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The Social Misfit: When Kids Grow Up With Autism

Autistic students who enter the public school system are well taken care of for the duration of their education, often encouraged and assisted to meet their goals. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) is a federal law that guarantees a free and appropriate public education for every person with a disability. Other federal laws mandate that children who are diagnosed with autism are ensured to have individualized education plans (IEPs) tailored to their specific needs. But what happens to these same students once they leave the safe and secure world of public schooling?

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According to Yudi Bennett, the Director of Operations at Exceptional Minds, a non-profit vocational center for young adults with autism located in Los Angeles, these students find themselves in a hole they can not climb out of.

“There’s really nothing out there for them. It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Bennett shares. “Once they are out of school, services really fall apart. It is estimated right now that it is 90-95 percent unemployment amongst this population.”

Bennett recognizes how dire this transition is for the children who, until this point, believed the world had created a place for them. These same students who were spoon-fed for the majority of their lives soon realize that they are facing a new reality. Exceptional Minds was created to remedy this issue by offering a vocational certification program for young adults who are interested in animation, digital arts, visual effects and computer animation. This program, which recently graduated its first class, streamlines talented students into jobs in the entertainment industry.

23-year-old Kevin Titcher is the first graduate to take full advantage of the program. Using the skills he developed at Exceptional Minds, Titcher has accepted a position as a production assistant in the editorial department at Stargate Studios in Los Angeles, which he says was the happiest day of his life.

Dr. Chester Goad, the Director of Disability Services for Tennessee Tech University applauds autistic students like Kevin who have overcome the obstacle that most students on the autism spectrum face: the inability to become self-sufficient. Those who seek higher education to help develop skills to create income for themselves face yet another challenge specifically concerning social interactions with others.

“[Students like Kevin] are accustomed to a K-12 world and procedures, and so the self-supporting, self-advocacy and self-determination aspects can certainly be challenging. What students with high functioning autism can find most challenging though is social interaction with peers, and advocating for themselves with professors, and being able to navigate college expectations and processes.”

Dr. Goad says students with high functioning autism may not grasp the social implications of their actions, causing some unrest as they navigate social relationships with other students who do not understand the way their brain works. In his work as a special abilities advocate for his university, he has had to become the translator, for lack of a better term, between high functioning autism students and those they interact with daily.

Most often, as with any difference, people respond uncomfortably or with fear until they understand the big picture.

Dr. Goad, who also runs a blog called The Edventurist, which provides information for students with learning differences and the teachers who are devoted to them, shares a few stories about students with learning differences he helped to guide through the pressures of social adjustment.

“I once had a student who was able to calculate what day of the week someone was born easily,” Dr. Goad shares. “This student immensely enjoyed asking people their birth dates and then telling them what day they were born, or what day specific events had occurred. But the person being asked the question by a stranger may not understand why a student, or individual they do not know, is asking their birth date.”

On another occasion, Dr. Goad shares that an engineering student was fascinated with cars and car safety. He had made it his goal to ride in as many cars as he could as a part of his personal survey or research process. This student was very social and very, very likable, but he never hesitated to ask others if he could ride in their car. Even after lengthy conversations regarding safety, collaboration, development of a plan for meeting new people and how to get to the point that it was OK to ride in the car, by the end of his time at Tennessee Tech, he had ridden in more than 400 cars, and he kept a log.

“We had many conversations with people who had been fearful when approached by this very delightful young man,” Dr. Goad shares.

Dr. Goad also remembers a student whose coping mechanism was pacing. One day he received a phone call from security asking if he knew the student they described. After confirming who it was, the security asked if he could make him stop pacing because he was making people nervous. Dr. Goad politely explained he was doing nothing wrong and that there was no law against pacing.

“Most often, as with any difference, people respond uncomfortably or with fear until they understand the big picture,” Dr. Goad says. “I think that is incredibly unfortunate and that is why it's so important to educate people about autism, and why it is equally important to help facilitate, inform and mentor appropriate social behaviors.”

Securing gainful employment and sustaining social relationships where all parties are understood and respected is a basic desire for life that is often taken for granted by individuals who do not have a learning or social impairment. This issue, at least for people on the autism spectrum, can be transformed by educating employers about the hidden benefits of working with people who are sometimes deemed socially unacceptable.

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Dr. Goad firmly believes that employers who overlook adults with autism are overlooking an opportunity to gain an outstanding team member.

“They are often missing out on reliable, responsible, dedicated and knowledgeable individuals because they may have some social challenges,” Dr. Goad asserts. “Social challenges can be overcome or improved, and it just takes some patience and time.”

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