By Trevor Pacelli
It’s a challenge for anybody: finding an interest in a topic with no prior experience to. I mean, if you are not planning on ever becoming an engineer or accountant in the future, then where could you find any interest in math? While it can be a problem for many people, it is even more of a challenge for those with Autism. Because I am Autistic, my mind is much more geared toward very specific areas of interest, making it harder for me to leave those areas and open my mind to anything else. The same is true for a lot of students on the Autism spectrum who are required to take classes that are far out of their league of interest. As a result, their grades may suffer and they may be received poorly by their teachers. But I have found an easy solution to helping myself find interest in a subject that is juxtaposed from my subject of interest.
I found that I can relate to something I am normally not interested in by expanding on something I am interested in. An example is my current obsession for movies. I have watched an awful lot of movies the past couple of years that spanned a plethora of subject matters; one in particular was Schindler’s List. My love for movies already led me to watching this Holocaust drama simply for being a Spielberg movie the winner of several Oscars. That movie led me to register for a course here at ASU on German Media made during and after the Nazi Holocaust. If I were to take this class back in high school, I would have gone into it with lots of negative emotions and questioning why I even needed to be there. But now that I’ve seen the movie Schindler’s List, I have some way of relating to a difficult subject matter that most people would avoid, all because I was able to connect with it through something I was already passionate about.
In the class I learned that not only did the Jews in the concentration camps die in unfathomable numbers, but the Nazis also did things to their decaying bodies that were simply inhumane. They knitted their hair into clothing, burned their bones into fertilizer, and made their flesh into soap. And the documentary I watched that delivered this information was backed up with very graphic images of the starved Jewish bodies lying in enormous heaps pushed into a pit by a bulldozer. This was where my other love--photography--came in, I managed to distinguish the images being portrayed based on my personal knowledge of photo composition.
There were several other subjects that I have been able to look deeper into based on my obsession with movies: Astronomy from Star Wars, the Titanic’s sinking from Titanic, Horticulture from Little Shop of Horrors (also a musical I did in high school), Oceanography from SpongeBob Squarepants (not a movie, but still an obsession), and the history of animation from Disney.
If you are the parent of an Autistic child, or have Autism yourself, then this is something that I challenge you to do: take a look at whatever it is that you or the child passionately obsess over. It could be vehicles, cities, celebrities, farm animals, biology, or a certain TV show. But how do you know when it’s an obsession? If you asked my parents, they could tell you that I was absolutely obsessed over the show Blue’s Clues while in Kindergarten because it was the one thing that I based everything in my life around. I even had a Blue’s Clues themed birthday party complete with a handy-dandy notebook for all the party guests, a cake made to look like Blue’s paw print, and my own personal “Steve” shirt.
I am aware that an obsession like that is a bit more specific than movies, and harder to relate with other subjects, but I say it’s up to the challenge. One example for approaching this could be to talk to your child about an episode from the show that connects to a subject at school you want him to understand. For instance, if an episode had the characters teach how to solve simple math problems, then you could use that scenario to build up your child’s interest in the subject. Even if it’s not a TV show your child’s obsessed over, analyze how another obsession like science could relate to what he needs to learn about.
You would be very surprised as to how well your child catches on to an intangible subject when he can relate it with something he lives and breathes daily. I myself am surprised as to what I have been able to learn because of my past obsessions. But remember, the same thing could be said to anybody in any scenario: anything that you can relate to can in some way connect with what you cannot relate to. It’s all a matter of how deep you’re willing to delve.
By Trevor Pacelli
As of yesterday, I moved into my new apartment at Arizona State University, which will be my first time living with other roommates I did not know before. So far I am very anxious to see how it’s all going to benefit my social communication skills. The good thing is that I already have experience living by myself in a dorm, so I am already comfortable being away from my parents.
Now as most of you probably know, I spent the summer in North Carolina working as a photographer for a summer camp. That itself was a challenging experience for me, because there were so many things that came my way without any expectations. Some obstacles such as interacting with the other staff, overcoming culture shock, and taking pictures in the pouring rain evoked growth within me that I was not prepared for. There is so much more I could dive into about these ten weeks that I spent on the East coast, but that would require multiple blog posts. I’ll just leave it by saying that the most important thing I learned was what type of community I’m most suitable for: the city instead of a small town, the heat instead of the humidity, and the West coast instead of the East coast. I also acquired many skills in photography including how to critique the messages that certain photos communicate, and how to organize and narrow down the best pictures among the 500+ I had taken each day. It was a great experience for me, but I would not want to do camp photography for a living.
