Preparation for Independence—Is Your Student Ready for a New School Year?

Christy Oslund, Co-ordinator of Student Disability Services in the Dean of the Students’ Office at Michigan Technological University, shares helpful tips for parents on preparing students for a new school year and future independence.

Preparation for Independence

As students gear up for another year of school—perhaps even their last year or two before heading off to college or other independent goals—families tend to get caught up in last minute preparations. Do they have adequate school supplies, is it time to buy a scientific calculator, what will the schedule look like for classes and for after school activities? It is easy to get buried in details.

We need to remind ourselves to step back and remember the big picture. We need to help our students be prepared not just for the immediate school term but for the future when they will be required to live more independently. Consider the following questions:

  • Is my child able to take their medication reliably without reminders?
  • Does my child know how to wash their own laundry?
  • Could my child go shopping alone and find their own basic necessities?
  • Have we practiced the child getting up and ready for school without assistance/wake-up calls?
  • Has my child learned to shop for and cook a few simple meals?
  • Can my child wash up after preparing a meal?

Until a person has had the opportunity to practice all these steps towards independence, he or she is not really ready for life away from home, whether that be in a trade school, college, university, or first job. Particularly with high functioning children who are very smart, we can easily forget how important these other day to day life skills are for the young person to grow into a successful adult. Rather than trying to take on teaching all of these skills at once, consider working on them one at a time. It will depend on your child which of these steps will come easiest and which will require the most work.

Consider starting with the step that is likely to be the least difficult for the individual child you are working with, so that your student can build on success as they approach the next goal. If for example, your child is naturally starting to get up in the morning for school, allow that to become an independent activity where he or she is responsible for getting out of the home on time. Realize that this may mean that your child will be late a few times; this is the price that has to be paid in helping your student work towards independence. Once your child leaves home, there will not be anyone getting them out the door on time and this is a skill that is best learned before they are expected to act like an adult.

On the other hand, if your child has shown an interest in cooking, help them identify a few simple meals they would like to cook. Take them shopping and walk them through the process of choosing ingredients for the meal, paying, taking home the shopping, and preparation. For young people who find that process very involved, you may want to make clean up after the meal a separate lesson and learning opportunity.

Remember that almost everyone finds the most effective way to learn is to be given a chance for practice, with necessary explanation/information being provided by someone who has more experience with the skill being learned. If one wants to learn to milk a cow, one would look for a dairy farmer who has experience with milking; if one wants to learn to cook a meal, it helps if the person teaching has cooked before.

At the same time, parents and guardians can show the willingness to learn new skills themselves. If no one in the home is practiced at cooking a meal then helping the child prepare by learning this skill together—perhaps in a basic cooking class, or from a beginners cook book—demonstrates that learning new skills is always possible, and often necessary, no matter what stage we are at in life. By learning side by side with your child, you can demonstrate how to solve problems along the way:

  • How will we prepare for shopping?
  • How do we choose ingredients?
  • How do we decide which pan to use?
  • How can we tell if the heat we are using is too hot or not hot enough?

When more mature family members demonstrate how to solve problems as they are encountered, they also set another example that the child can learn from and call on later in life.

A new school year is an exciting, anxiety producing time of year. It is also a reminder that a child is continuing to grow towards eventual independence. Being mindful to include education and practice with the life skills needed outside of school is just as important as helping a child academically prepare for their future. Just as we wouldn’t expect a child to spontaneously start reading without previous education just because they have left home, we cannot expect them to suddenly know other life skills such as cooking, or getting up without reminders, just because they’ve moved. Use each day to practice these steps towards independence and you can ensure that your child has all the skills necessary to be successful.

Christy is the author of  Succeeding as a Student in the STEM Fields with an Invisible Disability: A College Handbook for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Students with Autism, ADD, Affective Disorders, or Learning Difficulties and their Families and the forthcoming  Supporting College and University Students with Invisible Disabilities: A Guide for Faculty and Staff Working with Students with Autism, AD/HD, Language Processing Disorders, Anxiety, and Mental Illness both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

‘In the Key of Genius’ a TED Talk by Adam Ockelford and Derek Paravicini

Earlier this year Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford spoke at a TEDx event in Warwick. The video of the talk has just become available to view on the TED homepage.

