Celebrating Autism Awareness Month with Guest Blogger Kara Dannenhold

Kara Dannenhold, BA, B.Ed, M.Ed, an educator and behaviour consultant specializing in students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), provides insightful information and reminders about our students with ASD to celebrate Autism Awareness Month.  Kara also highlights one of Collegeology's former students, Will Symons, an incredibly successful student with ASD.

Life after high school…the thought alone can be overwhelming and downright scary to every student. But there is something out there waiting just for you, the time in your life when you find out what you – you as an individual – are all about. What are your passions? What are you really good at? What makes you happy?

If the world could somehow magically understand that ASD is just part of who you are, and that that part is not something to be “managed” or “fixed,” then ASD wouldn’t even be considered a disability. Although we may be a long ways from that utopia, your life after high school gets you one giant step closer.

Your journey has been incredibly difficult at times. Probably more often than not.  You have had to mold your entire life to a world that forces you to conform to what it deems as “normal.” But all of your hard work is about to pay off. Once you have set yourself up to succeed, whether in college, the work world, or wherever else your dreams take you, you can finally move away from managing your disability, and actually begin to EMBRACE it.

Sure you may have to put up with the neurotypicals a bit more and show off those self-advocacy skills, but trust us – it’s worth it!

Actually, don’t take it from us. Take it from just one of many highly successful students on the spectrum who just did that and is now on his way to working his dream job.

Will Symons is a former Collegeology student and an alumnus of the University of Idaho. He worked for a year as an intern working as a mentor in the Raven Scholars Program, which helps to provide students on the autism spectrum with support and guidance for both a smooth transition to the university setting, and a successful academic career. Will’s own life experiences, success in college, and keen self-awareness about his own place on the spectrum made him an ideal mentor for other students with ASD attending post-secondary institutions.

After graduation, Will began a job as a Therapy Technician at Opportunities Unlimited, which serves both children and adults with developmental disabilities. Not only have Will’s skills helped him to excel at his job, but Will is also using what he is learning at his job to continue as a life-long learner in the land of neurotypicals.

Here’s how Will describes it:

…this job has really helped me improve on time management. On Tuesdays, I go out for Public Transportation with my clients. We pick a place to go on the bus to get them used to taking public transportation and being out in the community. I have gone to the Palouse Mall, Winco, Safeway, etc., with my clients and always have a good time. There are always a few groups that do Public Transportation but sometimes we split up and go different ways. When this happens, I am the sole staff out with my clients and have to manage them out in public and make sure that we are back at the center by 3:00 (or as close to that as possible). Other clients will sometimes ask me if we have time to go here or there and I have to utilize my time management skills effectively to give them a realistic answer. I’m proud to say that I haven’t missed a bus yet or had to call the office to say we were running late. This might not seem like much to write home about, but I wasn’t always the poster boy for time management as a youngster….

Will continues . . .

Another balance I find myself constantly trying to achieve is between having fun, joking around with, and being silly/goofy with my clients while at the same time maintaining my professional position as a Therapy Technician. I enjoy kidding around with my clients, making them laugh, etc., but also know that I have a professional title to keep in my mind. My clients have really responded well to me and like me a lot, which I love. I find that my fun-loving ways fortunately haven’t diminished my authority in the eyes of my clients so far and I hope it stays that way for the duration of my job at Opportunities Unlimited.

Will knows what he excels at, what makes him happy, and what he is passionate about. His post-secondary experience helped bring those answers to light. Will’s fun-loving personality, open-mindedness, empathy towards others, and passion towards learning are just some of the qualities that make him great at his job. Will’s dream job is to continue to work with people with disabilities in either a collegiate setting or an agency like the one at which he is currently employed.

My perspective as someone having personally gone through many of the same things helps me relate to my clients on a real personal level and my challenges have also made me extremely empathetic and patient towards my clients.

Will also has a close relationship with his very individual and unique place on the spectrum. There he has learned and is continuing to learn both about his many strengths, and about the limitations that are of primary importance to the neurotypical world we live in. Because of this awareness, Will is able to overcome just about any obstacle. He is like many other students on the spectrum with completely different skills who are just as impressive. As Will likes to remind us, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met ONE person with autism.” Let’s keep that at the forefront of our neurotypical minds.

A note to fellow educators:

I think we are far overdue in embracing neurodiversity, and I think educators need to do so and set an example for the rest of the world.  The first step in achieving this goal needs to be reframing how we think and talk about ASD. We put far too much emphasis on the “D,” and frequently use the terms Asperger’s and Autism as adjectives. Being on the spectrum is just PART of who these students are. So let us move away from labeling them as “autistic students” as though those two words are sufficient enough to define everything there is to know about an individual. We need to recognize that it is indeed a spectrum, and look to the strengths and talents that “students with ASD” possess.

I have taught students on both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between. Although it’s easy to find the strengths in a student with an exceptional memory, or one who may possess other savant skills, it becomes far more difficult when we are teaching students who need constant supervision and who will likely never be able to live on their own. And yet, I have NEVER come across a student with ASD that didn’t possess a unique skill– even at the very far end of the spectrum. We just have to look a little bit harder, and be a little more open-minded. We all have a little autism, (see link)* so let’s keep that in mindas we begin to focus on the many skill sets that our students who also happen to be on the spectrum possess.

*Link to article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160321123650.htm

Link to study: http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.3529.html