Interview with Alex Jackman, Creator of “A Teen’s Guide to Autism”

Alex HeadshotOur consultant Sam Blanco recently had the opportunity to talk with Alex Jackman about her  video, A Teen’s Guide to Autism. Alex created this film when she was in eighth grade to educate high school students about autism. You can view the 15-minute film here. For those of you in Florida, the film is going to be showing this weekend at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in the short documentary category. There will be a Q&A afterwards. For more information, click here.

Here is Sam’s interview with Alex about her experience making the film, as well as her thoughts on teaching kids about people with special needs.

Q: What inspired you to make the film?

What inspired me mainly was how people in my school, how little they knew about autism. I realized that a lot of people, because they don’t know what makes people with special needs different, they don’t take the chance to get to know them. I’ve met really incredible people with special needs and I thought it was so unfortunate for both the people with special needs and everyone else who wasn’t getting to know them because they are missing out on this opportunity. I looked up stuff, but I hadn’t seen anything that was geared towards teens about it.

Q: What kind of sources did you use to find the statistics and information you presented?

That was definitely difficult because there are different statistics for the same [information], like for how many people have autism. There were conflicting sources, and with new research, it’s changing. (All information from the film clearly states “as of 2012.”) I used very respectable, well-known, large organizations that I, or groups, like medical groups, that have really researched to get statistics.

Q: If you could narrow it down to one thing, what did you learn from making this film?

That’s so hard.  I think I’ll have to say two.  For kids, I think that teens especially, are so willing to learn and are willing to take in this information they just haven’t been given the opportunity to.  And then, the other thing was just that adults and people are so much more supportive than I thought and it’s not an uphill battle for everything.  People really want to help.

Q: Bullying in schools is a big concern for parents and educators. Do you think providing information about what special needs could have an impact on bullying?

Yes.  Because – well, I do think there are resources, but it’s not taught in schools and it’s not really thrown in their faces, which I kind of tried to do – get teens to watch. Where it’s not something they have to search for, t’s right in front of them… I think that a large part of bullying is misconception and ignorance.  I don’t understand the bullying, of course, but I understand why people would be a little bit confused and would look at someone a little bit differently, if they don’t know why they’re doing something differently from them. If they have never learned, then I can’t blame anyone for being confused and not knowing how to respond.

Q: In the process of making the video, what was one of the more common misconceptions you found high school students had about autism.

Well, one thing I was so surprised by was how many people just didn’t know what it was.  I was really surprised when I thought about it, we never really learned about it in school…You know it’s a big part of my life now, and so I kind of assume that more people know about it, but there were just so many people who didn’t know.

Q: In the process of making the video, you talk with high school students who have autism. What type of questions did you ask them to be a part of the video?

I said, “What’s something cool about you”, “What’s something interesting about you”, “What do you want to be when you grow up”, “Do you have a favorite song.”  Kind of based on their responses, I just kind of started with one question and then I didn’t have anything planned.  I just kind of went off of their answers, and whatever they wanted to talk about, that’s what they talked about.  This was the part I really loved.  It was so much fun.

Q: For me it was very refreshing to see people interviewed who really had autism or Asperger’s and were representing themselves. Do you have any thoughts about depictions of autism in popular culture?

I think there are some good and some bad because, as the quote goes “If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism.”  I think that’s hard especially if you don’ t know anything else about it and you don’t have any interactions or knowledge on autism and special needs.  It can be a bit misleading when the media portrays someone who is specifically high-functioning. Then everyone thinks that’s what all people with autism are like or vice versa, if someone’s low-functioning or somewhere in the middle.

Q: How has your video been used?

I’m really excited because it’s been – even though I directed it towards teens – it’s really been shown to people of all ages. People have used it for anti-bullying, people have used it for training, people have used it for class and it’s just been used in so many different ways than I expected. It kind of took on little legs of its own.

Q: When you first started this, what would you have described as your goal with it?

To make a relatable guide for teens letting them know what autism is in a positive way – something that was relatable for teens, and that kind of was very interactive and engaging. I was just thinking locally.  If I could get it shown in like Roosevelt, which was my middle school at the time, if it could’ve been shown in some classes there, that would’ve been kind of what I was hoping.

Q: It sounds still very it sounds like your video is still doing that, but it’s done more. Has the goal changed?

