The END is Coming

My final semester at Western Kentucky University—this year marked the final chapter for a very important time of my educational career. As I was going about my usual routines in the semester, I grew more and more restless with each passing day with the realization that the end was coming. All my life, I had only known life as a student. The largest majority of my life had been centered on studying for tests, completing book assignments, and gathering data to compose a project. Now, all my effort and patience was going to pay off, and my life as a student was coming to an end. As my days as a student were drawing shorter, I couldn’t help but count down the number of weeks, days, and hours that stood in the way between me and the real world.

Then something happened to make my graduation even more memorable! Midway through the semester, KAP was hosting their annual support-appreciation banquet. An event to honor all financial benefactors and moral supporters that have allowed KAP to grow over the years. Weeks before the event, KAP asked me to take part in this event by saying a few short words of thanks to WKU and the reigning president on video. The reason they choose me was because I was the only student at KAP who was scheduled to graduate that year.

Something unexpected happened. During the banquet my thank-you video wouldn’t play. In resolution, KAP’s director asked me if I would be willing to provide a live performance. I didn’t have a script handy, I was wearing a dirty jacket and blue jeans, my hair was a mess, and I hadn’t even shaved for the event. I had every reason to say “no”, but I went up anyway. Armed with nothing but my wits, this is what I said:

What I was trying to say… *pauses for laughter* is that I want to say thanks. It is difficult for someone like me to find the educational support that I need to grow to my full potential. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to explore, try new things, and make mistakes when I need to. Again, thank you.

It may not have been the Gettysburg Address, but the audience enjoyed my live performance, rather than the recorded one. The biggest highlight of that evening was that after my speech, I was able to shake hands with the president of WKU, and I received a standing ovation.

I suppose this is one example when something better comes out when they don’t go according to plan. Knowing how to improvise has its merits too.

More Than a Career?

“As a social worker, how can you make a difference?” This was the question asked during the first social work class. Off the cuff, this was what I wrote in response:

The reason I believe that I can make a difference is because ever since I was young, I’ve never been the type to stand by and do nothing. The one thing I truly hate is to be the one who is “dead weight” to a circumstance. I have a perfectly healthy body, I have a mind in my head, and a heart in my chest. So there is no reason I can’t make a difference to someone’s life.

Even now I still stand by what I said. There are only two conditions that would prove me different: the lack of know-how to make the needed difference and if I had the opportunity to make a difference happen.

The first couple of Social Work classes covered the basics of how to act like a professional. Such as how to get a job done, what values a worker must adopt, and how to behave under certain circumstances. Out of any of these key points, I thought the knowledge of how to act interact with a client was the most important to me. The proper order of things had always been a mystery to me. Including how to talk to people.

In this field, it was impossible to avoid people. If I wanted to help people, I had to play by their rules. And now I had the opportunity to learn those rules. In my future classes I had begun to learn the proper etiquette of how a social worker professionally consults with a client. This etiquette includes how to be an active listener, how to interpret non-verbal signs, how to know what kind of questions to ask, how to phrase the questions, how to structure a conversation, how to take note of every essential detail, how to be thorough with the information you receive from the client, and much more. Of course KAP, was there to help hone my skills.

Seeing that KAP is also a social service agency, they were able to provide useful advice on what to do for my interview projects and how to improve my interview performance.

Of course this form of vocal exercise took more than just one class session. My professor knew of my autism and knew that I would require some extra help and so thought that it would be wise if I had some extra training outside of class. I thought the idea of extra training was wise as well.

For the extra interviewing practice, my professor referred me to another social service agency stationed on campus. The Family Resource Program (FRP). The Family Resource Program is an agency that specializes in interviewing clients, access what the client needs, and then refer the client to additional resources that can satisfy the client’s needs. Given the nature of their work, the workers there were the ideal tutors to help me overcome my vocal limitations.

I returned to the FRP in my free time and utilized their training for the remainder of the semester. This training consisted of being engaged in several different mock-interviewing scenarios. In the practice scenarios, I would play the role of the social worker and a staff member would impersonate a client who had come to seek my advice. During these demo interviews, an observer would provide active constructive criticism if I perform inappropriately. During the course of the next couple of months, I learned how to structure my conversations and how to handle unusual client situations.

During my practice lessons, I also began to figure out my own preferred strategies and my flaws in my interviewing techniques. One of my faults as a social work practitioner is that I had a habit of projecting myself on to my client. That is to say, I would use myself as a base model and urge my imaginary client to behave as I would. Ethically, such a practice is a taboo in this field.

During these classes, I had also begun to rediscover my own voice. Now that I was better informed to what is polite, I felt a little more comfortable talking to people.

