I was afraid of social situations. I was afraid of making mistakes. I was afraid of looking bad. I was afraid of humiliating myself in front of others. It was to the point I couldn’t even perform simple tasks... I had social anxiety disorder.
Whether you want to call it a stereotype or a defining trait, if there’s one constant among Asperger’s syndrome individuals, it’s that they have a hard time socializing. They’re socially awkward and uncomfortable around people. For many Aspies, it’s hard to make friends, particularly when you factor in a major transition, like moving to a new town. . .or a new state halfway across the country.
Jacob Dodson’s family moved to Minnesota from Texas when he was in kindergarten. As you might expect for someone diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, the move was hard on Jacob. Even as he moved up in grade, it was hard for him to get to know anyone new. He struggled to talk to his classmates, let alone make new friends.
But according to a story by Abby Eisenberg in the April 12, 2015 edition of the Winona Daily News, Jacob, now a senior at Caledonia High School, has progressed so much that he is his school’s selection for the 2015 Above and Beyond awards, which are given to local high school seniors who have overcome great obstacles or have given selflessly to their communities. Their stories are shared by the newspaper and area colleges offer scholarships to the winners.
Everyone at the school agrees that Jacob has come a long way. Caledonia special education teacher Sara Buros recalls that when she first met Jacob, he wouldn’t make eye contact when he was spoken to and would answer questions with one- or two-word answers. He would rarely hang out with his peers.
Special education teacher Barb Woolley recalls a 9th-grade meeting with Jacob in which he wouldn’t look her in the eye. But over time, Jacob slowly became more relaxed around others and more outgoing. It got easier for him to talk with other kids, especially about his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers. In 10th grade, he went out for the school football team, starting as a manager and working his way up to playing.
As I wrote in Aspertools, Aspies are ideally taught socialization skills and interactions by their teachers (in addition to their parents and hopefully “friends”). For instance, Pati Fizzano, an Asperger’s ESE specialist and a co-author of my book, employs a visual Aspertool at the start of each school year called the Six Steps of Friendship Ladder, which takes her Aspie students from the hello stage, when they meet someone for the first time, through the best friend stage. But, Pati notes, it is a gradual process. School is a mainstreaming activity for Aspies and other special needs students, but it can be a challenging environment.
And it was challenging for Jacob, but he had help from his family and Caledonia staff — on his assignments and class work and on relating to his peers.
Buros said she has seen Jacob grow from someone who avoided eye contact and was slow to engage with the people around him to someone who comes into her classroom to be goofy and tease others in a nice way. He’ll ask questions about the day’s schedule and see if he can grab a piece of candy from her desk. “Those are all things he wouldn’t have done before,” she said.
And, of course, the structure of school sports also helped Jacob. But that’s just one example of the benefits of the two Aspertools of structure and positive activities. He also began a work-study class, which sends him to the county justice center to do janitorial work.
Today, Jacob routinely engages in the type of positive social interaction that, even just months ago he wouldn’t have had. According to Caledonia counselor Ryan Schmidt, that is part of the reason why Jacob was a natural choice for this year’s Above and Beyond award. So great is the change in Jacob’s social interaction that he now makes a point of sitting next to people at lunch who are feeling left out.
Buros attributes at least part of the change to Jacob’s nomination for the Above and Beyond award. “When he heard that so many people saw this in him, and that he had been nominated, he was so excited and, I think, proud of himself,” she said. “I think he felt empowered to keep going.”
Next year, Jacob plans to move back to Texas, where he still has family, and try to find a job — maybe landscaping or janitorial work. He hopes to have a good house and good family one day. According to the story in the Winona Daily News, he is “excited and nervous” for that future, but knows his newfound social skills will come in handy as he prepares for interviews, and meeting new people.
He’ll have plenty of people rooting for him back at Caledonia. “He’s going to have a normal life,” Woolley said. “I absolutely see that happening for him.”
This blog was originally published here. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Different Brains® Inc. founder Harold “Hackie” Reitman, M.D. is an author, filmmaker, retired orthopedic surgeon, former professional heavyweight boxer, the past chairman and president (and current board member) of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, and a neurodiversity advocate. However, it was his role as a father that led to the creation of the DifferentBrains.org website.
Hackie’s daughter Rebecca grew up with epilepsy, 23 vascular brains tumors, and underwent 2 brain surgeries before the age of 5. Her struggles and recovery put him on the road to, through 26 professional heavyweight boxing matches, raising money for children’s charities (to which he donated every fight purse).
Rebecca eventually went on to graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Discrete Mathematics, and Dr. Reitman wrote and produced a film based on her experiences there (The Square Root of 2, starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s Scandal). After graduation, Rebecca received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Hackie, shocked at his own ignorance of the topic despite being an M.D., embarked on years of research that culminated with his book Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Neurodiversity (released by HCI books, publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series).
This experience revealed to Hackie the interconnectedness of the conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, while alerting him to the in-fighting and fractured relations that often plague the organizations tasked with serving the community. Convinced that overcoming these schisms could help all of society, Hackie forged the Different Brains philosophy of inclusive advocacy: “Supporting Neurodiversity – From Autism to Alzheimer’s and All Brains In Between”.
In the company’s initial years of operation, Hackie self-financed all of the content on DifferentBrains.org, all of which offered free to view to the public. Currently he is the host of our weekly interview show Exploring Different Brains, writes blogs for the site, and tours the country speaking at conferences, conventions and private functions, all with the goal of improving the lives of neurodiverse individuals and their families, and maximizing the potential of those with different brains. Separate from Different Brains, Hackie is the founder and CEO of PCE Media, a media production company focusing on reality based content. He recently co-executive produced the documentary “Foreman”, the definitive feature documentary on legendary boxer and pitchman George Foreman.