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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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Video Games & ASD

In my previous blog, I wrote about some of the reasons why people on the autism spectrum might be attracted to anime, or Japanese animation. This time around, I would like to talk about something comparable: why video games are so appealing to us. Video games are not as niche of an interest as anime, and they are massively popular among plenty of demographics. However, every single person I’ve ever met with ASD, myself included, has been a huge fan of video games. Why is this? Many of the reasons are similar to those of anime, such as the presence of a wide, accepting community, but there are some unique reasons as well that make video games stand out. I will attempt to explain this appeal with a combination of research, as well as my own personal experiences and anecdotes.

Video games offer a wide variety of different ways to play, and there’s a genre for just about anyone. There’s single player, local co-op and online multiplayer, depending on what you’re looking for. As discussed in this article, video games can provide a level of escapism from the confusing real world, and into one where you, the player, control everything. You have the ultimate authority over what happens, and there’s an element of certainty and security. But security and comfort can’t last forever, and eventually you’ve got to deal with the harsh reality that sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Video games are highly competitive and can be difficult, and if you play against other players, you’re going to lose. It may be hard to comprehend for people who have never played, but these games are high intensity and can get pretty heated. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn to not be a sore loser and accept defeat, a good lesson to learn for those with autism who always want things to go exactly according to plan.

Those are some of the main reasons that I personally agree with wholeheartedly, but there are other factors as well. One is the development of fine motor skills. It is well known that people on the spectrum often have issues in the development of motor skills (once again, I’m no exception), but video games can certainly help with that. Chief among these skills is hand-eye coordination, which video games teach you. I know that gaming helped me in that regard, as well as practicing typing. I overcame things I couldn’t do naturally through practice, and others can too.

One more important thing I’d like to mention is the element of problem solving. Games present a challenge much like that of a puzzle, where the solution is something you have to figure out on your own. As we’ve discussed before, many individuals with ASD have wonderful amounts of creativity, and can come at problems from unique angles. Video games are a perfect outlet for this, where the solution is always there, but it’s up to the player to figure it out. There is a terrific sense of accomplishment you feel when you overcome a challenge in a game; it instills you with confidence which is often lacking from those with autism, and that confidence can even carry over into real life.

For all their negative press, video games have a lot of draw to them, especially those with autism. And now, we’re discovering that they could even be an effective tool for teaching!

  • G. Sosso
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Autism & Anime Connection

For those who may not be familiar with the term “anime,” I will provide a brief overview for reference. Simply put, anime is at its core, animated material originating from Japan. Think of them as Japanese cartoons, though there are some differences such as story structure and animation style.

But that’s not the purpose of this blog post; instead, I would like to focus on something that, while mostly anecdotal in nature, is something that I’ve always noticed and hits close to home with me. I am referring to the wide appeal anime typically has to people with autism spectrum disorder. It was difficult to find hard data or research on this topic, but with what little I could find, along with my own experiences, I’ve compiled some reasons as to why anime is as popular as it is among those with autism.

First and foremost is the element of escapism. Of course, this could be said of most mediums, not just anime. However, anime has a few advantages that separate it from many of its contemporaries. In anime, many main characters are social recluses; outcasts who have yet to find their own niches in life. Suddenly, they’re thrust into a magical world full of wonder and adventure where everyone accepts them. Almost every anime in existence has a bit of the classic “power of friendship” trope where the once-timid hero saves the day through the unbreakable bonds he’s forged with the rest of the cast. Most reading this can see why such a thing would be so appealing to someone on the autism spectrum. Many of us are awkward in social situations, and dream of having tons of friends who accept us for who we are. The presence of such things in anime is very alluring.

Reading non-verbal cues and noticing subtlety is not a strong suit for those with ASD. It’s one of the few nearly universal traits in fact. Fortunately, anime’s got that covered! Japanese animation does not focus on subtle movements and gestures in the same way Western cartoons do, and in order to compensate, a character’s emotions are put on full display using extremely obvious visual cues. For example, if a character is in love, hearts will appear over them. If they’re nervous, sweat drops will envelop them. If they’re angry, they’ll start heating up and their eyes will get cross, etc. Here is a great example:

Anime storytelling does a good job of always letting the audience know what is going on and how characters are feeling, which is good for those of us who cannot always easily discern such things.

Finally, is a pretty simple reason actually. The anime community is one of the most welcoming, tolerant groups out there. People with autism are often afraid of what the general population will think of them, and the thought of socializing is terrifying. Interest in anime is generally looked down upon by those who aren’t familiar with the medium, and as a result, are very warm towards those few who do share their interests. Those on the spectrum who’d ordinarily be afraid to express themselves, can find acceptance among those who share a common passion.

> G. Sosso

Personal Tales: Gage’s Autism Speech

I’ve been taking a Public Speaking class lately at Hillsborough Community College. Recently, I had to do an informative speech, and I chose to speak about autism. My speech, like every other, was broken up into 3 parts: what autism is and is not, autism prevalence and its rise in recent years, and what various organizations are doing to help individuals and families on the spectrum. I would like to share a rough transcript of my speech for you all today.

