(14 minutes) Dr. April J. Lisbon believes the differences in our brains can really be our super powers. In this episode, she speaks with self-advocate Alex Tallman. Alex shares his journey with autism.
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Welcoming Alex Tallman
DR APRIL LISBON (AL): Hello, hello, and welcome to another amazing episode of “Finding the Super Powers Within”. I am your host Dr. April J Lisbon, Autism coach and strategist. I am super excited to have today’s guest. His name is Mr. Alexander Tallman. Alex is a millennial who… You know what I’m not going to even tell you Alex’s story. Alex is an amazing young man who has the superpowers of Autism. Thank you so much for joining me today Alex. How are you?
ALEX TALLMAN (AT): I’m well. How are you April? Thanks for having me!
AL: Yes! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. So, I know many of our viewing audience don’t know who you are or your story but the first question I wanted to ask you is, who are you? Who’s Alex Tallman?
AT: Sure. So, yeah, I guess, just to give a brief overview of myself you know my name is Alex Tallman, feel free to call me Al. 25 years old. Currently reside in New Jersey. Work out in California for Apple. Harvard graduate in graduate school right now back at Harvard, working on my master’s degree in economics and as you mentioned you know someone who has Autism, has lived with Autism, managed to overcome, you know, quite a few of the obstacles, although, you know, it’s a journey and it’s one that I’m still on. And, you know, just eager to share my story and help out other people where I can.
AL: I love it, I love it. So, my first question, just to dive right into tonight or today’s interview is, when did you officially learn about your superpower of Autism?
AT: You know, from a very young age I dropped out of preschool because I wasn’t really quite sitting in class and I think from about the age of three or four my parents and probably my teachers knew that something was different about me. It really started to manifest itself pretty severely in second grade. Second grade was when I went through a lot of trials for school, started not passing subjects, had a lot of separation anxiety from my mother, for my family and got to the point where I really wasn’t even able to stay a full school day. So that’s really kind of where it reared its head and, you know, at the time this was maybe 2002-2003, the part of the Autism spectrum where I think you know kind of my autistic flavor, if you will, falls, was not very explored, kind of that Aspergian, you know, sort of varietal I’ll say. And so it took my parents quite a bit of searching to find the right neurologist, the right cognitive therapist, that could effectively say, “Yes we think he is on the spectrum, this is the particular type of Autism that we think he’s dealing with and these are some of the ways they manifest”. Once we got the diagnosis is when things started to piece together, you know, the inability to socialize in preschool, the separation anxiety, some of the more obsessive habits, that type of thing. So to answer your question succinctly I think we firmly got a diagnosis when I was maybe seven, seven or eight years old.
AL: Awesome, so you already described some of the trials that you experienced in school. Can you share any more trials that you may have experienced either in elementary school or in the middle school years?
AT: Yeah, definitely. I would say to be frank, those were probably the most challenging years personally, you know, that was at a time when as I mentioned people really didn’t know a lot about Asperger’s. Didn’t know a lot about the full breath of the Autism spectrum. And, you know, for me there were really two, two main issues that I had. One was being bullied, pretty mercilessly, and I think that’s, that’s true of a lot of people with Autism because we tend to approach things differently and, you know, when you were in your twenties or when you’re in the workforce you can appreciate a different perspective but when you’re 6, 7, 8, you know, maybe all the way up to the end of high school different perspectives kind of scare you. And so, lot of bullying that took place and, you know, in addition to that I struck with tremendously academically .You know, I really couldn’t read effectively up until probably the 4th or the 5th grade, maybe even later, I might not be remembering that 100% correctly. I’m not sure if it was just, you know, lack of desire and you know just also frustrated me, and it wasn’t something I had an interest in doing, so lot of, lot of trials academically. Did not really become a good student until 7th grade to be frank with you, you know, really didn’t understand the academic process. The way of learning in public school just wasn’t really well suited to how I did digest information. So, yeah, up until I’d say 7th grade it was very difficult socially and academically.
AL: Wow, thank you so much for sharing. So when you talk about the academic struggles that you had, I know just thinking about having worked in education with individuals who are autistic, what is your preferred learning style? How do you learn and process information best?
AT: You know it’s interesting the more people on the Autism spectrum that I encounter, you know, your son being one of them, the more I find that people learn a lot like me. You know I think in public schools today, kind of in age of standardized testing, which was what I grew up with, you know, the No Child Gets Left Behind Act, that type of thing, there was this idea that everyone learns the same way and if we just standardized learning and standardize the assessments that that will sort of raise that lowest common denominator. For me I don’t learn best in a classroom. I don’t learn best by looking at the teacher when she or he is talking and that was always a consistent struggle with me. I find it easier to pay attention if I’m actually looking at something else not the instructor. I’m just more of an audio, kind of an audio learner, but I would say generally, to kind of get it at this way, I find I do best when I’m sort of self-teaching, because I know my particular style of learning. I know what types of problems I need to do, what types of exercises, study routines I need to get into to really absorb information. Not to say that the you know the school system I went through for most of my life was inadequate, it just wasn’t suited to that. You know, it’s only once I got to college where I could say I can teach myself this. I don’t have to go to class, if I do go to class, I don’t have to stare at the professor, make eye contact, stay engaged, you know, they don’t really care at that at that level of academia. So, I would say definitely more of a self-learner not as suited for kind of a standardized tests, traditional classroom model.
