Thoughts from an Aspie

13 Mar

An extract of an interview with Jennifer  which was in NASEN magazine.

About Jennifer O’Toole

Jennifer was diagnosed as an aspie in adulthood, is the mother of three asperkids, the wife of an aspie, an award-winning special educator and two-time author of brand-new books for and about asperkids (Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome and upcoming The Asperkids’ (Secret) Book of Social Rules: A Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Guidelines for Teens and Tweens).

Jennifer is the winner of the 2012 Temple Grandin Award, a recipient of GRASP’s 2012 Distinguished Spectrumite Medal, and a nominee of the 2012 Autism Society Book Award and Godiva’s Woman of the Year. Her unique conversationalist presentation of useful insights has also led to the founding of Asperkids, LLC, a multi-media social education company.

Jennifer O'Toole

Jennifer graduated with honors from Brown University and has since studied at the Graduate School of Social Work at Columbia University and Graduate School of Education at Queens University. Subsequent initiatives with young people garnered her an invitation to serve on North Carolina’s Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence, and a nomination for Disney’s American Teacher of the Year Award in her first year of teaching.

With a background in advocacy and education, Jennifer found herself ‘walking the special needs walk’ as she struggled to achieve a diagnosis for her first child, whose early life presented one medical challenge upon another. But it was Jennifer’s ‘aspie’ hyper-focus on otherwise seemingly disconnect details that doctors agree saved the child’s life, and led to her service on the Levine Children’s Hospital’s Family Advocacy Council. Since that time, all three of her young children have been identified as aspies, as has her husband – and eventually, Jennifer herself. 

As someone with Asperger syndrome, and a teacher, and a parent, you have a unique view of the condition. What can teachers do to help these children? 

Most adults do not realise how many processes and steps are involved in every day things, the attention shiftingm the ability to know how to prepare for a task before even doing the task. I am a huge believer in visual schedules to help those with Asperger syndrome: for example to get my boys through their daily routines, they have a visual schedule to support them. I had to break down the process of putting clothes on a hanger. They need to have these sorts of processes broken down clearly and understand that adults need checklists and reminders too – its nothing to be embarrassed about. When my children go off task I am able to use the schedule to bring them back. It enables them to participate in the problem solving process rather than being spoon fed. 

How can we improve provision for Asperger children?

I am sure that a lot of children with Asperger syndrome go unidentified. We need to help mainstream teachers and parents to be better equipped to identify the signs and ask the right questions. It took me a long time to get a diagnosis for my daughter but with my son it was much easier. My own experience is that it is much more difficult for girls to get a diagnosis. I wrote an article called ‘Rebranding Asperger’ as it needs to be better PR! If you can get the diagnosis as early as possible you can take a far more positive approach before the child’s confidence is completely destroyed! 

If you could share one tip, what would it be?

Focus on a child’s special interest. There are two reasons for this. First, it is a way to engage the child, and second it helps you to get a better understanding of that person who is in your classroom. It tells you about what they value in the world. Whenever possible, try to make use of the child’s special interest. 

What experiences as a parent can we as educators learn from? 

A question I often get asked is ‘do I tell people that they have Aspergers, and who do I tell?’ We tried an experiement, that is now a given, as the results were so phenomenal. 

In the first week at a new school my child’s psychologist goes into the school and they have a class around the table talk (for older children). The teacher gives a little talk about what Aspergers is, with my child contributing so that everyone understand the differences. The other children have also shared their experiences and then it becomes less tolerable to bully or tease that child. That has helped facilitate so many positive conversations without any problems. 

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