“Hello, my name is Gage Sosso and I will be talking to you today about autism spectrum disorder, or autism. I myself have been dealing with this condition my entire life, only being diagnosed at the age of 15. Since August of 2015, I have been working at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at USF, doing blog writing for them which requires me to do further research on autism. First, I would like to discuss what exactly ASD is, and what it is not.

Autism is, at its base, a neurological developmental disorder which affects social, non-verbal communicative and sometimes linguistic/verbal skills. Autism manifests differently for everyone, as it is a spectrum. There are two common terms in autism diagnosis: high-functioning and low-functioning. High-functioning people struggle in social situations, suffer from anxiety, and have trouble with non-verbal clues, amongst others. Low-functioning has all that, plus an inability, or at least extreme difficulty, to communicate at all.

Autism has an interesting reputation. Let me explain to you what it is not. As confirmed by mentalhelp.net, it is not mental retardation, as some would believe it to be. In fact, there is no correlation between autism and lack of intelligence. Many people on the spectrum actually have above average IQs. The other common portrayal, especially popular in Hollywood films like Rain Man, is the ‘autistic savant.’ While savant syndrome does stem from neurodevelopmental disorders, only 10% of savants are on the autism spectrum, as confirmed by the Wisconsin Medical Society in a study.

Our understanding of, and how we diagnose autism has changed drastically over the years. According to the Autism Science Foundation, as recently as the late 1980s, the diagnosis for autism was 1 in 10,000. Since then, it’s rose to 1 in 2,500, then 1 in 1,000, and so on. This rise has been astonishing to many psychologists and sociologists. It should also be noted that the rate of autism is higher in males than females.

A number that stuck for a while was 1 in 68, but the current number is 1 in 45. So why the meteoric rise? Is it an epidemic? Possibly, but there are other theories. One that I personally subscribe to comes from scientificamerican.com, which posts that autism rates have not increased; rather, the diagnosis has changed along with greater understanding in the field of neurosciences. What was once thought of as mental retardation, schizophrenia, or just outright insanity, is now understood to be ASD.

There is much being done in the area of autism awareness. Some organizations, such as the well-known Autism Speaks, focus primarily on research and figuring out what autism is on a fundamental level, where it comes from, why it happens, and potential ‘cures.’ They (and other, similar groups), have even delved into research on the vaccines cause autism theory, which is an entirely different can of worms that I won’t get into here. Essentially, they want to understand autism on a scientific level.

Then there are groups like CARD who take a more active approach in the lives of individuals and families with autism. They focus on community outreach, highlighting positive contributions people on the spectrum have made, as well as striving for inclusion and accessibility for those with disabilities. CARD, for example, has Autism Friendly Business, where a company can contact them and receive free training on how to better assist with customers or clients with autism. Essentially, these groups seek to improve the day-to-day lives of people with autism.

Autism is often symbolized by a puzzle piece. This came about in the 1960s for a very simple reason: the condition was considered puzzling by psychologists at the time. Maybe, just maybe, if we strive for inclusion and understanding, one day we’ll discover the missing piece to this mysterious puzzle.”

> G. Sosso

Autism Friendly Tampa

 

Tampa’s Mayor, Bob Buckhorn, delivering his State of the City address where he unveils the city’s new initiative, Autism Friendly Tampa, and the new partnership with CARD-USF.

#LiftingTheLabel

At CARD, our campaign for the 2017 Autism Awareness Month is #LiftingTheLabel. We want to show that there is so much more to these great people than their diagnosis. “Label: n. A classifying phrase or name applied to a person, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.” Others see an adult or child diagnosed with ASD, and their minds typically go to one of two places; either the classic “anti-social, genius savant” as portrayed in films and TV shows such as Rain Man, Mercury Rising or The Big Bang Theory, or something far less flattering. When terms like “autist” have become insults in certain corners of the internet, now more than ever we need to strive towards removing the individual from the label.

CARD and The Learning Academy have documented many noteworthy cases throughout the years, highlighting the great contributions to society made by people on the autism spectrum. TLA has a page on their website, where several former students, myself included, have written about the success they’ve encountered since attending the class, and it serves as another testament to the fact that we can be just as successful as everyone else if we put our minds to it. Some of us may have to put in a little more effort than usual, but that only makes the eventual payoff all the more sweet.

Many with autism do have certain issues with social interaction, few will deny that. However, that does not mean that we don’t want to, or are incapable of doing so. I have several great friends who mean so much to me, and they never even mention the fact that I have autism because it’s irrelevant to our friendship. For those of us who struggle with being social, we’re not doing so because we want to be alone; quite the opposite in fact. Because it’s difficult for us to reach out, we yearn for companionship perhaps more than most. If you see someone with ASD in the cafeteria, or at the workplace, who’s sitting all alone, try approaching them, and you’ll discover that they can be some of the best, most loyal friends you can have.

#LiftingTheLabel is about reaching inclusiveness in a world that wants to put a label on any and everything. Lumping entire groups of people into a single category, a single stereotype, only ever leads to ignorance and segregation. Our poster for #LiftingTheLabel proudly states, “I am a daughter, sister, athlete, student and friend,” all of which are so much more important than the autism diagnosis. This year for Autism Awareness Month, let’s make sure to start seeing everyone, autism or not, as an individual, rather than a label.

  • G. Sosso

CARD_Lift-the-Label_poster_021617

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

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