AL: Awesome, thank you so much for sharing! My next question to you is this Alex; tell me one or two things you would want to tell your younger self on how to move through your journey?
AT: I would say that the first thing and, you know, this is something I’ve talked about with a lot of people. I never publicly spoke about the fact that I had Autism until actually, you and I did our first live interview I want to see me be back in last summer or early fall, you know, so for the first call it 24-25 years of my life this was a very well-kept secret and most of that was due to kind of the stigma that I think it’s created around people with Autism. There’s a general perception that people with Autism are maybe less intelligent or less capable when that’s exactly, you know, it’s, it’s, that’s completely not the case. So, I think if I had two things to tell my younger self the first one would just be too, you know, love yourself. As hyperbolic as that sounds learn to appreciate the gifts that you have by virtue of being autistic, you know, things like great pattern recognition, memory recall, being able to really dive in and teach yourself things, you know, and understanding that having Autism is not a disability, it’s an ability. You know, the way that I can view problems, that are the people with similar, who have similar types of Autism to me can view problems is very different in some cases even better than the way people without Autism can view them. So, I think just overall learning that you’re not less than, but you have a lot of really great assets and attributes that you bring to the table that nobody else can bring to the table and it’s by virtue of being autistic. You know, that’s so key, because the reality is even today, you know, while we do know more about these types of Autism and what not, there’s still the stigma that you’re less than, that you can’t quite do everything that someone without Autism or a normal person could do. And I think for me what’s important is really hammering home the point that that is not the case. It’s demonstrably false.
AL: Yes, yes. Wise words of wisdom. So, let me ask you this; what do you want parents and advocates to know when it comes to supporting someone who’s autistic?
AT: I would say to start, you know, we mentioned there’s kind of a bad stigma, negative stigma around people with Autism. In my mind and for me in my life where that changed was with the parent, with the advocate. They are the people that you know young folks with Autism interact with daily. They’re their biggest champion and oftentimes they could also be the biggest critic, rightfully so. So, I’d say for parents and advocates that, you know, that paradigmatic shift starts with you, it starts with us, it starts with treating people, be it children or folks we’re mentoring or helping as, you know, the same way we would treat anyone else. I think that’s probably the biggest point to hammer home, is that that kind of grass roots, you know, paradigmatic change starts with the parents, with the advocates.
AL: Great, great, great. So now you’ve already finished high school, finished college, starting college again, but you’re also in the workforce. So, tell me what would you like your future or even your current colleagues to know about supporting your needs when it comes to your unique learning profile?
AT: You know what I would say this applies to current former colleagues and even some current and former professors and instructors. Not everybody learns the same way and I think that can manifest itself in that sometimes you have to teach someone the same lesson more than once, you know, I was someone particularly when I got into the workforce, that was when I felt I really started to flourish. You know, that was when there is no structured classroom environment, you do have to go do the self-learning. Particularly for someone like me where I had no academic training in my, in my field of endeavor most of it was self-taught, you know, had to go out there do it yourself. So it’s just the current, you know, former colleagues teachers etc. It’s just that not everyone learns the same way and I think particularly people with Autism have a very different style of learning but once it clicks, it really clicks, and that’s when you’re kind of, “Off to the Races”.
AL: Oh, that’s great that’s great. Now how about for employers. What can they do to support you on the job so that you are successful and that you are flourishing?
AT: That’s a great question. You know, I mean we touched on what parents and advocates can do and that kind of advice, but I think to be frank, especially when in the workplace as you become an adult, as you leave home, and go off to college, and to work what not, you have to be your biggest advocate and, you know, we mentioned different styles of learning, different behaviors and maybe different ways of the digesting information, but those are things that once you become an adult people aren’t going to ask you. You really have to advocate for yourself and so I’d really stress, stress that is, is being able to go out there say what you’re good at, but also say where maybe you need a little help, or where you need information or feedback delivered differently to make it easier for you to understand and take with you.
AL: Good. And our final question for today’s interview is this; Where do you see yourself possibly 3-6 months from now, after having done this interview?
AT: Well, as I mentioned reside in New Jersey and spend a good amount of time out here in California working for Apple. I’d say in the next 3, 6, maybe even 12 months, I would like to stay with Apple, kind of continue progressing my career there. I’m at the halfway point in my master’s degree, so hopefully within the next year I can finish that, and not fail out, and then you know where things are going to take me. I think I’m very fortunate in that I do have some options and ultimately, it’s in God’s hands, so we’ll see where I go.
AL: I love it. Well thank you so much for joining us today Alex. You are an amazing champion when it comes to supporting not only young adults, but children on the Autism spectrum. Once again, my name is Dr. April J Lisbon and thank you for joining us on another episode of “Finding the Super Powers Within”. I hope that you like and share this interview with your friends, as well as your colleagues who either may have children on the Autism spectrum or may be autistic themselves. Thank you so much and have a great day, bye bye!