Autism Does Not Define Him

Our son Sam is now 22 years old. Together we have discovered Autism first from a stage of confusion, then diagnosis and ultimately the journey toward understanding and adjustment.  This journey hasn’t been taken by just Sam or me. The education and life-changing decisions included our family of four and those whose chose to remain linked to us either by love or simple curiosity. Autism became us. As we learned to navigate the education system, employment and higher education, we’ve taken you along.

Through our website Aspergers101, together we have reached for stories of enlightenment and searched to navigate our next stage in life. Now at age 22, driving and nearing college graduation, Sam has reached a personal plateau that bares sharing. With an absolute delivery he declared, “Autism does not define me”.  He further went on to explain that up til now, he would introduce himself to educators, peers or the seldom few who initiate conversation as “Hi I am Sam…and I have autism.” He felt he owed them an ‘explanation’ for his social awkwardness, his lack of eye contact or his seemingly bland behavior.

Self-Determination in College Success with Aspergers

Several break-out sessions of the annual Autism Society conference in Indianapolis, Indiana were focused on the support of students with ASD in higher education.

Beautiful female graduate

Dena Gassner (Adelphi University), Dr. Lorna Timmerman (Ball State University), and Jackie Clark and Rebecca Hansen (Marshall University) carried out a panel discussion on the topic, titled “Is College for Me.” Panel members discussed challenges related to success for students with ASD in higher education, and best-practice support strategies that can help overcome challenges.

Communicating Strengths and Needs in College

Writing a requested accommodations letter to your professors

Whether or not a student should formally disclose an autism spectrum disorder to disability support staff at a college or university is a personal decision one should make after thoughtful consideration. It is my opinion, however, that students have the potential for a better college experience when they provide faculty with information that improves the ability of the instructor to communicate with the student and accommodate his or her academic and social needs.

Using Choice to Increase Academic Success

We at Marshall University have found that providing professors with information and examples about preferred instruction styles can help facilitate a successful classroom experience. Your school might have disability services in place that offer facilitation between professors and students to help fit their accommodations. Oftentimes these services take the form of a letter written to the instructor that explains the student’s necessary accommodations for the class, which the professor must adhere to.

Look to see if your campus offers such services, and set up an appointment with a disability services representative to discuss your options. If your school does not offer services such as these, you can create this letter yourself.

Here is one example of how a letter to your professors could look.

A Man Worth Meeting

We want you to meet Maverick. A man who inspires anyone, diagnosed with Autism or not, to live to their potential no matter the circumstances. It will make you rethink what you believe are obstacles and hold compassion for others whose journey came from a road less traveled. We think he is a man worth meeting! – Jennifer Allen/Aspergers101

My name is Maverick L. Crawford III, and I was born in April (same month is Autism Awareness Month).  I remembered how odd and wired I appeared to be compared to my other siblings. My behavior starting at six months was repetitive and restricted, every day I would hide from everyone and not play with my siblings.

I want to help, support and inspire others on the autism spectrum to not give up or lose hope no matter what you are going through, keep pushing, keep striving, keep persevering to the end there will be a greater reward.

Maverick L. Crawford III

The movement of doors as they open and close was fascinating to me. Any of my toys that were rectangles, I would stack in a specific order as high as possible. If I were not playing with toys, I would entertain myself by hand flapping and be flushing the toilet and watching the water flow down the commode. As a child, I would stay to myself and not respond to my name.

When my mother or siblings touch or find me somewhere in the house, I would have a temper tantrum.  I would suck my ring finger through the day and night as it provided a sense of comfort. Early in my life, I could not understand social interaction (and try to avoid it), nonverbal communication and never maintain eye contact. My mother did not fully understand what was going with me and relied on doctors and professionals to deal with my issues.

I was born an abnormally thick line that connected my tongue to the bottom of my mouth, which is called a tongue-tie. The pain from this tongue-tie was unbearable so much, so I had trouble eating and keeping food down without getting sick. After years of the pain caused by this deformity, I had tongue clip surgery in 1999 at the age of three. Later that year I was diagnosed speech impediment, mental retardation, dysphasia (serve language and speech disorder), autism, attention deficit disorder and having multiple seizures. Being a child with various disabilities like autism brought stress upon my mother because she did not know what approach to take in dealing with the issues I had. Me being the only one with multiple disabilities out of my sibling, I felt like a stranger in my family and unfortunately treated differently.