Born three and a half months prematurely, Derek Paravicini is blind and has severe autism. But with perfect pitch, an innate talent and many hours of practice he became an acclaimed concert pianist by the age of 10. Now a mature and creative musician this video shows Derek tearing up the “Chopsticks” rule book.

After meeting Derek at age 4, Adam Ockelford became Derek’s long term piano teacher and mentor. In this talk he explains how Derek’s musical understanding has changed over time.


To view the talk on the TED website please visit:

Adam Ockelford is the author of Music, Langauge and Autism (2013) published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Common Interview Questions and What They Mean – from The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome

In this extract from The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, career development coach and author Barbara Bissonnette translates some common interview questions to help literal thinkers understand what is actually being asked of them.

To answer a question well, you must understand what is being asked. This may not be readily apparent if you are a literal thinker. Josh was completely confused when he was asked, “Why should I hire you instead of the other candidates?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, he said, “I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t met the other candidates.” The interviewer knew that Josh had not met the other applicants. The intent of his question was for Josh to summarize why he believed that he was the best person for the job.

There are several types of interview questions. Some assess your abilities, depth of experience, and knowledge of a job function or an industry. Others are designed to tease out how well you work with others. Behavioral questions look at past actions as indicators of future performance. They typically begin with a statement like, “tell me about a time when,” or, “give me an example of,” or, “describe a project that…”

Here are some common interview questions, and suggestions about how to answer them. Even if you are not asked all of these questions specifically, you can use the information to respond to similar inquiries about your background, hard skills and soft skills.

1. Tell Me About Yourself

Translation: Summarize your relevant skills and experience.

This question is often asked early in an interview. It is not an invitation to share your life story. A good answer summarizes, in five to six sentences, the skills and experience that make you a good fit for the job. Mention your most relevant general and job-specific skills, as well as personal characteristics that are important for the position. An accountant could summarize experience in basic accounting principles, discuss proficiency with computer spreadsheets, and give examples of accuracy and attention to detail.

A bit of humor, if you are comfortable using it, can relieve nervousness and get the interview off to a good start. Accountant Todd could say, “I’m a numbers geek!” But don’t overdo the levity. One or two bits of humor per interview is enough. You want to project friendliness, not goofiness. You are not interviewing to be a company comedian.

Avoid long, rambling responses that contain irrelevant details: where you grew up, a list of classes you took to earn your degree, or your recent divorce. Don’t mention achievements from high school and earlier, unless they are truly significant. Earning the designation of Eagle Scout, for example, requires personal characteristics that include persistence, leadership, and teamwork. These are valuable in any job.

2. Why Did You Choose This Field?

Translation: What excites you about this work or this industry?

A strong response highlights aptitudes and abilities that are related to the job in question. For example, “Engineering appeals to me because I enjoy applying mathematical principles to solve real-world problems. During college, I did a project…”

A weak response focuses on your personal preferences instead of what you can do for the employer, “I like computers,” “There are lots of jobs,” or, “It pays well.”

3. What Are Your Greatest Strengths?

Translation: What makes you good at this work? (Be ready with three examples.)

It is not boastful to discuss your abilities and accomplishments at a job interview. This is your chance to describe knowledge and personal attributes that enable you to achieve results for the organization. Choose strong points that demonstrate your ability to perform the job well. An engineer might say, “I can form detailed pictures in my mind and see how design changes will impact product performance.”

Empty, self-serving answers are those that offer no benefit to the employer, “I’m a fantastic writer,” “I’m a genius at math,” or, “I live to write code!”

4. What is Your Greatest Weakness?

Translation: Do you have insight into your limitations and have you learned from your mistakes?

