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Educational Success

Tanner Browning: Autism and Flexibility

By | Conquering Emotions Workshop, Educational Success, Personal Stories | No Comments

People With Autism Can Be Inflexible

Every parent wants their child who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to lead the best life possible. But life can be very unpredictable.  Through experience, a neurotypical person learns to be flexible, so that when they encounter an unexpected situation they can adapt without assistance. People who are “on the Spectrum” typically have difficulty in learning to be flexible and adapting to change. People with Autism can be very rigid and often don’t deal well with changes or when something unexpected happens.

For someone with ASD, unexpected can be as simple as leaving the house to go out for dinner, attending a social event, or even spending an extra hour shopping at the mall. People with ASD tend to plan out their rituals for specific times throughout the day. If those schedules are disrupted, they can react by becoming anxious, freaking out, or just refusing to do the activity that conflicts with their rituals. There are several issues why people “on the Spectrum” are rigid or unwilling to be flexible. In this blog, I plan to highlight some of those reasons and provide a story of how I am dealing with my own inflexibility.

Protection Through Comfort Zones   

The main reason that people “on the Spectrum” are not willing to change is because it disrupts their comfort zones. Comfort zones are places where a person is in control of their situation or places themselves so that they can feel safe and ease their stress. For someone with ASD, comfort zones typically include doing the same rituals and routines repeatedly. People with Autism use their comfort zones to avoid change or challenges that can make them feel uncomfortable. It’s kind of an invisible barrier that protects them from things that they might find threatening.

It is often hard enough for people who want to step out of their comfort zones to adapt to the difficulties they might encounter. People who have Autism can literally hold on to their comfort zones, because of their fears, to the point that they would do anything to keep their schedule as rigid as possible. This inability to change is called inertia. Inertia is a feeling of being paralyzed during stressful events.

Oftentimes when people with Autism must leave their comfort zone, they just shutdown. The result is that they then become isolated and more inflexible. This can be very frustrating for parents who must deal with their child’s lack of flexibility. As a result, it is very easy for parents to let their children remain in their comfort zones, thereby avoiding the consequences encountered when those comfort zones are disrupted.

How I Used Comfort Zones

Being Autistic myself, I have had a hard time making changes and being flexible about basically anything. To deal with life, I have developed my own comfort zones. When I was younger, my comfort zone was going to school and playing video games when I got home until I went to bed. My parents would often push me to clean my room, take a shower, or do my homework. When there was an event happening like going to church on Easter or cleaning up when a guest was coming, I would glare at my parents and resist complying with their requests. Often, I felt that my very rigid schedule or ritual was being threatened, triggering inertia or defiance. I would then ignore them so that I could complete a multiplayer game like Call of Duty or Halo. This made my parents very frustrated with me and angry that I was not addressing my chores. Sometimes, they would call me lazy, unmotivated and selfish because of my inflexibility, but really, it was just an intrusion on my comfort zone.

In high school, my parents often worried about how this inability to be flexible would impact my life after I graduated. During high school I played football and my dream was to play for the NFL. This focus on my fantasy caused my grades to suffer. I was barely passing with Cs and a few Bs. I graduated high school with only a 2.8 and almost flunked out of community college after one semester. Several years later, I am about to graduate from California State University of Fullerton (CSUF) with a 3.72 GPA in Public Health.

To be honest, it took me a while in college to figure out the best way to handle my study schedule. I often relied on my anxiety about grades to create the motivation I needed to get schoolwork done. I know that anxiety-based motivation isn’t the best way to enable change, but it seems to work for me.

Increasing Motivation with Rewards

One method I use to increase my motivation and willingness to change is to reward myself for participating in activities. In looking back, this can be considered both a good thing or a bad thing. The good thing is that rewarding yourself creates motivation to go to a place or deal with schedule changes. The bad thing is that when you reward a person for doing something, the person might become spoiled and expect a reward, believing, “Oh, I am always going to get my favorite food for going to church with them on Sundays or going to each social event.” For me personally, reward-based motivation can backfire about 65% of the time, because of this “spoiling” effect. The other problem is that it can take a long time to change a person’s behavior. This can be frustrating.