In a Social Work Practice class, the professor asked each student to host a short activity before the start of each class. The only requirement for the nature of the activity was to demonstrate a key aspect of Social Work ethics. For my activity, I requested the class to take out a blank sheet of paper, draw a big circle on the page and then draw an emblem that represented their own character and personality within the circle.

The idea behind my exercise is that before any social worker can be allowed to help a client and/or intervene in a client’s affairs, the social worker must first be in tune with their own selves. I felt that it was essential that each worker must know the limits of his or her own strengths, weaknesses, emotional limitations, moral tolerances, and essentially have their own inner political affairs in order before delving into a client’s case. I thought that the best way to demonstrate this concept would be to translate your character into a simple caricature.

Following my own advice, my exercise had me looking at myself in a different way. Up till this point, I had kept a small memo book’s worth of guidelines of what I thought my personality was like in the back of my head. But new questions came to me: How well do I really know myself and will it be enough to fill a book? Would that book be an interesting read? Would my story inspire others? I knew what kind of person I fancied myself as, but how much of it was reality and how much was fantasy? I feel that such self-reflections are necessary if one wants to grow into a better person.

Along with my social work classes for my major, I also took a variety of other classes that I felt would be an added benefit to my degree. I had already completed my requirements for my Gen Ed, so the nature of these courses could be anything useful, useless, and/or fun. So, I choose to expand my knowledge in the fields of sociology and psychology.

I took a class in Developmental Psychology. As a social worker I would not only be working with people from different nationalities, but also different ages. I thought that knowing how people cognitively mature as a species would further aid how I could help my future clients. I thought that this class would also, in turn, expand my understanding of a person’s illogical social behavior.

I also chose Psychology of Personality to learn about a person’s intellectual structure from birth to old age. I had known beforehand that a person’s personality is shaped by their past experiences, good and bad. How we translate those experiences is how we become the person we are. I took this class to see what other kinds of external factors shapes a person’s cognitive development, how to analyze the mind during different stages of maturity, and to see what kind of structural techniques shape a person’s persona.

At first I signed up for Supernatural Folklore just for fun and only for fun. However, I soon discovered that the content of folklore had more sociological applications than I would have normally thought. The realm of folklore consists of elements of varying cultural traditions, religion, superstitions, and spiritual attunements. The tests were horrible, but the content was enlightening and fascinating. I was finally getting answers to my dormant questions I had regarding what kind of elements motivate and influence different groups of people. These folklore elements have ties to sociological factors, which could influence certain social behaviors. One’s beliefs, be it religious and/or supernatural, can influence their attitudes and help shape their personality.

Similarly, while I was taking the Sociology of Gender class, I wanted to see how far gender was wired into our society and how one’s gender influences a person’s decision making processes and philosophies. I was surprised to see how much gender played an active role in human societies across the world.

Developmental expectations, professions, attire, hobbies, family traditions, deities-these are all gender ordinated in one manner or another. Thanks to this class, I can’t even watch TV without doing a gender analysis.

While taking these classes satisfies the requirements for my major, it also helped me to further expand my social repertoire and has taught me how to be more vocally active, how to be more responsive, and more importantly, how to act like a person.

Tools of the Trade

Autism has become a lot more marketable since I was a kid. When I was in the 4th grade, I didn’t have access to many autism specific tools. I didn’t see anything autistic themed on TV, new paper, or stores. Now? I can find catalogs the size of phonebooks with autism specific tools and toys. Aromatherapy diffusors, special seats, noise cancelling headphones, chewable necklaces, indoor hammocks are to name a few that are available now. There are research fund raisers for autism, therapy groups, and support centers like the Kelly Autism Program. Even Sesame Street has a new neighbor who is on the spectrum. The mark of the puzzle piece has made its way to the surface of society. Of course with great popularity, also comes the need of great caution to separate fact from fiction.

When the results were in that I had autism, my parents did a lot of research on autism. Some was helpful, some…not so much. They had to dig deep to separate the “miracle cures” for autism from the real tools that could help me. Some of the garbage treatments I have heard of included diets, pills, injections, sprays. Most of which are scams to lighten the victim of some money, while others are straight up lethal like the Miracle Mineral Solution (A potion a child would drink with a bleach-based formula)

The sad fact of the matter is that there is no cure for autism. Autism is not like a cold that comes and goes. You cannot cure what isn’t a disease. I cannot separate from the spectrum any easier than I can separate from my shadow. Autism is a part of my identity.

The Irlin lens glasses. I have briefly covered this subject before. Autism, in my case, brought social deficiencies and heighten senses. Meaning my sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing is more sensitive than most people. This in turn leads to frequent sensory overloads. This was a real problem trying to concentrate on my school work. For my sensitive eyes, I could not stand the glare from the light reflecting off the white paper of my assignments and books, direct sunlight, fluorescent light, and brightness of computer screens caused me frequent headaches and strained eyes. All I could do is read while squinting and close my eyes for a minute to recover.

