight is this little gem: Project EVO. It’s a therapeutic tablet game made specifically for kids with autism. Here’s what CBS said about Project EVO: “As they [the kids] go through the game they are supposed to skirt around certain objects while choosing others. The idea is to condition the brain to sift through and organize information in real time, requiring a player to stay focused on the task at hand.” It’s a very interesting concept. The game has not yet been released, but I look forward to tracking its progress.

 

  • G. Sosso

A Note to High School Teachers about Autism

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

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

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