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Autism Success Stories Pt. II

In my previous blog, I talked at length about some successful small businesses that were founded or run by (or both) individuals on the autism spectrum. It was one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written for several reasons. On one hand, it’s just nice to surround yourself with positive, uplifting stories, and on the other, these people serve as an inspiration. Not only for myself, but hopefully anyone reading as well. I’ve discussed this problem at length, but many on the spectrum struggle with finding and maintaining employment, so I think it can be beneficial to see that not only is it achievable, but you can do a great job at it. And as I was browsing the internet the other day, I came across an article that I knew I had to write about. So for all these reasons, I decided to go back to this topic. The stories I found were every bit as fascinating as the first, and I’m excited to share them, as well as my thoughts, with you all.

Ironically, another 2 of these examples come from Florida (maybe we just thrive in the heat?), and the first one I’d like to focus on comes from down south in Miami. I actually heard about this place from here at CARD, it’s called the Rising Tides Car Wash. According to their website, “Rising Tide was founded by a family affected by autism in an effort to empower individuals with this diversity by giving them the tools to be elite car wash professionals.” They currently employ over 60 people with ASD, which is one of the highest rate in the whole country. Their logo even prominently features a puzzle piece, which as we all know is the primary symbol for autism. Rising Tides has been featured in the press quite a number of times, so if you’d like to read about any of it, please visit http://risingtidecarwash.com/press/.

Next up is the story which actually inspired my return to this subject. Back in January, 24 year-old Haley Moss became the first person who is open about having autism to be admitted to the Florida Bar. Becoming a full-fledged attorney is no easy feat, and she did it. At the age of 3, her doctor said she might not ever speak, fast-forward 20 years and she’s giving a commencement speech at the University of Miami Law School. Haley wants to serve as an inspiration to others in her position, as she’s already written several books aimed at those with ASD, and is trying to change the conversation regarding autism in Florida. If she can achieve such a lofty goal, then I know one day I can become a published author if I keep at it!

Admittedly, this last story doesn’t necessarily relate to employment, but I really wanted to share it nonetheless. It actually doesn’t take place in Florida, but rather Colorado, and relates to a man named Justin Hansen. He went from your typical teenager with autism, struggling with speaking and making eye contact, to playing Division I football for Colorado State University. And while he has since graduated, he accomplished something that relatively few can ever claim. He didn’t let his weaknesses get to him, but instead used his strengths (like his physicality) and hard work to make it to where he did. Who knows, maybe one day someone on the spectrum will even make it to the NFL.

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Autism Owned and Run Businesses

I’ve talked at length before about how getting and maintaining a job is often a struggle for young adults with autism. The numbers of those on the spectrum who are currently employed is not where we want it to be, but thankfully, it appears as if things are on an upward trend. The Learning Academy program at USF works towards that very goal: preparing young adults to transition from dependent living to an independent life, with a career that caters to their interests. In relation to this piece, we’ve even had a Learning Academy graduate go on to start his own sign company, showing that entrepreneurship is not a pipe dream. And that’s exactly what I want to highlight today; I’ve done some searching and I’ve discovered that there are more than a few small business owners out there, succeeding while either run or staffed entirely by those on the spectrum! I hope that by casting a light on some of these companies, it will serve as inspiration to some young entrepreneurs out there that you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to.

The first business that jumped out at me was the Miami is Kind bakery, located in (you guessed it) Miami. It was started by a lady named Silvia Planas-Prats, who moved all the way from Barcelona for her son to have a better chance. When she realized the bleak outlook for many kids on the spectrum in regards to future employment, she was inspired to start Miami is Kind. The company “employ[s] bakers, packers, warehouse operators, maintenance crew, customer service reps and dispatchers that have autism or other disabilities,” and is currently thriving, being the subject of several videos and blogs like this one. Just like all of these, I want nothing but the best for Miami is Kind in the future, and I hope to see more businesses like this pop up in the future.