Although my glasses may look like another pair of sunglasses, the Irlin lens glasses were designed to filter off specific spectrums of light that cause discomfort to my eyes. This is a tool I still use today and plan to use for years to come.

In Middle School, it was painfully apparent that I was a slow writer. I was a poor speller and have an awkward way of holding a pencil and I still do. So it would take me longer to write down the key points for every lesson. That is when I was introduced to the Alpha Smart.

The Alpha Smart is a battery operated keyboard with a small display screen. Unlike a laptop, the device was specially designed to be a note keeping tool and nothing else (no internet, no games, no texting, etc). I came to rely on this beautiful machine constantly to the point I was a faster typer than writer and was able to finally keep up with the other students.

When I graduated to High School. It was time to upgrade my notebook again. I was enrolled in the school’s engineering courses and sometimes I would require extra time to complete assignments. Obviously an Alpha Smart would not be ideal for the task.

With some convincing on my mom’s part, I was given a rental laptop issued by the School District. Not only would I use this device to write notes for English and History classes, but also classes that had 3D models, circuit building, and other assignments that required a class specific program to operate. I was very grateful to the few organizers on staff that was more interested in my potential to succeed rather if my need with in the budget.

My favorite toys as a kid were the Lego Duplo blocks. At the time, I only had one bucket’s worth. But even with just that, I’d spend hours building, destroying, and rebuilding models. When I got older and learned of smaller block Legos with more detailed designs, they became the top most wanted toy on my Birthday and Christmas lists. Why? I wasn’t sure. There was just something so appealing about Lego that I just couldn’t get enough of. Looking back at it now, I suppose this was the closest thing I had to Play Therapy without realizing it.

Play therapy is the psychological practice of allowing children to express their

inner thoughts, communicate with others, and develop problem-solving skills.

You can image my delight when I heard about the existence of Lego therapy. Lego therapy is an autism specific program that allows children on the spectrum to communicate, develop problem-solving skills, and build social relations with each other. In group sessions, the autistic children are divided into groups of three and each of the three has a specific assignment. An “engineer” who drafts the project design. An “supplier” who finds the parts. And a “builder” who constructs the model. This system of task specific play allows the children to practice their communication and cooperation skills. If something like this existed back when I was a kid, I would have enrolled right way and probably made a lot more friends.

Another service that is has surprised me are new use of service dogs. Apparently, service dogs are not only for the blind, but also for the autistic. Knowing the proper order of things is often a mystery to most autistic children. For some, they come to the point they feel so incompatible with the real-world that they will stop going outside altogether. That is where these new kinds of services dogs come in. The dogs are trained to be living companions for the isolated children.

Dogs don’t need words to express affection and it has been proven that they can produce a clamming influence to autistic children. In addition, having a pet can provide real-world responsibilities to the child and overtime the child may be comfortable enough to leave his comfort zone long enough to explore the real-world. Having once had a dog myself, I can certainly attest to these findings.

The field of autism has improved a great deal since it’s humble beginnings. The world of autism is still shrouded in mystery, but many of its superstitions have been revoked. Now that there are better tools to navigate this world, people are less afraid to explore these paths and discover what they are capable of.

“Even the simplest tools can empower people to do great things.” (Biz Stone)

 

Sources:

Packham, A. (2016, May 26). How LEGO Is Helping Kids With Autism Improve Their Social Skills. Retrieved March 06, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/lego-based-therapy-children-with-autism-social-skills_uk_5721efb9e4b06bf544e15ddf

 

How Lego Therapy Can Help Children With Special Needs – Friendship Circle – Special Needs Blog. (2013, December 19). Retrieved March 06, 2017, from http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2013/10/14/how-lego-therapy-can-help-children-with-special-needs/

 

Everything You Need to Know About LEGO Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2017, from http://thewackywarehouse.com/lego-therapy/#

 

Rescuing Dogs to Rescue People

http://www.pawsitivityservicedogs.com/autism?gclid=COnOkcWHsdMCFRe5wAodDIkHJg

College Assistance

When I entered WKU, I still had aspirations to become an engineer, but I had to get most of my tedious basic level courses out of the way before I could fully enjoy my major’s important aspects. As such, I declared myself as Undecided to preemptively knock out my college General Education (Gen Ed) requirements-the basic level required courses that every WKU student needs to take before graduating (English, Math, History, Foreign Language). Lucky for me, I was able to get a tremendous amount of help from a local organization that is stationed on campus.

