Straight From the Source
If you told me five years ago that I would be a practicing social worker, I wouldn’t have believed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a social worker. Rather, I felt that it would be something that I couldn’t do because of my Autism. To be entirely honest, I took to heart some of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Autism. I felt like I could never support others because my eye contact is fleeting. From a young age, most kids learn that good eye contact is one of the most important skills for social interaction. My interests can also be rather specific, and I really enjoy sharing about them, but sometimes I have a difficult time telling when others want to change the subject. In all my years receiving Autism-related services, I had not once met a clinician with Autism. Since there were no models, I worried that people must not want a social worker who has Autism. It was during my time in undergrad that I met someone who had similar differences who was pursuing a career in social work. With that person’s support, I came to the realization that I would take a chance on my dreams and become a model for others who might wish to follow suit. I earned my undergraduate degree and applied for a master’s level social work program.
My early career assumption was that I would pursue employment in the realm of immigration or refugee services, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to interview at one Autism-related agency. That agency was Milestones Autism Resources. “Milestones serves clients with Autism and I have Autism, maybe this could be a good fit,” is what I told myself. I called Beth Thompson and within a week I had an interview. I arrived far too early than what might be considered professionally appropriate, the dress shirt (that my mother encouraged me to tuck in) was untucked because I found it to be too uncomfortable, and my interview consisted of an abundant amount of oversharing. Yet from the moment I walked through the door to the moment I left, I felt welcomed. I knew then that Milestones was where I wanted to complete my first year internship. I celebrated with my family when Milestones offered me a position as their Graduate Social Work Intern.
Working with Beth and the Milestones team, I learned that I didn’t need to feel disadvantaged in social work – in fact, it was a valuable asset in that my Autism, as well as my treatment history, offered me a unique insight into the experiences that my clients may have. Milestones also gave me a platform to take pride in my story. At the Milestones 2015 Annual Benefit Dinner, I shared my experiences as a person with Autism to an audience far larger than I could have imagined. My mother cried tears of joy and the crowd gifted me a standing ovation while I walked off stage – only to be redirected by my colleagues at Milestones to “get back up there and take it in!” From then on, I moderated panels at the Milestones conference, shared my experiences with audiences, and hopefully inspired others to share their own stories.
Milestones instilled me with the confidence to seek opportunities as a Direct Practice Social Worker, providing clinical mental health services to clients. Recently, when Milestones offered me a full-time position, I knew it would be difficult to say goodbye to my clients, but that it was an excellent opportunity to advocate, teach, and provide quality service to others. Whether or not my clients found me to be “weird” as I had feared, is something I never quite found out. However, I did find out that I could support families in reaching their goals, that I am capable, that I have a voice, and most importantly that I can use my voice to inspire and empower others. Milestones taught me that I can become a great Social Worker. We should not let our fears that others will not embrace our differences hold us back. I am happy to be a member of the team at Milestones Autism Resources and perhaps more importantly, I am honored to have the opportunity to use the skills that I have developed to support others in reaching their goals.
Hear from Nathan and other self-advocates in the video above.
As I consider making goals, whether for the whole year of 2018 or just for upcoming situations I know will be challenging, I utilize a pattern I learned in my first semester of college. This strategy may be familiar to you too. It’s called making “SMART” goals, which is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
Using this strategy has helped me find success in areas where I truly want to make changes or grow personally. In the past when I was not realistic, I would make goals that were far too grandiose which resulted in my giving up easily, and being unable to actually see any progress. Now I concentrate on smaller but attainable changes, and once I reach them I push the goals out further. I also set only one or two goals at a time in order to keep my focus.
For example, I struggle with asking repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions of others. Instead of setting a goal like, “I will stop asking repetitive questions,” I set a SMART goal. Applying the SMART strategy to the goal would look like this:
S (specific): I will reduce my repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions at home. I will enlist the help of a family member to give me cues when needed and keep me accountable to my goal. I will reduce the questions to two times each.