This is a tricky question. Everyone has weaknesses of some kind, so saying that you don’t have any is clearly not true. On the other hand, being too honest can disqualify you as a candidate. Think about a weakness that is also a strength, or a limitation that you have overcome. Aaron said, “I can be a perfectionist, however this has helped me in accounting because my work is accurate. And, it is always delivered on time.” This answer works because accuracy is important in this line of work, and Aaron added a sentence to let the employer know that his thoroughness would not get in the way of meeting deadlines.

Unacceptable responses are those that communicate a fatal flaw. This refers to an attribute that makes you unqualified for the position. Describing yourself as introverted and a little shy at first would be a fatal flaw for a salesperson, who meets with new prospects. It would not be a fatal flaw for someone, like an accountant, who works mostly with information. Some answers are fatal flaws for any job. Fatal flaw answers include, “I’m not a team player,” “My selfconfidence is low,” and, “I don’t like taking the ideas or direction of others.”

5. Describe Your Worst Boss

Translation: What type of manager have you disliked working with (and am I that type of manager)?

This question is not as simple as it may first sound. I’ll begin with the wrong answer, since it is the one so many of my clients choose. Rob is a good example. I could hear his agitation as he began describing a former manager. “He wouldn’t give me clear instructions, and then blamed me for everything that went wrong,” Rob began. “Once I asked to take a Friday off before a holiday weekend. He was so mean, he said no, but then let one of the other associates take Friday off.”

I’ll bet that you, like Rob, have a story or two about an unreasonable, jerky boss. However, sharing these anecdotes at an interview makes you look bad. Blaming problems on someone else, or making negative judgments about a person’s character, makes you sound like a complainer, and an employee who is difficult to work with. Companies do not want employees who are difficult. Avoid comments like, “He didn’t listen to me,” “She criticized my work,” and, “He was disrespectful and yelled a lot.”

When a hiring manager asks this question, he wants to know whether you will be comfortable with his management style. A manager who gives staff members a lot of autonomy would be concerned if you describe this style as difficult. Obviously, you cannot know a manager’s preferences in advance. If your styles are different to the point of incompatibility, it really means the job is not the right fit, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to get hired.

The right response to this question focuses on professional (not personal) characteristics, and frames negatives as differences in preference or style. For example, “My last supervisor preferred group brainstorming sessions. This was a challenge sometimes because I like to think about a problem on my own, then present my ideas to the group. We worked it out so I could contribute my ideas the next day.”

For more essential advice, tips and strategies for getting a job in the neurotypical workplace, buy your copy of The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Barbara Bissonnette.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.


VIDEO: Rudy Simone’s 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know

Rudy Simone is on a mission to prevent AS/non-spectrum relationships from breaking down because of a lack of information. Check out this video to find out more and for a great overview of her latest JKP book, 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know.

In her latest book, Aspergirls author Rudy Simone covers 22 common areas of confusion for someone dating a female with AS and includes advice from her own experience and from other partners in real relationships. She talks with humour and honesty about the quirks and sensitivities that you may come across when getting to know your partner. All the pivotal relationship landmarks are discussed, including the first date, sex, and even having children.

“Itching to Laugh”: Jennifer Cook O’Toole recounts her wonderful evening at the GRASP awards gala in NYC (poison ivy and all)

Jennifer Cook O'Toole wearing her GRASP 'Distinguished Spectrumite Medal'!

By Jennifer Cook O’Toole, author of the book, AsperKids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome. Visit Jennifer’s website at:

You’ve probably heard the saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” That always seemed a bit flippant to me. Like someone at Hallmark needed a cute little “chin up” message, and this is what they came up with. But when real life gets really messy, no one appreciates patronizing sentiment. Optimism, yes. But realistic optimism. Maybe life hands you melons instead, and it turns out you’re dyslexic. Or maybe, you really ought to squeeze that lemon into some Corona, laugh in spite of it all, and take a siesta.

This week, I got seriously (and unexpectedly) squirted with lemons.

