Excelling in Life with Asperger’s – A Unique Perspective
Flying out over the green hills of Western North Carolina, I had the tugging feeling that I had left something behind. I did the regular checks: credit cards, phone, purse, etc., yet the feeling that I was missing something continued. I finally realized what I had left behind: my son. Most readers would immediately think of a small child or a teen, but my son was 24 years old. What, then, made this leaving so difficult? My son has Asperger’s syndrome, and although he has developed a high level of compensation and has graduated from college, I still knew he internalizes many fears and doubts. Up to this point, I had always been in close proximity to help him through those.
So my mind goes over all of the “what ifs,” and I hope that I am leaving him with enough of the sound advice and hints that have helped him to be successful from elementary school through college. Adding to the panic of wanting to fly back over the 1,200 miles we had driven over the last few days was the knowledge that there would be no cell phone service where he would be. In the world of instant communication, my son had gone to the wilderness area of the Pisgah National Forest to intern for several months. So I felt lost, knowing that there was no way to know if he was OK or to help him if he had a problem.
Besides being a mother, the other hat I wear is that of an elementary school principal. I would like to encourage parents by saying there is hope, and even though challenges may appear overwhelming, they can be overcome so that goals are attainable and these students can be successful and independent. The following are ways we managed Asperger’s with such a high success rate. The first thing that comes to mind is that parents have to be ready to make the sacrifices needed to help their children. The biggest sacrifices in this case were time and a willingness to put children first, even before personal goals. I did not apply for a principalship until my son was able to do his own homework and be more self-sufficient. I can tell from conferencing with parents over the years that the students that are successful are the ones who have parents that are willing to spend the time it takes.
One of the challenges faced by Asperger’s students is organization. From elementary school to college, we did a backpack check every night, going through every notebook and folder to see what needed to be done. There are great planners available for students to use, and nightly we went through each notebook and did homework. We never watched television nor did any other activities on school nights until he was older. I sat with him while he did his homework to help with focusing and be sure he stayed on task.
Another problem with Asperger’s students is that their handwriting is often illegible. Written assignments were not graded because they could not read his handwriting. He was talented in the writing area, but couldn’t get it onto paper. So, for many years, he dictated to me every night and I typed his work to turn in. We were able to do this from accommodations offered to him through Special Education. In the 9th grade, he took a typing class and began to type his own work. This also enabled us to get homework done faster and allowed us to do something else with the evenings to help him with his social functionality.
The activity that we took on at this time was through the Community Theatre. Our son tried out for a show the same year he started to type, and both of those activities changed his life. He was cast, and theatre opened up a whole realm of socialization and stretching for him in the arena of functioning with larger groups of people and being forced to be more outgoing. Prior to this, he had a tendency to be timid, shy, and insecure at times. I still counsel parents to try the community theatre route for children who need help socially. The theatre also served to help with coordination and acted as therapy. In the long run, he was in a theater troupe for which he had to audition, and he was cast in many shows.
Another problem our son had was directionality and getting lost. He was repeatedly losing his way at school and on field trips. Once, at a science summer camp, I went to check on him, and he wasn’t there. I ran down the hall screaming, “My child is missing, my child is missing.” Another time, at a science center, he was distracted by an ant trail on the way, lost the group, and didn’t reconnect until the end of the day. We solved the school problem when he started to change classes in the 7th grade by walking the school from class to class several times before school started. We would find the route and look around and practice over and over and over. We continued this practice from 7th through 12th grade every summer before the school year started, and continued it into his college years both at the local college he attended and at Texas Tech.
I remember countless times when I would spy on him walking from one event to another to be sure he got there successfully. The first time he flew to visit my mother on his own, I booked a flight on the same airline and snuck on the flight to be sure he got to his connecting gate. He caught me in the airport and wondered what I was doing there. When he started to drive, we did the same thing with routes, driving them back and forth. He drove successfully to high school his entire senior year. To this day, he continues to find routes and practices when he knows he needs to be somewhere at a certain time to be sure he gets there.
He received numerous academic awards and scholarships through high school and college and was on the Dean’s List. He graduated from Texas Tech with Honors and a degree in Natural History and Humanities.
As I continued to put my thoughts together, the Delta desk clerk announced anyone with flexible travel plans could get a voucher for future travel. I jumped at the chance and was thrilled to receive a $400 voucher. I was able to relax knowing that I would be able to see my son sooner than I had thought. I didn’t mind spending almost all day in the Atlanta airport to get that voucher. After all, I had a story to write now, didn’t I?
After several years looking for employment, he was hired in March of 2012 by a national facilities management company and was transferred to Baltimore in January of 2014, where he has since received two promotions and became a site manager for a single office site on the harbor in 2015. He lives on his own in an apartment and is involved in some local groups. He has used his writing abilities and has been published in a book anthology available on Amazon. He continues to see the world from a different perspective, and at times, will ask me what it is like to see the world neurologically through the eyes of someone that doesn’t have autism. His ability to deal with day-to-day situations and interface with people takes a huge amount of effort from him, but he successfully functions and continues to be empathetic to the cause.
Terra Singletary has been in education for over 24 years. She was a bilingual teacher in Dallas when her son was young, and she moved into mid-management administration, being an assistant principal for five years and an elementary school principal for 14 years. She currently supervises student teacher candidates for the University of Memphis. The most fulfilling thing she has ever done in her life was raising her son.
This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future