M (measurable): Because I am using a family member to keep me gently accountable, it will be easy to see if I am actually restricting my repetitive questions to two times each. This means “check-ins” are automatically built into this particular goal.
A (attainable): This goal should be attainable for me because I have set it up for success. As long as I continue to be open to my accountability partner’s cues and respond appropriately, I will find success in reducing the number of times I repeat a question, even when I am anxious.
R (realistic): My goal is realistic because I have been working on this particular behavior for some time. Engaging another person to work on it with me will also keep me on task.
T (timely): I will set this goal to be accomplished in 30 days. I review the results of my strategies with my accountability partner at that time. If I am consistently reducing my repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions to two times each or less I will consider the goal achieved, and set a new goal. If I have not achieved the goal as set, then I will modify the goal at that time or lengthen the time frame in which to attain it.
Each person knows what works best for him or her. This is the kind of goal setting that works for me. One thing to keep in mind is that goals can always be modified to ensure success. I stay positive knowing that I can modify a goal as necessary rather than give in to defeat.
Grace Blatt is a Good Life Ambassador for the Cuyahoga County Board of Development Disabilities where she presents to schools, legislators, families, and provider agencies advocating for those with special needs. She is also a past Milestones Trailblazer Award recipient and is currently pursuing a degree in music therapy.
Some of my greatest memories are holiday-related. For example, the Christmas of 1982 when Santa placed under our tree a stuffed prairie dog—Prairie Pup. My new special interest quickly became prairie dogs for the next eight years. Prairie Pup and I were inseparable, until I began middle school and Prairie Pup became the first prairie dog to be expelled from the Oakland County Schools. The special education teachers informed my parents, “Your son is too old to be carrying a love-worn prairie dog, desperately needing Rogaine.”
During the holidays, I have experienced meltdowns and stress. When I was seven years old, my Christmas gift was an army outfit, equipped with a toy machine gun, walkie-talkies, and binoculars. After a few days, the trigger on the machine gun broke. My parents did not send it back to the North Pole for repairs but instead returned it to Sears for a new set. The new army set was complete except for one small detail —the binoculars were a different style, a 1940’s design compared to modern. When I saw the new binoculars in the box—the former ones missing—my emotions erupted. I began hitting my head relentlessly, smashing everything in my path. My meltdown lasted ten straight hours; it only ceased after my parents went back to Sears and found my original binoculars.
Luckily for my family and friends I have learned five survival techniques for the holidays I think all individuals on the spectrum should consider trying.
1.) Reduce stress by dressing comfortably for holiday events. During the holidays, I enjoy wearing my Frosty the Snowman pajamas and Star Wars T-shirts. These clothes help my sensory issues stay balanced and cause me to feel calm.
2.) Be prepared for the environment of holiday events. My dad has severe asthma. If the family hosting an event has a dog or cat, my dad will politely ask them to keep the pet in another room to prevent him from having an asthma attack. I have sensory issues to smoke, so like my father, I have to plan ahead to avoid what could affect me. So I won’t attend any holiday events where people will be smoking.
3.) Know who to avoid at holiday events. Certain family members can be annoying and rude especially for us on the spectrum. The aunt who has a funky body odor and loves to give you a big hug. Your uncle who asks more questions than an inquisition. These family members can add stress to your holiday so minimize your time with them if you need to.
4.) Bring a fun bag that helps relieve anxiety. My fun backpack contains books and toys. When I become bored or overwhelmed by the noise of the nieces and nephews playing, I sneak off and read a book.
5.) Always have an escape route. At my parents’ house, I have a man cave with over 4,000 books and a Calico Critter collection. When I feel stressed out, I hide in my cave. The escape route for you could be going for a walk outside or a room away from the guests.
Ron Sandison is the founder of Spectrum Inclusion and is employed in the mental health field. He is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House. Sandison speaks at over 70 events a year including 20 conferences. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a daughter, Makayla.
Cory Irwin calls himself an informal humorist.