A few months ago, I learned that I was to receive the coveted Distinguished Spectrumite Medal (DSM) from the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP), the world’s largest Asperger’s support and educational organization. In the company of giants in the worlds of psychology, advocacy, policy-making and social networking, I was to be recognized not (only) for my writing or speaking or consulting — but (tear-jerker) for being a shining example of extraordinary parenting. Of how being a diagnosed Aspie has — far from inhibiting emotional or social growth — enriched a marriage, lifted self-awareness and informed the power and perspective with which I raise my own three Asperkids. It was a very public declaration by Michael John Carley and the entire GRASP Board that the diagnosis is far beyond valid — it is valued.

AND it got better from there. The event was to be held at a gala in New York City (read: trip and getting gussied up — two things that NEVER happen to me anymore!) on the very SAME NIGHT that my first book, Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome would be released! AND the cosmic fabulosity got even more fabulous! The world-famous JKP author, Dr. Liane Holliday Willey (who wrote the forward to my book and has recently offered to be my mentor in this journey – riddling me with insanely amazing compliments and faith), was going to be receiving the SAME AWARD!

Time for a perspective break, I thought, to keep centered and focused in the middle of such hope and energy. So, last week, I took a few moments amidst the choas of preparing and packing for three Asperkids, an Asperhubbie and my Asperself and escaped to my garden. A little bit of pruning, a little bit of digging and sunshine, and the earth seemed to be literally grounding me in its firm grasp. Only it did a little too good a job. Somehow, I managed to get a bit of poson ivy – which quickly developed into a lot of poison ivy, and then into an additional allergic reaction to the adhesive bandages I’d used. My peace and calm was fast dissipating into two Emergency Room visits for steroid shots and lotions and a whole lot of itchy discomfort.

But the day to leave arrived anyway, and off we flew – yours truly trying to keep things in check with antihistimines and creams…by the day before the event, my sensitive redhead’s skin had apparently decided it was time to officially FREAK OUT. The reaction went systemic, riddling me with 400 patches of raw poison ivy rash plus a chemical burn all over my torso from the lotions I’d been told to use. Only one hour before “time to get gussied,” I was in another ER being told there was nothing more they could do – it was just a matter of time until the steroids finally kicked in.

And here was the “life would like to present you with said crate of lemons” moment. For about 10 minutes, I cried. Hard. And I don’t cry. I was mad and sad and just plum ticked off at the unfairness. One chance to get dressed up. To meet Liane. To meet everyone at GRASP. And instead of enjoying the accolade, I was an itchy, burning mess. Couldn’t anything just go easily, ever? This wasn’t fair.

While I wallowed, my Aspergirl suddenly came up to me and placed her small hand on my (unmussed) foot. “Mommy,” she said. “May I come with you tonight?” She’d been uninterested before, and I don’t know what changed for her exactly, but that changed it all for me. Thea-tah. Costumes. Make-up. I was back in the days of my life when the show must go on, and it must be the authentic and in-the-moment and matter.

So on went the eyeliner and heels. I styled her hair and straightened my husband’s tie. And, although the 45 minute trip to the event took over two hours and I missed an interview while sitting in the Lincoln Tunnel under miles of river water…we made it. And never in one room have I ever felt the “yes” of why we all were doing the work we do.

There were young Aspies asking about their own book ideas, adults apologizing profusely if they “accidentally touched you inappropriately” (a wrist tap!) or interrupted your thought. They were using scripts a bit awkwardly, but they used them – and were lovely people. There were world-reknowned psychiatrists whose work will determine the evolution of the term “Aspergers,” and a dad-runner who’d trekked the entire Chilean desert to raise money for GRASP and kids like his own. There was the beautiful, brilliant Liane Holliday Willey (in the flesh!) with her gorgeous daughter (my little girl was totally in love with her nail polish)…and in the middle of it all, there was me.

And so when it was my turn to receive my medal, I brought my little Asperkid up to the podium with me. I hadn’t known I was going to be asked to speak, but the words came easily (as they are wont to do). Life does hand us lemons. Certainly, for those of who are and who love Aspies, we get more than our fair share of pucker power. And we should be allowed, for a few minutes now and again, to cry or pout or say, “No fair!” But then the show MUST go on. Life must go on. Some days, it’s more performance than others – but always, always, we can choose to laugh. And I did. I told my itchy story of misery, of stomping my foot in my own little temper tantrum a few hours earlier, and of choosing, instead, to do what Aspies do everyday. To be uncomfortable, to laugh at the “are you kidding me?” moments, and to never, ever miss the chance to look around us and be totally inspired by the lives we get to share.