For our next success story, we have to go north of the border to Edmonton, with Anthony at Your Service, a delivery business providing fulfilling work for people with autism and similar disabilities. It was founded in 2012 by Anthony Barrett, along with family and friends. The goal was to give Anthony a meaningful way to engage in the community, but it evolved into so much more. They now have a small team that’s active in the Edmonton area, and have received glowing critical praise for their focus on improving the lives and wellbeing of their employees. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Last but not least, there’s Green Bridge Growers, an aquaponics farm in South Bend, Indiana near Notre Dame. It was started by Chris Tidmarsh, a college graduate with degrees in Chemistry, Environmental Studies, and French, and his family. I particularly appreciate this one, because it really plays into Chris’s strengths and knowledge about organic farming techniques. The company combines his parents’ business savvy with Chris’s expertise, and has created a thriving environment to succeed and work for.

These are just a few examples that I wanted to share, there are plenty more out there if you’re interested. Being on the spectrum myself, and having often doubted my future ambitions, it was inspirational to read some of these stories, and gave me a renewed belief that I will succeed.

Pets for Children with Autism

Pets for Children on the Autism Spectrum

I, like presumably 99% of us, love animals. For most of my life I’ve had a dog in my house, and I even have experience with guinea pigs and parakeets. Our friend Erica King, who I interviewed a few weeks ago about her success as a playwright, even has a couple of hedgehogs! My point is, pets can be an important part of the family, and for children on the autism spectrum, they can be a great source of companionship and socialization in a world where those things may be difficult. There are a lot of benefits to pet ownership by itself, but from what I’ve discovered, it can really help children with ASD who are struggling to better cope with life and all its trappings. So please join me as I briefly discuss our favorite furry friends!

So the main pet that I’d like to focus on for this piece is dogs, as they’re by far the most common pet to own and the one with information the most readily available. But this can very easily apply to cats, birds and yes, even hedgehogs. There’s a surprisingly large amount of research to suggest that owning a pet can do wonders for a child with autism’s social skills. The rate at which ASD children bond with dogs in particular is extremely high. A recent study indicated that a majority of families with members who are on the spectrum own a dog, and that 94% of those children had formed a deep connection with their pet. That’s sweet and all, but that same study, as well as ones similar to it, also delves into some very interesting facts. For example, children who are brought up with a family pet have been shown to possess comparatively above average social skills, and that children with autism will showcase a temporary increase in social capacity after a productive play session with a pet, such as a guinea pig.

But while a positive connection to socialization is great, there are other ways in which dogs are helping kids on the spectrum. Some training dogs are being specially tailored to suit this demographic, and I’m delighted to see the things they’re helping our kids out with. I found an organization called Dogs for Good, who trains dogs for children with all manner of disabilities. Their dogs help kids on the spectrum with road safety, reducing family stress, sensory support, overcoming fears, and a whole host of other things. So if you’re a parent whose child may be struggling and you don’t have a pet, perhaps consider it. It can be a worthwhile endeavor, not only for the child but the whole family as well!

Thoughts on “Atypical”

Recently I decided to give the Netflix original series “Atypical” a try, and my expectations were blown away. Starring Keir Gilchrist, the show follows Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old boy with autism, as he searches for love, acceptance, and a purpose in life. There is also a lot of focus on his family and their trials and tribulations, but for this piece I mostly want to focus on Sam and his characterization. I’ve had my issues in the past with the “Hollywood autistic” as I call it; where most people on the spectrum are typically portrayed as either some savant genius with no ability to socialize, or completely incompetent. Sam strikes a really great balance in being a realistic depiction, and I found myself relating to him on several occasions. This is a comedy series, so some things naturally are a bit exaggerated, and I enjoyed those moments, but for the most part I found Sam to be my favorite character with autism I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever.