Here is an example of how I used rewards to change my attitude. I used to HATE going to the movies because it seemed like too much time. As a result of my disdain, I would often not talk to people before and after the movie along with not even watching the movie. What helped me to adapt is that I rewarded myself for doing things I did not want to do. For example, if I went to a movie and interacted with people, my reward would be that my parents would pay for the movie tickets and dinner. As a result, I started going to the movies, once a month, with a couple of people. I got used to going and learned to like going to the movies. I enjoyed talking to people and eating free dinners. In fact, I became excited about going to the movies and engaging with my friends, however, I still needed the free movie tickets and a free meal to motivate me, because I wouldn’t do this activity on my own. Yes, it took me about three months of going to the movies, but by slowly adding this new activity of going to the movies over time, I was able to adapt. In the end, I was enthusiastic about attending a blockbuster and going out with my friends. Eventually my parents stopped funding the movie and dinner, and while I did resent this, it did not stop me from going.  It had become more comfortable for me to go and enjoy myself.

I cannot guarantee that this method would work for everyone with Autism. I am sure there are many other ways to deal with flexibility and changing of schedules. In the end, Autism and lack of flexibility remains a big issue. In the past, I was one of the most inflexible people I know. However, I am working on increasing my flexibility and I hope that I can continue to become more flexible over time.

Vu Story: College

By | Educational Success, Personal Stories, Uncategorized | One Comment

A Look Back at College

What was it like in college for me? Back in high school, college meant I would have the freedom to do the things that I liked. Unlike others, my college experience was mundane. Although I wish I had joined clubs, I was happy with the way things were. I was happy because I got to do the things I wanted to do. Going out to party was out of my comfort zone. I spent most of my college years watching movies and shows and playing video games. It’s embarrassing to admit this but it’s best to be honest and transparent.

Adam and Me

One movie I could relate to was Adam. Adam is a story about a man named Adam with High Functioning Autism, Asperger’s. He lives in New York and struggles to live after his father’s death. He’s been laid off from his engineering job because he couldn’t socialize and connect with his boss and co-workers. He needs to find a job right away to pay the bills for his New York home or he gets kicked out. He meets this beautiful neighbor named Beth. Beth is a schoolteacher who has feelings for Adam. The two get together and go through the ups and downs of being girlfriend and boyfriend.

Adam is a movie where I find a lot of commonality with the main character. A lot of the things Adam does remind me of myself. When Adam trembles at the thought of going out to a party with Beth, I am reminded of how I’m always like that when it comes to socializing. He would pretend he’s not there so that Beth would leave.  When I’m invited to parties, I get very nervous exactly like Adam did. At times, I feel like my heart is going to pop out of my chest. What I love about the movie is that when I’m watching it, I feel like I’m watching myself through Adam. As someone who is on the spectrum, watching movies like Adam is a way for me to immerse myself in the fictional world.

Watching movies wasn’t my only hobby. I also liked watching TV shows. I recently saw a show called Atypical and I thought it was amazing. What makes this show so relatable is the main character. He’s on the spectrum like Adam and he struggles with social queues. When I watch shows like this, I can feel the realness and sensitive side to them. The depiction of High Functioning Autism is on point. His lack of eye contact, sensory processing issues, blurting out inappropriate things, not being able to read other feelings, social struggles, his obsession with one subject, his outbursts and all the way to his food preferences are all I can relate to. I love shows like that.

Socializing Through Video Games

For me socializing during college was playing a game called Clash of Clans. I remember exactly the moment I downloaded the game. I was bored one October night in 2012. I wanted to look for something to do to pass the time. Looking back, I should’ve done something more productive. But I don’t regret it. Playing Clash of Clans has given me a sense of community and belonging. I would chat to the people I’ve met through the game day after day. It’s like a second family to me. Some of us are still in that clan to this day.

Sure, my college experience would’ve been much better had I known to join clubs but that wasn’t my interest. I didn’t have any interests besides gaming and watching movies. My school didn’t have any of those clubs so I spent most of my days going to school and then driving home. I would have loved to join a gaming club or something that I would enjoy.

What I Learned as an Intern

What I’ve found being in an intern at the Orange County Asperger’s Support Group is that people who have the same mindset as you do are more likely to be more understanding. I can feel it and then feel more comfortable. I would imagine being in a gaming club could have the same effect. Seeing someone who likes video games is easier to talk to because we both can have something in common to talk about. I’m not the best with small talks but with video games, I can keep a conversation going. I can talk to gamers and feel comfortable. It makes it easier when you have something to talk about instead of blank thoughts. It’s very awkward to have silence in a conversation.

What will the future hold for me is still very hard to fathom. One thing for sure is that I’ll have to become more independent and less sensitive to the things around me. Life is very hard and the one that is willing to put in the work will make it out on top.