“Don’t ever forget,” I implored them, rubbing my little girl’s head, and seeing the amazing honorees around me, “that the different perspective we bring to the world is a gift – just like these Asperkids themselves.” And I looked down into my daughter’s big eyes. This medal was for me, yes (and the ribbon was scratching my poison ivy like crazy!), but seeing the pride and inclusion and inspiration in her little eyes, I couldn’t help but imagine her future. And I couldn’t help but laugh.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

JKP authors Liane Holliday Willey and Jennifer Cook O’Toole win coveted GRASP award!

Congratulations to Liane Holliday Willey (pictured left) and Jennifer Cook O’Toole who have both been honoured by GRASP (the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership) with the organisation’s 2012 Distinguished Spectrumite Medal.

The award will be presented to them at a gala event today in New York City.

Jessica Kingsley Publishers is proud to publish both of these award winners!

Jennifer Cook O’Toole has Asperger syndrome and is the mother to three young Aspie children. She graduated from Brown University, and attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Social Work. She has previously worked as a social worker, and a teacher in both special needs and mainstream education. She served on the Family Advisory Board for Levine Children’s Hospital, North Carolina, and regularly gives presentations at hospitals and local universities on special needs parenting. In 2002 she was nominated for Disney’s Teacher of the Year Award and she is due to receive GRASP’s annual Distinguished Spectrumite Medal 2012. She lives near Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

Liane Holliday Willey is a doctor of education, a writer and a researcher who specializes in the fields of psycholinguistics and learning style differences. Dr. Willey is a married mother of three, the owner of an equine boarding facility, and the Senior Editor of Autism Spectrum Quarterly. She also has Asperger Syndrome. A frequent guest lecturer on ‘Aspie’ topics, Dr. Willey is an energetic educator and advocate of Asperger issues. She lives in Rockford, Michigan, USA.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Branding Aspie: “When it fits, the diagnosis ‘Aspie’ is a gift, not a curse.”

By Jennifer Cook O’Toole, social worker, teacher, “Aspie Mommy” and author of Asperkids.

Long before my first baby could read, she knew her logos. Mommy would always stop to answer the siren call of that little green coffee mermaid. As her brothers came along, they too learned the power of the logo – the hypnotic beckoning of the big red bullseye or the promise of new entertainment when a little bitty apple was spotted. Recently, I even discovered that the toy store with the giraffe and backwards “R” sells a Logo Board Game. Let’s face it. Marketing execs the world over pay big bucks to ensure that from our beginnings, we all understand the superpower of branding. And they’re good at what they do.

It all begins with a label – or “logo”, an ancient Greek word meaning, well, “word.” But soon, “logos” took on a lot more philosophical weight. It connoted “opinion” or “expectation.” “Logos” alluded to “reputation” in the same way that, today, we have one expectation for a gift arriving in a little blue box, and a very different one for dining experiences held underneath the golden arches. Logos. Labels. Associated expectations. Branding is powerful stuff.

Now, the truth is that few among us would ever admit to being “label ho’s” (yes, it’s an actual entry in Urban Dictionary). Really, does anyone actually believe an “LV” on a handbag will make her more fabulous? No. But we still buy a whole lot of ’em. Like it or not, we are all consumers and bearers of label mania.

“OK,” you’re asking right about now, “I thought this was an article about Asperger Syndrome. What in the heck does a Tiffany’s gift box or Mickey D’s drive-thru have to do with Aspie?” A lot. We may not want to admit it, but as we’ve just seen, labels do carry a lot of social influence. And we wield them savvily…because although we say others’ opinions don’t matter to us – they do. We do care what others think of us and, because we love them, we care what others think of our mini-me’s (a.k.a., our kiddos), too. We plaster our minivans with public labels of love – displaying their school logos, sports mascots and stick figure caricatures for the world to see.

