Dr. Tony Attwood
Dr. Tony Attwood seems like the kind of guy who could write the cute e-mails that get passed around, “you might be an Aspie if _______”, but he wouldn’t. He has a great charismatic personality when talking about Aspergers, makes you want to be one (if you aren’t already), marry one (think Engineer) or have one (maybe you already do!). After sitting in Future Horizons’ Denver Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome SuperConference I too wanted to be one of the cool kids, at least the way Tony presents it.
His entertaining presentation included personality characteristics of Autism and Asperger’s syndrome; not symptoms but endearing quirks. Dr. Attwood starts with typical traits in younger kids, with putting Frank Sinatra in our heads with, “I did it my way”, and coming back to it throughout the day. This is Tony’s way, the way he brought us into the information, made it relevant and often times funny and heartwarming.
Aspergers and high functioning Autism, where they overlap, is a grey area, sharing many characteristics in common. The learning curve is behind though every individual is unique, it is not a simple blood test to determine course of treatment. Treatment is a harsh word, these disorders, miss-wiring or broken molds kind of people, need guidance to live in the world of the socially insecure. We, the socially insecure, those of us who care about how other’s see us, how we look to the rest of the world, we need guidance to see their world.
Dr. Attwood showed us the Aspie world, and how to understand them. Aspies (those with Asperger’s Syndrome) have many talents, they can get so focused on a subject they become experts, even at 6! You know these people, they tend to bore you with the vast amounts of information about some subject you barely know how to spell. Oh, but don’t count them out, think about some of those computer guys out there, without their ‘obsession’ we’d not be where we are today. It takes an Aspie to take us to the next step of invention, they can learn every detail and then focus on how they see it better, and even then, they will strive for perfection.
What Dr. Attwood presses upon his audience is to first understand their way of thinking the way they see the world, and then help them learn skills to function outside of that world. If you lived in their world, you’d be frank, very frank. You would care less about the niceties and more about attaining goals and excelling in academia, not that Aspies can’t flourish, they just have their own style. They are those you can count on to follow the rules and show up on time, they don’t show up, “about 8ish”. They hold others to their same standards, so be prepared to have a really good reason to leave at 5:23.
Finding those styles and incorporating them into being productive members of the community needs to start early for Autism and Asperger’s students. Dr. Attwood stresses the needs for encouraging friendship skills and buddy systems to help keep them safe and in control. Making the community of a school responsible for acts of bullying, being a bystander is no longer being allowed, helps reduce intimidation and torment. It is important to teach students to stay around crowds, in the public eye, avoid being cornered, “hiding is the bathroom is a bad idea”. Not only is a bully less likely to strike in public, but there are witnesses to a conflict for all parties involved.
Another impressive part of the presentation was about giving students tools, metaphorically and literally. The CAT-kit is a tool box for parents and educators. The CAT-kit binder is a resource to teach facial recognition, body language, self regulation, verbal communication, expression and bring logic into emotion for people of all ages. Comprised of nine sheets of re-attachable faces and expressive words, a student and educator (parent, social worker, teacher) can sit with a student or class and discuss emotions, how situations make others feel and react and open up interaction. Since everyone interprets situations differently it gives more than one perspective on any one given situation. There are many dry-erase cards that allow the kit to be personalized for use and a guidebook to help with suggestion on how to use these tools. One very smart tool is the time-line. The time line gives a student an opportunity to display their emotions throughout the day, so when you ask, “how was your day?” be ready for the whole story!
In the CAT-kit real tools are representative of how to deal with emotions; a hammer can be a reminder of appropriate ways to get quick release of anxiety or a paintbrush for slow release. Dr. Attwood has made a handy pocket sized foldable booklet where these tools can be written down and put in a pocket for easy retrieval, the kit includes 4! One suggestion Dr. Attwood gives for the ‘inner circle’ card could be for physical contact, who is ok to hug and show affection to and who is not. The inner circle could include family, parents and siblings, while the outer circles would be filled by names of those who are greeted with a handshake or a high five.
Affection is not one of Autism and Asperger’s syndrome’s characteristic attributes. Dr. Attwood’s presentation highlighted the topic of relationships and partnerships. Here is where he comes back to the endearing quirks, and his descriptions would remind you of at least a few people you’ve met in your life. Some of them you hold fondly in your memories, some you call once a week and other’s you just did’t ‘get’. These characters are capable of long faithful relationships; you’ve just got to be happy with what you get. An Aspie guy is not likely to buy you flowers just because, but your computer will always have the latest updates. An Aspie partner will not likely be the life of the party, a quiet night at home with a book is more their style. Yet, given an audience interested in their particular expertise, they might be hard to pull away from a gathering.
Dr. Attwood’s charismatic presentation about Autism and Asperger’s syndromes give those without, a view inside. He gives us a moment to be part of the few who are unique and talented, to be one of the cool kids. I want to be one too, at least today.
You try to dress him cool, but it doen’t matter.
He isn’t terribly coordinated.
He talks kind of funny and is not a leader.
He’s not the tallest or fastest or strongest.
He’s smart, but not a prodigy.
His hair sticks up in the back.
His feet are huge.
He stands and watches the other kids play
wishes they would ask him to join them.
But not always.
He talks to himself.
And plays by himself.
He’s three years old.
He’s not cool.
by Stephen Koenig