The organization is called the Kelly Autism Program (KAP). KAP specializes in assisting individuals with autism and works with autistic clients that range anywhere from elementary to college level students. When I joined KAP in my freshman year, I was enrolled in KAP’s Study Tables program. Simply put, the Study Tables program is a service that provides active help throughout the client’s college experience. This help includes homework assistance, in-class accommodation authorization (Office for Student Disability Services), guidance on how to conduct oneself in the real world, and building a healthy social repertoire. It was thanks to these people that I was able to survive and thrive in College from start to finish.

One does not normally find such help as you find at KAP. They provide the resources and Help Piece that is normally missing at other autism-help facilities. Not only do the students get the tools they need, they are also taught how to use them step by step. For example, after the KAP students were released to go home, a KAP worker found a student going the wrong way and heading further and further from campus. The worker flagged down the student and took him back to KAP where she walked back and forth with the student to make sure that he could find his way to and from his dorm the next time on his own. This is the Help Piece that KAP provides, and this is exactly what the autistic community needs to succeed.

When my mom and I visited KAP for the first time, the manager of the facility asked my mom some questions about me and my abilities. One question that stood out to me was when the manager asked my mom very sternly, “Can he do this work?”

After a moment of thought, my mom replied to the manager, “I don’t know, but we can’t not try. Because every goal he set out for he found a way to make it happen, and we cannot deprive him the right to try.”

Oddly enough, I was not offended by the manger’s question. I have achieved much during my time in High School, however I also had to agree with her skepticism in my ability to survive in College. The manager knew very well that some students with disabilities have been babied by their parents/teachers and have taken an easy road through their life without learning the necessary skills to live on their own.

Such as the case with my neighbor in the freshman dorm. He was a fellow autistic student who enrolled into WKU at the same time as I. However, after we both moved into our new dorms, I didn’t see him much outside the dorm or at KAP. I later learned that he dropped out after the first few weeks because he hadn’t learned what he needed to from home. College has a lot more social variables than high school. These included academic expectations, attitudes of the professors, living independently, communicating and cooperating with peers, and compensating for unexpected turn of events.

While KAP did help me perform in my daily assignments outside of class, I still needed some additional help for my daily tasks during class. This is where the Office for Student Disability Services comes in. This office offers students with disabilities in-class accommodations, such as extended time, books of tape, or even a note-taker (a fellow student would get paid by the office to share their notes with the recipient).

If it weren’t for KAP I would have not known these accommodations existed. KAP took the time to get to know me, assess what services would benefit me, and how to use them to their fullest extent.

Although I had these services available to me, this did not mean that I was lazy. From the office, I did ask to take extra time on tests and hire a note-taker. However, I did not allow my accommodations to do all of the work for me. I had to work and, at times, fight to get all of my assignments competed and ready for the assigned due date. My ultimate goal here was that I tried to live my college life with as few complications as possible.

As time went by, I began to see myself as a burden to my parents. Particularly my Mom. Every time I’ve had an issue, I needed to come back to her for a solution. If I needed to study for a spelling test, my mom quizzed me. If I needed to know what happened in 1887, mom would make a study guide to make it easier to recall. If I had peers who were harassing me, mom would call a school meeting and take care of them.

For each event that I couldn’t support myself, I felt more pathetic because I couldn’t handle it myself. I appreciate my mother’s unwavering support and I appreciate the help I get from KAP. But I continually felt that I was at the mercy of someone else and I hated it. I hated myself that was over 18 and still needed had to burden another for my shortcomings.

“Even Jesus had apostles” my mom would say. “Even Jesus had apostles,” another way of saying that everyone helps in his or her life in one point or another. These were words that I didn’t take to heart until much later. In the meantime, I tried my hardest to be self-reliant. Which meant to have all of my tasks of the day under my thumb. I knew that I was only human and that I had weakness here and there, but no one else in the room seemed to have difficulties like mine.

Looking back on it now, it was probably during High School graduation that I finally understood something important. When the graduate stood up to receive their diploma and when the graduates’ families would cheer for them upon recognition, I understood that although that each student may have attended class as an individual, they were not alone. Each one of them had a team that supported them and helped and guided them through their journey. I was still a little hesitant to ask for help at first. However, when I saw that college professors encouraged students to come seek help, I had a quick change of heart and a new paradigm on the subject.

Only in video games can one person plow through overwhelming odds and change the world. The only reason why a fictional character can charge through armies armed with only a sword and live is because they are supposed too. For the sake of plot the heroes of fiction are scripted to deliver a happy ending. People of the real world aren’t so invincible. Our lives are not scripted and fate does not favor dunderheads that think can button mash through their problems. People need other people to survive our independent trails.