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A Personalized Approach: Three Portraits of Incorporating Neurodiversity in Life Skills Programming for Autism

A woman sits at a table with a thick sheet of paper and a photograph of a landscape, drawing the scene in confident, hard strokes. A man measures out his ingredients, careful to get the exact measurement. A woman steps forward on stage, dancing with the music and singing out to the audience. Each of these individuals has autism, yet they are clearly a talented and diverse group. This should not be surprising when remembering neurodiversity. Neurodiversity accounts for the differences in each person’s brain, a concept which has gained popularity in the autism community (Baron-Cohen, 2019). In addition to creating an inclusive point of view, this idea is valuable for developing independence for those with disabilities. Vista Life Innovations, a nonprofit organization devoted to assisting adults with disabilities achieve personal success, takes neurodiversity into account with functional skills support. During Vista’s programming, students and members work to develop necessary skills for independent living while discovering their passions. The philosophy of Vista is simple: Everyone has a unique mind with neurological differences; therefore, students will learn best with individualized programming.

Daniel and Emily Wing, Vista Program Instructor, assisting with Thanksgiving preparations

Daniel and Emily Wing, Vista Program Instructor, assisting with Thanksgiving preparations

Sometimes, a neurological trait can be both beneficial and a source of challenges. One Vista member, Cara, has a strong sensitivity to sensory information. Walking into a room with faint background music can be an overwhelming experience. To combat this obstacle, Cara has developed specific coping strategies for dealing with unpleasant noises like humming to drown out the sound. Often, mentally preparing herself and choosing to engage can be enough to help Cara overcome her sensitivity. For instance, Cara elects to plug her ears and turn on the garbage disposal at her house when it needs to be run, even though the sound bothers her. Being highly aware of sensory information can be difficult, but it supports Cara to do what she loves most: art. Samantha Listori, Vista’s resident artist, has worked with Cara for five years. She explains, “Cara’s very good with color. She sees colors in a photo that other people wouldn’t notice and creates optical mixing by separating every tone.” Ironically, the same awareness of sensory details that challenge Cara auditorily is what helps her to have a strong artistic perspective. Her small drawings are bold, richly saturated and show a clear eye for proportion. Currently, Cara is working with Listori to apply her drawing skills in the realm of large oil paintings. She is even collaborating with a prominent New York City gallery owner to further her work. As a quiet individual, she enjoys time by herself, art provides Cara with a world of her own to explore and share with others.

“Did you see how flexible I was just now?” Daniel asked, before giving his Program Counselor Ashley DiGuilio a huge smile and a high five to celebrate. Daniel has a warm personality with a smile that beams through any picture. He is incredibly goal-oriented and one of his long-term goals is to be a “flexible thinker.” For Daniel, being a flexible thinker means that he will work through unexpected changes. Many individuals with autism demonstrate rigidity or inflexibility toward unwelcome news, change, or abstract concepts, according to Kenworthy and Strang of the Organization for Autism Research (2017). To assist with this goal, DiGuilio breaks down unexpected changes into smaller parts so Daniel can process one component at a time. She can recall a few instances when Daniel had to wait for his spending money because of bank delays. While not the ideal situation, Daniel decided the best thing to do was wait patiently instead of becoming anxious after DiGuilio described that there was a “tech issue.” To prevent feeling blindsided by upcoming changes, Daniel prefers to write down the expectation for the situation in clear steps. That way, he can process the information at his own pace or refer to his notes. Daniel may struggle with rigidity, but his inflexibility can be used to overcome itself. Kenworthy and Strang (2017) argue that inflexibility can be a strength, writing, “Inflexibility drives persistence and perseverance.” Daniel’s strong worth ethic and goal-oriented personality are likely linked to the inflexible nature he is working hard to combat. With his determination, DiGuilio and the Vista team are hopeful to see how he will continue to grow as a flexible thinker.

Cara with completed drawing for “Artist of the Month” exhibition at JJ’s A Gift Shop in Oracle, AZ

Cara with completed drawing for “Artist of the Month” exhibition at JJ’s A Gift Shop in Oracle, AZ

Christine is charismatic, highly organized, and often relied on by those around her. She has an exceptional memory, which serves her in multiple areas of her life. Although she does not use a calendar or even store contact information in her cell phone, Christine precisely recalls names, dates, and phone numbers with ease. On top of managing her medication, finances, and work responsibilities, Christine is a regular actress and dancer for Vista’s A Shared Stage Productions. Last year, Christine took on two roles in Sister Act involving dialogue, singing, choreography and multiple costume changes. Yet, she was often the one helping her fellow actors. Kitty Fitzpatrick, Vista’s Director of Engage Services and an acting enthusiast, reminisces, “In Sister Act, we were backup dancers for Deloris. She picked up the dancing right away. I found myself leaning on her to remind me of the moves.” Christine’s strong memory and attention-to-detail could be linked with inflexibility, a trait she shares with Daniel. Inflexibility often means “being able to keenly focus on certain activities, topics, or routines…Think of the young person who fixates on a certain topic (like computer programming) and becomes a true “expert” (Kenworthy & Strang, 2017). Cara, Daniel, and Christine benefit highly from routine and can struggle when that routine changes. Unlike Daniel, who prefers to process these adjustments with written communication, Christine prefers verbally reviewing the change. Saying an unpleasant fact out loud helps her become okay with it. Likewise, talking to her family over the phone is another way she sorts through her emotions.

Neurodiversity is one piece of a larger concept: everyone is different. At Vista, members work with staff to come up with goals and strategies that will work for them as they gain the skills needed for independence. While the path to independence can be difficult for those with autism, it is important to remember the talents, strengths and resolve that can come from having an atypical brain.

Becky Lipnick is the Organizational Communications Coordinator at Vista Life Innovations. For 30 years, Vista has supported individuals with disabilities achieve personal success. Learn more at www.VistaLifeInnovations.org or contact Becky at BLipnick@VistaLifeInnovations.org.

References

Baron-Cohen, S. (2019, April 30). The Concept of Neurodiversity Is Dividing the Autism Community. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-concept-of-neurodiversity-is-dividing-the-autism-community/.

Kenworthy, L., & Strang, J. (2017, August 29). Use Inflexibility to Teach Flexibility. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from https://researchautism.org/use-inflexibility-to-teach-flexibility/

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