But sometimes, benevolence betrays us. Sometimes, shame and fear of a label does more harm to our families, our students, our kids than we realize.

You see, many parents, doctors and teachers don’t have a good understanding of what Asperger Syndrome is. Without solid information, they are intimidated by the “label,” and without really understanding it, reject it entirely. When adults are scared or embarrassed by a label they don’t want (for whatever reasons), children are denied the social, academic, and emotional support they need.

I have heard other parents and educators complain that a child is “academically brilliant but socially very immature, and awfully particular about everything.” They may see kids struggling and hurting, and they want guidance. But when answers to their inquiries include the possible label “Aspie,” conversations often end. Fast.

“You don’t want a kid to have to walk around with THAT label,” I have heard well-meaning folks say. They couldn’t be more wrong.

When it fits, the diagnosis – or “label” – “Aspie” is a gift, not a curse. I know – I have three Asperkids and was diagnosed myself as an adult. More than my “Ivy League” diplomas, size I-can-still-fit-into-my-prom-dress jeans, or any professional accolade I’ve won, “Aspie” is my “label” of authentic self-awareness, acceptance and true empowerment. I understand now that I may be different, but I am not deficient.

Why? What does “Aspie” actually mean? In general, “Aspie” describes bright folks who are a lot better with facts than with people; we have a very hard time understanding or anticipating others’ points of view, and therefore find great comfort in anything logical or precise. When the world seems big and unpredictable, it’s only natural to seek anything that will organize the chaos.

Aspies are, by definition, of average to above-average intelligence. In fact, it’s not uncommon for extremely gifted children (especially girls) to be hugely under-diagnosed, simply by chalking particular behaviors up to being “really smart.” Being “really smart” does not make someone hold fast to rules or routines, become overwhelmingly absorbed with a particular topic, be rigid in thought or behavior patterns and generally a bit immature socially. It just makes them smart. Asperger’s accounts for the other stuff.

You’ll see our “Aspie-ness” in interactions with other kids (sounding like “little professors,” being bossy, the “playground policeman,” or just retreating if it’s all too hard); often they’ll do better with children who are younger (they’re more controllable) or older (they’ll take the Asperkid under-wing), or with adults who find the “mini-grown-up” entertaining. Asperkids usually have a “special interest,” which can be all-encompassing and provides a mental respite from the confusing nuances of social situations. Also common are sensory sensitivities (to noises, crowds, textures) and attention troubles.

By nature, Asperkids tend to get a bit fixated on part of a thing, an idea or a situation rather than grasping the whole shebang (psychologists call this missing the “gestalt”). I tell my kiddos that it’s like seeing only the mashed potatoes, but not noticing the entire Thanksgiving meal. We also call it “getting right to the toenail of the matter” or missing the big picture.

Fine, fine. Maybe “Aspie” isn’t a bad thing, then. But is it a necessary label? Why pigeonhole a kid with one more (big) descriptor? Let me answer that question with a question. What do you do at a STOP sign? You stop, right? And what do you do if the sign on the door says, “Push”? You wouldn’t get very far by pulling on it.

Labels tell us how to react to a particular situation. Don’t floor it when you see “STOP” and don’t tell an Asperkid to “just go make friends.” Neither one will have very good consequences.

If/then. If it says “push,” don’t pull. And when a teacher or parent has the courage to worry less about impressions and more about the child involved, great things can happen.

Bottom line: if you think that you may be raising or teaching an Asperkid, then you have a choice to make. How will you react to the label? How will you teach the child, his friends, her school, your family to react? As a mom, a teacher, and an Aspie, I ask you to please – be the child’s champion, and find out more.

To us, “Aspie” is no label to fear or soldier through. It’s real life. It’s relief. It’s potential and promise and game-changing honesty. We are a society in love with labels and logos. Don’t be afraid of this one. Don’t get me wrong – my minivan still breaks for the green mermaid and my handbag is covered in some fancy C’s. But for me and children like mine, “Aspie” may be the most important label we’ll ever get to wear.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

“Celebrating Aspergers is celebrating Aspies. Always. In all ways.” An article by author Jennifer Cook O’Toole

Here, Jennifer Cook O’Toole – “Aspie Mommy” to three young Aspie children and author of the forthcoming book, Asperkids –  shares some thoughts about World Autism Day, celebrated every year on April 2nd.