An Assessment of Personal Readiness for College with ASD

In a previous blog I wrote about the topic of readiness within higher education to support college students with Asperger’s Disorder. The series touched on the ability of colleges to provide effective academic, social, and independent living supports. The “Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Asperger’s Disorder,” a tool to assess readiness of a specific institution, was provided.

But how can individual ASD students know that they are ready for college?

College with Asperger’s: 7 Benchmarks for Effective Support on Campus

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has risen significantly since first described in the 1940s. The Center for Disease Control estimates currently 1 in 68 children in the United States lives with an ASD diagnosis, and that 46% of those diagnosed have average to above average intelligence.

College Students with Asperger’s: Academic and Campus Accommodations Necessary

A large body of literature describes the significant, life-long difficulties faced by many individuals diagnosed with ASD. The support needed for college students diagnosed with more traditional disabilities are well documented. However, information is lacking in regard to effectively supporting the college instruction of students with Asperger’s Disorder and how to support their navigation of a campus society.

Building a Community for College Success with Aspergers: One Student’s Experience

An Asperger Student's Personal Experience

Each summer the West Virginia Autism Training Center, located at Marshall University, conducts a college experience for rising high school seniors interested in learning about the college lifestyle. Students take a typical class, live in dorms, participate in skills groups, and attend study halls.

And in between all that, they try to have some fun.

Significant to the experience is the building of “community” – in both the physical and social sense of the word – in which students can feel safe and connected to others. The college support program strives to create an experience where students can recognize and realize their potential. A large part of realizing one’s potential for higher education is feeling grounded and confident on campus.

For College Students with Aspergers: The Importance of Follow-Up With Your Professors

One of the most challenging aspects of supporting college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder is the need for follow-up with professors, college staff, and others. Follow-up is important to ensure deadlines are met and that assignments are turned in according to each syllabus. The fast pace of college, combined with the severe anxiety and executive dysfunction common to the spectrum, create the perfect conditions for students with ASD to forget deadlines or avoid high pressure academic or social situations on campus.

Follow Up Professors in College

I’ve known dozens of students with ASD who promised: “I will work on my speech for Communications class this evening after dinner.” And they mean it sincerely when they say it. Stress and commitments mount as the day moves forward, however, and by dinner time students who made the promise may feel overwhelmed and overstimulated and avoid the assignment. Some may become focused so intensely on another subject or topic that they forget about working on their speech.

Advice From a College Professor of Students on the Autism Spectrum

Dr. Julio Alves, of Marshall University, has worked extensively with college students diagnosed with ASD in his role as instructor of Classical Guitar Music Theory. Students who pursue a degree in Fine Arts face a significant hurdle in that they must pass both academic and rigorous performance evaluations to graduate.

A video interview with Dr. Alves can be seen below.  The video isn’t professionally edited; in fact, the camera is a little shaky and the transitions between questions aren’t perfect.

Oh, but the content!

The insight and advice shared by Dr. Alves is worth sitting through twelve minutes of less-than-perfect editing. Some gems to watch out for:

  • At the 1:25 mark, Dr. Alves describes his initial anxiety upon learning that he would be providing instruction to one or more guitar majors diagnosed with ASD. He points out that his training to be a college professor did not include learning to teach students with ASD, and he felt both excited and afraid of the challenge.
  • At the 2:30 mark Dr. Alves states that he, as a teacher, may have learned more from the student (about himself, and his ability to teach) than the student learned from him.
  • At the 3:20 mark he explains the initial doubts he had about how well students with ASD could perform in college, and how that bias changed over time.
  • At the 4:35 mark Dr. Alves discusses the importance of relationship development with students. He provides a real-life anecdote that beautifully illustrates the importance of relationship building, and explains how professors must take the lead in building the relationship. The story also proves how well students with ASD can perform in the classroom when information is crafted to fit their learning styles.
  • At 9:27 Dr. Alves provides some basic tips to professors who teach college students living on the autism spectrum. He emphasizes the importance of creating a learning environment that feels comfortable and safe for students.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeWo0B5qolo

by Dr. Marc Ellison