I won’t get too deep into spoiler territory, as I highly recommend the series to anyone reading this, but I do want to cover some of the basics. The story starts off with Sam’s quest to find a girlfriend, which right off the bat I think was perfect. I’ve written before about the struggles of those on the spectrum to find meaningful relationships, and they captured the struggle really well. Eventually, that plot point gets somewhat pushed to the side in favor of discovering who he is, what he’s passionate about, what he wants to do going forward in his life, and (very importantly) how he’s going to live independently, as he’s always been with his family. Once again, I’ve written about these very things before and the challenges they bring with them.

Now I looked it up, and Robia Rashid, the show runner, is not on the spectrum, but I could’ve sworn she was due to how relatable many of these situations were. Sam’s often blunt nature which takes some getting used to, the sensory problems that can manifest in unpleasant ways, his ability to “hyper focus” on something he’s really interested in, and a brutal lack of care for that which does not. And the actor who portrays Sam, despite being neurotypical himself, does a fantastic job of showing a lot of little intricacies. As I said before, I highly recommend this show to anyone looking for an emotional yet entertaining ride, complete with a great cast of characters, one of whom happens to be an individual with autism done right.

Stress and Depression in Autism

Today I would like to tackle a darker topic, but one that I find to be incredibly important. It’s a subject that needs to be addressed in our society at large, but I want to focus on it in the realm of autism, because I’ve noticed it to a concerning degree, both from personal experience as well as observation. I’m talking about stress and depression. I’m grouping the 2 together as, in my opinion, they essentially go hand-in-hand. There are many things which cause us to feel stress in our daily lives, and for those on the autism spectrum, it can easily spiral down into a dark place of depression. Things such as an overabundance of stimuli, things not going our way at school and/or work, difficulty in our social lives, facing some level of discrimination, etc. Because of the challenges presented to us by ASD, overcoming these obstacles, keeping on the right track and steering clear of the trappings of stress/depression can be very difficult. I’ve dealt with these issues extensively over the course of my life and, while I’ve certainly recovered a great deal from the depression, I continue to struggle with constant stress and anxiety to this day. I would like to further address this topic with some of the information I learned through my research.

Now I should specify, because I’ve noticed that nowadays depression is very often misunderstood. It’s not just feeling down on yourself for a couple days. It’s a prolonged feeling of extreme sadness and hopelessness, characterized by a lack of ambition, pessimism about the future, and feeling very alone. For individuals with autism, the effects can be even worse, with some reporting “a loss of previously learned skills, greater difficulty carrying out everyday tasks, and at worst, suicide.” The findings I came to on this topic were staggering. I knew there was a problem, but I almost wasn’t expecting the severity. According to a study by Springer, nearly half of all people with autism will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives. And that’s not all it mentioned, it goes pretty in-depth into how there is a serious risk factor for those with autism, and much of it stems from our susceptibility to stress. Another thing I found morbidly interesting was that the depression rate seems highest in those with greater intelligence, and since many with autism are exceptionally gifted, you can see how there’s a vicious cycle here.

There truly needs to be more awareness on this issue. Not just for those on the autism spectrum, but for the general population. The reason I wanted to bring light to this crisis, besides personal experience, is because of the disproportionate rate at which it affects those in the autism community. I’m sure for many parents out there, either your loved one has dealt with extreme stress/depression, or maybe even you have when things got particularly rough. Just know that you’re not alone and there are always people who care about you.

Reconsidering Neurodiversity

Here at CARD, our mission is and always will be to promote good relations between those on the autism spectrum and the general public, be it in the workplace, the community, at school, or even within the family unit. We believe it is imperative that people of all abilities throughout the Tampa Bay area are treated equally and fairly, and are never impeded from living their lives because of something they can’t control. While I’m sure everyone in the special needs community (and most people in general) believe in helping individuals who require it, there is some debate over the concept of “neurodiversity,” which is defined as “an approach to learning and mental health that argues diverse neurological conditions are the result of normal variations in the human genome.” Basically, if you’re a believer in neurodiversity, then you wouldn’t really view mental disabilities as disabilities at all, just quirks that can be worked on and managed with a few key strategies. Before doing my research for this post, I never even really questioned the validity of neurodiversity, but it’s definitely gotten me to question things a bit more.