I know there are families whose porch lights will burn blue on World Autism Day. There are some who will wear witty T-shirts, others may sign petitions or attend rallies – each and every gesture a vote of love and confidence. But around my house, World Autism Day will be “A Monday.” In other words, it will be a weekday like every other, filled from sunup (or beforehand) until long after sundown with Occupational Therapy appointments, definite routines, a meltdown or two, lengthy discussions on Greek mythology, zoology or Spiderman (depending upon which of my Asperkids is talking), and a dinner that looks an awful lot like the one I’ll have cooked the night before.

As the “Aspie Mommy” married to an “Aspie Hubbie” and Chief Operating Officer of our three Asperkids, EVERY day is a symphony of conscious choices, expenses and obligations that are my privilege to oblige. To us, supporting and celebrating neurodiversity isn’t a rally cry or Facebook cause. Celebrating Aspergers is celebrating Aspies. Always. In all ways.

World Autism Day is remembering to (patiently) fix my son’s socks so they feel comfortable, or taking the time to acknowledge his brother’s effort to not be the playground rule enforcer, or bringing their sister to karate so she can hone her motor skills and excel in a sport that doesn’t require teamwork. It’s remembering that my husband says “I love you” in a text because, happily, the thought crossed his mind – not because he’s being impersonal. And it’s telling another surprised someone that I’m an Aspie, too, and gently agreeing that yes, it does seem that the world has a lot to learn about those of us on the spectrum.

I may get a chance to wash my hair. I may not. I’m sure my kids won’t care that on April 2nd, I’ll be announced as an online magazine’s “Parent of the Month” for Autism Awareness month – but I’ll be proud to know it. I’m also quite sure I’ll be throwing in at least one load of laundry and encouraging someone to “use his words” rather than yelling. World Autism Day will be a day like every other: a Mommy’s-very-busy-and-in-sensory-overload-but-too-bad day in which I LAUGH at the craziness of my chaotic, complicated, blessed life. I will drive carpool and despair at Lego sprawl – content in my own hardwiring and constantly reminding my precious Asperkids (and the rest of the world) how very lucky we all are to have them here.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Dr. Darold Treffert on Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant

Darold Treffert, MD is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in the U.S. He has worked with savants and researched this rare condition for nearly 50 years, and was a consultant on the award-winning movie ‘Rain Man’, in which Dustin Hoffman plays the role of an autistic savant. Here, Dr. Treffert answers some questions about his new book, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

What is savant syndrome, how prevalent is it, and what are its most common manifestations?

Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with autism, or other developmental or central nervous system disorders, have some spectacular ‘islands of genius’ that stand in stark, marked contrast to overall limitations. It occurs as frequently as one in ten persons with autistic spectrum disorder. It is interesting that considering all the skills in the human repertoire savant abilities narrow generally to only five areas: music, art, calendar calculating, lightning calculating and mechanical or visual-spatial skills. Whatever the skill, it is always linked to massive memory of a particular type —extremely deep but exceedingly narrow within its limited confines.

There is a tendency to isolate the savant and marvel at their ‘superhuman’ abilities, but in so doing we run the risk of overlooking the whole person. Why is it so important that we understand savants in context?There is a tendency to give a passing “Gee Whiz, look at that” glance at the savant and then return to our more ordinary ‘inside the box’ mentality. But savants provide a unique window into the brain in terms of talent, compartmentalized skills, multiple intelligences, memory and creativity itself. So the ‘islands of genius’ in the savant deserve careful scientific scrutiny. But beyond that unique scientific interest is the accompanying vital human interest of appreciating not just what the savant can “do”, but to value as well the special person that he or she “is” and not be entirely distracted by the spectacular skills themselves. Viewing these extraordinary people as “differently-abled”, rather than “dis-abled” allows those of us privileged to work with these special persons to be curious not only about the condition the person has, but to care about the person who has the condition as well. That is good “bedside manner” not just in general medicine, but also for those of us trying to better understand, support and intervene in autism spectrum disorders and related conditions, whether a researcher, therapist, teacher, parent or caretaker.