He loves to make people laugh. He enjoys being an attentive friend. Take the time one of his friends was in the hospital. Knowing she loved awards shows, Cory live texted the entire Oscars ceremony for her.
“I do not tolerate when people are sad,” says the 24-year-old Ohio native and recent Walsh University graduate. “You will not be unhappy around me.”
Thanks to an amazing support system and loving family, Cory is applying what he has learned with Milestones (social development, work skills, job hunting) to school, during his internship at The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and in his relationships with friends and co-workers.
“This whole interchanging web of support has helped me through the years,” he says. “I had a lot of intervention in public school as well as coaching from Milestones. And of course, my support from family.”
Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your personality?
I try to show empathy and sympathy for others. In the context of who I am, an autistic individual, some people think I’m devoid of emotion. My defense is I put that shell on because I feel everything. People ask, “Why do you make light of situations?” I laugh and am mirthful. Otherwise I would be melting down because of how difficult things are.
What are you passionate about?
I am a reader first and foremost. I went through many of the numerous phases a young boy goes through – stuffed toys, dinosaurs, little figures. I wouldn’t really play, I would just line them up and look. I would get hopping mad if my sisters moved things. But then came the books and out came everything else. When your mother is an English teacher with 27 years in the public education trenches and your father is an amateur civil war enthusiast with books all around the house, you become a reader. The consequence of being a reader is having an extensive vocabulary.
What do you enjoy when you’re not at work?
I like going to the museums around here. I look at the museums differently because I went to a four-year university program to learn to work in museums. When I am at a museum, I see how things are laid out; I notice all the extra things that go into keeping a museum running.
What’s something you have done that you’re proud of?
I was in the Boy Scouts of America. I got the Eagle Rank. That’s the highest rank you can get in the Boy Scouts. Very few people get it.
What are some everyday challenges you face?
Waiting my turn. Raising my hand too much in class. Teachers have to see how other students are doing. I do this today in classes, I have had to watch it again. “You don’t have to raise your hand,” but no, I have to raise my hand or I will shout people down. I do not whisper.
Simple conversation cues are difficult. I have to be retaught, review, re-clarify. I have to keep those muscles exercised.
How did you get to Milestones?
By chance, my family and I were in Cleveland and learned about Milestones. My dad called their free helpdesk and spoke to Miss Haley.
My mom will say the only person who understands me more than she or my father does is probably Miss Haley at Milestones. She has been working with me so I can learn how to talk to my co-workers, advocate for myself and build a career in the field I love. I am learning to trust in my own abilities, my own assertiveness, and not always be second-guessing myself. Haley helped me achieve this.
I am currently working as the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection Intern at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Milestones forged this new partnership with the Federation which has provided me with the opportunity to contribute my knowledge and skills on a great team.
This is the first experience I found that aligns with my passion within museum studies. This internship is a stepping stone for me to a career in museum education. I am learning so much.
How has Milestones helped you?
Miss Haley also connected me to an Autism Personal Coach, MiKayla. I meet with MiKayla every Friday. She expects me to be looking at things to do such as using my budget and being comfortable doing things by myself, even if a friend can’t join me. I am now getting to the point of doing things on my own. I don’t give myself enough trust and confidence that I can be assertive. But MiKayla and Milestones helped me to develop this.
What do you foresee for the future? What would be your dream job?
Working in museum education. If I’m destined to be a Clevelander for the long term, I would love to work at the Rock Hall, the Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo, the Museum of Natural History or the Museum of Art.
What advice do you have for individuals on the spectrum?
I always have to remind myself daily, “You will get your happily ever after.” But you have to have the patience, trust, strength of will to play the long game to get what you want.
Some people call me a spectrum ambassador. Sometimes I don’t want to be the ambassador. I want a pill available so I can do math, so I can be more social. But I am, for the rest of my life, an autistic individual and I will always need help in certain categories.
My advice: Don’t drown yourself in despair. The label doesn’t define you. You make the label work for you.