I don’t believe it’s fair to argue for or against something without at least providing the counterargument which, in the case of neurodiversity, is that mental disabilities such as ASD, schizophrenia, ADHD, etc. are socially constructed and exist naturally as a part of the neural spectrum. Proponents argue that due to the lack of understanding of how the brain works, coupled with considerable doubts regarding the field of psychiatry, it can’t be proven that there’s anything “wrong with” and autistic or schizophrenic brain. As with many others, I’m not an expert on this topic, but this is their argument put as simply as I can.

As I outlined in the case for neurodiversity, there is a significant lack of hard evidence in neuroscience. The brain is not widely understood like other parts of the body, and as far as I can tell, this fact is acknowledged by the dissenters of neurodiversity. The 2 main critiques I found which I agreed with the most came from Psychology Today, and they were: while it is a noble goal to help people with these conditions, it’s absurd and even harmful to treat them as something desirable; and that all “medical diseases—not just psychiatric disease—rests on a subjective determination about what constitutes abnormality,” and it’s up to the professionals to make those determinations. While the goal is to de-stigmatize mental disabilities, the anti- crowd argues that neurodiversity proponents are doing the opposite. If these conditions are seen as totally normal, then why would there be a push to invest in treatment? It makes sense when you think of it that way.

I’ve lived with ASD my entire life, and here’s my viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of who I am or what I have, and I’ve worked through a lot. However, I don’t think autism should necessarily be “glamorized.” It does provide some benefits, but there are plenty of handicaps as well, and I’ve now come to seriously doubt neurodiversity.

-G. Sosso

Autism and Speech Language Pathology

It’s no secret that for many on the autism spectrum, the development of linguistics and/or speech can be stunted. This is commonly regarded as one of the defining traits of “low-functioning autism,” where problems more severe than social difficulties can manifest themselves. I’m incredibly fortunate to have never had to deal with any of these particular issues, even excelling in the language department, but others are not so lucky. In my work here at CARD and PEPSA, I’ve done a lot of editing work for various teachers around the state, and one of the common professions I kept coming across were “speech-language pathologists” (SLPs). In truth, I had never heard of that term before, and so for this piece I decided to look more into them and their relationship to ASD. After doing some research, I’ve concluded that SLPs can be lifesavers when trying to help out low-functioning people with autism, particularly children.

So, what exactly is a speech-language pathologist? According to accredited SLPs Gail Richard and Donna Murray, “The speech-language pathologist’s most-familiar role involves helping someone produce speech – making sounds, speaking words, improving articulation (intelligibility) and so on. But speech-language pathologists do so much more. They also help with the language skill of putting words together to communicate ideas – either verbally or in reading and writing.” And, perhaps most importantly, they even help articulate social communication skills. Already you can begin to see why these SLPs are so sought after in the autism community. I’ve noticed through my editing work that having a background in speech-language pathology is a huge plus when it comes to being a special needs teacher, as are many who have partnered with PEPSA all throughout Florida.

Unfortunately, I’m no expert on the subject myself and as I’ve mentioned, I never attended a session with an SLP, so I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of what exactly they do or the methods they employ. There’s plenty of independent research you can do if you’re really interested. However, I would like to discuss one of the activities they utilize that I am familiar with, so if something like this interests you, perhaps consider contacting an SLP for your own child. If you’ve never heard of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), you’ve probably at least seen an example of it before. They’re those cute little picture charts that speech-impaired people often use. The Tampa Police Department even started using them recently to serve their ASD community members thanks to the efforts of CARD! SLPs use them to teach basic communication skills, and to develop an understanding of language before delving into the actual use of language. There’s so much more that these amazing people do, but it would take an extremely long time to get into it all.

There might not be any other profession that seems more geared towards serving individuals with autism than SLPs, and I can certainly appreciate the work they do. If this seems like something helpful, there are plenty of them in the Tampa area alone, they’re all just a google search away!

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