Behind these remarkable people are their dedicated caregivers.  What are the most important things parents and teachers do to develop and nurture a child with savant skills?I get numerous “I’ve got a son or daughter who…” emails from parents whose children’s special savant skills have unexpectedly surfaced, sometimes explosively. Through those emails always shines enormous love, pride, care and concern of that parent for that child. My advice is to certainly continue that fountain of unconditional acceptance because, as I have observed from these parents, love is a good therapist too. Beyond that, my advice, whether to parent, therapist or teacher is to “train the talent” in whatever form, and whatever quantity it exists. Because that sometimes seemingly obscure skill is the child’s way of communicating, granted in a rather non-traditional way. It is in fact an “island of intactness” that can recognized, seized, tended and nurtured. And as one does, that “training the talent” can serve as a ‘conduit toward normalization’ with improved language, social and daily living skills. I have witnessed that happening innumerable times and it is the greatest source of satisfaction of all in my work with persons with savant syndrome.

In the book you talk about how your long career working with autistic, ‘acquired’, and ‘sudden’ savants has taught you to be ‘optimistic’ about the brain.  What do you mean by that? I have always suspected that a process of brain rewiring, recruitment of unused capacity and release of dormant potential (what I call the three R’s) accounted for savant syndrome in those born with such skills (congenital savants). But new cases of the acquired savant — neurotypical persons in whom savant skills emerged, sometimes at a prodigious level, following brain injury or disease when no such skills were evident pre-incident — have convinced me that we have vastly underestimated brain plasticity and the brain’s ability to repair itself when damaged through rewiring, recruitment and release. This new neurologic optimism — the brain’s ability to renew and repair itself — has vast implications not only for better understanding and intervening in autism and related conditions, but provides much more hope and enthusiasm for intervention post-stroke, for example, or for treatment of a variety of other CNS conditions formerly viewed much more pessimistically.

It is your belief that there is an ‘inner savant’ inherent in everyone.  What can ‘neurotypical’ people learn about themselves from the experience of the savant?Savants clearly “know things they never learned” which is what I call genetic memory: the genetic transmission of knowledge. That suggests within all of us lies a great deal of software, ‘factory installed’, which is dormant and to which we have only partial access. The acquired savant reinforces this concept of dormant capacity which can be ‘recruited’ and ‘released’ when trauma or disease damages certain areas of the brain. The challenge is how to access that dormant potential without injury or other CNS incident. The savant encourages each of us to seek, explore and actualize our own potential. We are exploring non-intrusive ways to do that. One simple method is to give more attention to so-called ‘right brain’ skills and pathways — a ‘step to the right’ as some call it — instead of always relying on the well-worn ‘left brain’ pathways that serve us so well, but sometimes to the exclusion of lesser known and appreciated ‘right brain’ skills. Beyond that, much more sophisticated imaging and neuro-psychological tools and techniques will permit us to take full advantage of the unique window into the brain that the savant provides toward better understanding of talent, skills, memory, intelligence and creativity itself.

Can savants be creative?There is a myth that savants, whose imitative and replication skills can be spectacular, are locked into that duplicative mode and that they cannot create original material. That simply is not true. I have followed many artistic and musical savants, for example, who over time follow a predictable pathway from replication to improvisation to creation of original, new material. It seems that savants get bored, over time, with replication only and they begin to improvise, followed by creation of their own new material. The book provides a number of examples of savants following that progressive pathway over time.

The “dreaded trade-off” unfortunately is a fear and myth that also persists. It is based on the case of Nadia, a prolific child artist who, went sent to school to learn better language and other skills lost her sensational art ability. My experience with many savants is entirely to the contrary. “Training the talent” and other education or intervention efforts can be liberally provided without any “dreaded trade-off” of special savant skills for language acquisition, improved socialization and greater independence overall.

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Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.