Now after that tremendous step that I’ve taken, I’m now about to step onto another one, living with other roommates. I have never lived with anyone else before other than my parents and sister, so learning to get along with new people will deliver its own set of obstacles for me to overcome. And on top of that, I also have five classes to go through, and I will begin my search for a career after I graduate. College has been hard for me, and I have felt really stressed out a lot of the time, but I always pulled through in the past, and I will continue to this year. I will definitely be keeping you posted more about my progress this coming year. Stay tuned!
By Patty Pacelli
Our son Trevor was diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism in kindergarten. From very early on, we noticed some things about Trevor that were not typical in other children his age. His ability to focus on tasks was extraordinary. He was (and still is) very schedule-oriented. His reliability in doing household chores without being reminded was a thing most parents only dream of. Now a junior in college, Trevor continues to learn to leverage his strengths to help him build relationships, get good grades, and prepare himself as a functioning member of society.
The autism statistics are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 68 children in America is somewhere on the autism spectrum, with autism being five times more likely to exist in boys than girls. Yet only 53 percent of young adults with autism are gainfully employed. Those with autism have some amazing gifts, talents and ideas that can materially contribute to a more effective and successful workplace. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t know how to create an environment where an autistic employee can thrive and drive real bottom-line results. That’s why I wrote Six-Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces.
As leaders, it is imperative that you not only create a work environment that fosters creativity and diversity but you also create an environment that delivers results. Key to achieving both of these goals is the idea of employers making their workplaces “friendly” to employees with autism so the employee can in turn deliver results. It’s not about giving them simple jobs because they feel sorry for them or to meet some diversity goal, it’s about hiring them because they truly meet a need in their business and possess the skills needed to excel in their job. We’ve seen first-hand how an autism-friendly workplace contributes to a more effective and balanced workplace. It’s incumbent on today’s leaders to create an environment where employers and autistic employees not just survive, but thrive.
Six-Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces discusses specific qualities that autistic individuals bring to workplaces, and how businesses benefit from these qualities. The book’s 100 lessons cover a wide range of topics including interview practices for the employer, being aware of unique autistic traits, accommodations and social expectations for workers with autism. Following is a sampling of some of the lessons included:
Lesson 69. They work when nobody is watching.
When Trevor worked in maintenance, his coworkers commented that they always saw him doing heavy landscape work outside in the heat. Trevor didn’t know anyone saw him, but he nevertheless worked hard when alone, never slacking or resting. It was that focus and commitment to do whatever he was asked that made him a model employee.
Lesson 75. Autistic individuals can bring enormous creativity.
Autistic people’s minds are wired differently, and their imaginations can be extreme. Managers should take advantage of this when looking for creative ideas or new ways to solve problems. If they give autistic team members opportunities to share their ideas, those ideas can lead to brilliant new concepts.
Not only should employers be aware of autistic employees’ strengths, they should also learn about some of their challenges, and what to expect and how to accommodate them for better productivity.
Lesson 37. Let the applicant demonstrate his skills.
Offering a practice activity at the interview, such as proofing a sample document for an editing position, may be the best way for someone with autism to demonstrate his abilities, and can help employers make a more accurate hiring decision. It can be hard for autistic people to “sell themselves” and put their skills and attributes into words, even if they are excellent candidates.
Lesson 43. Accommodations help employer and employee succeed.
In the ideal scenario, giving autistic employees accommodations would help the company run more effectively while enabling autistic employees to be productive, leading to better products and services and more profit. All parties should work together to allow autistic employees to be productive without sacrificing the work environment for others.
Lesson 44. Options for accommodations make a difference.
Specifically, give all onboarding employees a survey or menu of options, asking their preferences for things like sound, light, physical work space, type of communication desired, methods for performance appraisals and more. This allows autistic employees to simply state their preferences along with everyone else, without feeling different or singled out.
As leaders, creating an environment where high-functioning autistic employees can thrive is more than demonstrating social responsibility and diversity. It also yields the business results that leaders need to not just survive, but thrive.
For additional information about the author or to purchase the book, visit www.autismfriendlyworkplace.com.
About the Author
Patty Pacelli is an editor, author, entrepreneur, wife and mother of two adult children, one with an autism spectrum disorder. She promotes autism awareness by serving on the board of directors of the Seattle Children’s Autism Guild. She wrote this book to help adults with autism, like her son Trevor, achieve their career dreams and contribute their exceptional talents to the workforce. Patty is also the author of Six-Word Lessons to Look Your Best.
Inspiration for Life with Autism
This blog has a variety of articles about people living life with autism, and topics and ideas that can help in the journey. Guest bloggers are welcome. Inspired by Trevor, a young adult film critic, photographer and college graduate on the autism spectrum.