Judi’s Story Continues: Independent Study Resolution

By | Educational Success, Personal Stories | 3 Comments

For those of you following my story about the REEL People program and my son Josh, I wanted to give you an update. When we last left our hero, we were trying to get CSUF to recognized the REEL People program as an independent study.

Because Josh is an adult, I had to relinquish control of navigating the red tape to Josh. To my surprise, Josh took the lead. He contacted several professors to try and find a sponsor. He was turned down. He sent emails to the Chairman of the school, who did not respond. After several weeks of rejection, Josh went by the Chairman’s office. The Chairman’s secretary told Josh he would have to send at least three emails.

Overcoming Rejection

With perseverance, a few weeks later, Josh finally spoke to the Chairman of the film school. They set up a meeting. Josh showed, up but the Chairman was speaking with someone else in his office. Josh left but asked the secretary, “To please let the Chairman know that I stopped by.”

Feeling bad, the Chairman then contacted Josh by phone to arranged for a call that evening. Josh asked me to write up a script, so that he would know exactly what to ask. That evening, Josh spoke to the Chairman on the phone. The Chairman was supportive of the idea, and asked Josh to send him some additional information by email.

The next morning, we worked on the email. Josh suggested mentioning me in the email, not as his mother, but as the President of the Orange County Asperger’s Support Group. I thought that was clever. I also felt good that he valued my role with OCASG.

Communication Stopped

Well Thanksgiving happened, and all communication stopped. A week later, I was kind of worried. I spoke to Josh on the phone, and he said that he planned on going by the Chairman’s office to follow up.

But coincidentally, the Chairman called him that day. Josh stopped by the Chairman’s office on his way to class. The Chairman’s secretary informed Josh that he would need additional information. Josh called me. I supplied the missing data. Working with the Secretary, Josh completed the paperwork.

Josh Plays a Trick on Me

Later that day, Josh called me up. “Mom,” he said. “I need one more piece of information. Would you please check online to see what courses I am signed up for the Spring semester?”

I logged into the CSUF website. I started reading off the courses, “Black Representation in Film,” I started. “Production 2,” I continued. “Independent Study, Josh you got in!” I exclaimed.

Josh laughed, “I know. I wanted to surprise you. The Chairman of the department, is going to be overseeing the independent study.”

Earlier that day, I got a text from my friend Diane. She informed that her son Josh was approved for the independent study by Art Department.

So, as it stands now, both Josh B. and Josh C. will be together once more this January, to take the REEL People course.

Happy and Proud

I am so happy and proud. Happy that Josh got accepted into the program. Proud that Josh made it happen. Being able to self-advocate is critical for our kids. I am pleased that Josh is demonstrating the ability to understand motivations, communicate, and persevere.

Of course, I am still keeping my fingers crossed that there are no unforeseen surprises.

Judi’s Story: Helping my son Graduate from CSUF

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This is Judi Uttal, President of OCASG, with a new Blog.

Thiss week’s blog is about my efforts to help my son complete his bachelors degree at California State University at Fullerton (CSUF). In particular, how to meet the important but difficult internship requirement. Many of OCASG members have children who either are attending or will attend CSUF, and I am hoping that my experience could be useful to you all.

Signing Up for Workability

Today, my son Joshua and I had a meeting with Yvonne Cordova, Senior Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for Department of Rehabilitation. Yvonne is working on getting Josh admitted into the Workability Program as CSUF.  We are hoping that Workability can be of assistance in helping Josh find an internship. To graduate from CSUF with a BA in Cinema and Television requires completion of an internship (495 course). Josh is likely to graduate in December 2019. This internship is a critical step towards his receiving a diploma.

The Reel People Connection

We are also enrolling Josh in the Reel People program being offered at New Vista Academy. Through this program, Josh will be able to develop skills in After Effects. According to Jimmy Lifton, this training will be complemented by “real” employment. Hopefully this “real” job can meet Josh’s treasured internship requirement. To stay on schedule for a December 2019 graduation, we want to make this program an independent study (499 course). However, having never done this before, I am not sure what types of problems we may encounter. One difficult milestone will be finding a CSUF faculty member to act as the sponsor.

To help with the mitigation, I reached out to Jacqueline Gerali, Disability Management Specialist at CSUF. So far I have not heard back from her, but I am hopeful.

Team Josh

One of Josh’s old buddies, Josh B. is finishing up his degree in Art at CSUF with an eye towards video game development. Josh B. and his mother Diane are attempting to pursue a similar strategy. So we are working together as a team, as we try and navigate the ins-and-outs.

I will check back with you in the future to let you know our progress. Wish us all  luck.