by Caitlin Cherniak
As a twenty-one-year-old woman who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which a high functioning form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD for short), at the age of three, I wished I knew that there were people like Paula Breeden. From Kindergarten to eighth grade, I was required to leave my normal subject classes or study periods most afternoons to join other students with mental conditions and “learn social skills.” However, when I was still taking those special education classes outside elementary school, I was still being taught at that elementary school level with no extra challenge thrown in. Therefore, I wasn’t taught the rest of the social skills that every other teenager learned easily, such as use of humor, dating, or even college preparation.
Autism Society states that “More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder” (Buescher). 35% of young adults who have autism “have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school” (Shattuck qtd. in Autism Society). That number is alarming. In an ideal world, the 65% of young adults who have autism who do have had either a job or postgraduate education would be at full percentage. Unfortunately, the full hundred is unrealistic as of now.
Not every individual with autism has the resources to learn the social skills to prepare themselves for the adult world that everyone else without autism has the privilege to receive. Though I have received social skills training, I’m aware that not every school in America even has social skills services let alone classes. Though Rollins College provides plenty of accommodations, it seems to be that everyone is expected to understand social norms despite the counseling advisors providing as much advice as possible. But where is there a place that can provide assistance to those with autism when nowhere else can?
The ASD Adult Achievement Center, headquartered in Altamonte Springs, Florida, hosts life classes for young adults (years 18-35) on the autism spectrum. This organization is a safe place that’s mission “is to provide an environment where adults with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) can come together to develop skills, strategies and solutions that promote greater achievement and independence” (www.asdachievement.org). Individuals can come and learn any skills that they may not have been able to learn before, such as cooking, getting a job, dating, driving a car, and even how to make friendships with others in the group. The Center has posted a volunteer ad on a volunteer offers website, asking for a writer to come write an article for them. I apply for it, telling Paula that I have autism myself so the experience would be more than fulfilling to come in and learn about the organization, so I can share my experience with the rest of the community. On that very same day I send in the application, I’m invited for an interview when I return to school late August.
Paula Breeden founded the ASD Adult Achievement Center in the fall of 2016. As a parent of an adult with autism and after retiring from marketing after twenty-five years, Paula felt inspired to become an ASD Life Coach, which she has been doing for the past three years. She opens ASD Adult Achievement to the public to help other adults with autism achieve their own life goals. The first time I meet her on August 8th of this year, she introduces herself to me with a smile that told me that she is really excited to see me. We talked about the program, and just by her voice alone, she is passionate about for the students that came into her programs. She wants them succeed and experience the same privileges as those without autism get to have. With this, it inspires me to help Paula share that message.
The organization’s PEERS program is a series of classes that young adults can come in each week and learn a new social skills in a group. When I attend the session on September 5th, they are discussing the appropriate uses of humor. It’s the fifth week into the program, and it’s easy to tell since they start the meeting with what homework they have been given from the week prior. There are eight participants in the session, men and women ratio almost 50-50. The means of communication in the session operates like a focus group. Each person has a say and each person must complete what they want to say before moving onto the next participant. However, what intrigues me the most is when Paula goes into the social mechanics of humors. She asks the participants at one point if they know the difference between “laughing with them” and “laughing at them.” Of course, one of them answers that it has to do with body language rather than telling it straight to your face.
They know, as well as I do, how to behave and what certain body language means. These classes are not meant to rehash what these participants already know. Paula puts them in role-play, so that they will know how to apply it to real life situations. She gives them that push to pursue their lessons outside of classes. She’s giving these people the confidence to interact the way these participants always wanted to interact. By the time the lesson is over, I’ve grown confident in these people for becoming like me. It’s never too late to overcome society’s obstacles, and we all have Paula Breeden to thank.
The ASD Adult Achievement Center is always accepting donations. To do so, go to their website at www.asdachievement.org, and at the bottom of any page on the site, there’s the donate button. Donations are accepted through PayPal, debit card, and credit card. If you or someone you know would like to attend a session, or is looking for another service, you can contact Paula Breeden by cell at (407) 463-3857 or email at email@example.com. As the famous Leonard Cohen once said, which you can find this quote on the website’s homepage, “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”