I just want as many people as possible to watch it in hopes that they’ll learn from it.

Q: How do you think this video might be beneficial for parents?

I just speak from what parents have told me.  One parent of a child with autism has told me that their child watched it and said “Yeah, I do that, that’s why I do that.”  And another mom said that the video helped her child understand himself, because he was just kind of coming to terms with his special need and learning a little more about it.  It kind of showed him, helped him to know why he does that and that’s it okay and there’s a reason for it and he’s not just, he shouldn’t feel isolated because of that.

Q: Do you have ideas for further exploring the subject of Autism Awareness in the future?

I’m looking at ways to kind of direct better resources on available information and events because… there are so many amazing events and there are so many people who want to go to these amazing events, but they just don’t know about it.  And I’m also doing something at my school probably starting next year, but I’m kind of getting it organized this year that would be like a peer system – some sort of club after school where kids who are in school who are neurotypical and kids who have special needs get together.

Q: Can you just tell us about the film festival? It’s showing April 6th.

It’s the Palm Beach International Film Festival and it’s going to be in the short documentary category shown with some other shorts – some other short films.  And there is a Q&A afterwards. (The film is showing on April 6th at 12:00. For more information, click here.)

Q: Do you think you’ll work with people with special needs as an adult?

When someone asks me what I want to be, I, you know, if I’m not working and interacting with people with special needs as my job, I’m 100% doing it on the side. It’s definitely going to be a part of my life.

You can also follow the film on Facebook.

Meet Julie Azuma, President & CEO of Different Roads

Julie Azuma, Founder & CEO

Julie Azuma, Founder & CEO

We start our introduction to the Different Roads to Learning staff with no other than our President, founder and force extraordinaire, Julie Azuma. Julie is an incredible, tireless force, an advocate for families and an activist who never ceases to share her knowledge and expertise. Julie started Different Roads to Learning in 1995, a few years after her daughter Miranda was diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Back then, autism was already rising with rates jumping from 1 in 2500 in 1985 to 1 in 500 in 1995, but well below the current estimates of 1 in 88 children, and 1 in 54 boys. In the maze of appointments, therapy sessions and doctors, she kept being told to find materials like 1-inch color cubes with no numbers or writing on them, or a specific non-distracting flashcard. As hard as she scoured the resources in New York City and on the web, she had an incredibly difficult time locating the materials that would help Miranda learn. With true entrepreneurial spirit and a fierce devotion to helping her daughter, Different Roads to Learning was launched in May of 1995 with about 30 products.

Julie started the company on the premise that parents who had home ABA programs needed help in finding the products for their children on the spectrum.  Since that time, schools across the country are now supporting Applied Behavior Analysis and Verbal Behavior teaching.  Tens of thousands of children have been mainstreamed by the age of five.  Our children are more capable in every way.

Today, Julie is proud that the mission of Different Roads has not changed. The goal remains to provide the most effective, affordable and appropriate materials out there to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in their social and academic growth.

Fun Fact:  Our URL is www.difflearn.com because back in the dark ages of the internet, you couldn’t string more than 9 digits together.

After 18 years, what do you look forward to every day?

Looking for new ways to connect with our kids. Whether it’s researching new products with Abigail at Toy Fair or looking for a way to create a new app….I love the idea of giving  our kids new opportunities to learn language and social skills.

What’s your hope for Different Roads in the next few years?

It’s my hope that Different Road endures in the years to come while giving kids the skills to mainstream.  We hope to help more children in Early Intervention and reach across the spectrum to support social skills for our students in school age programs.

Q & A: Margery F. Rappaport

Margery F. Rappaport, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in private practice in New York City. I feel very fortunate to have a colleague as experienced as Margery that I can turn to for advice and guidance.

So, I thought I could share some of her wisdom and experience with a three part ‘Question and Answer’ post. This is only the first question folks. Stay tuned for more!

I am always interested in learning what has drawn a person to a particular field or occupation. What led you to a career as a Speech-Language Pathologist? And how did you find yourself working with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in particular?

A lifetime spent in helping people find their own voices may have, in my case, been preordained (if you believe in that sort of thing). After all, more than one psychic has told me that I was born under a ‘communication star’.

As an infant, 11 months of age, my mother suddenly left for a year due to severe illness. At this preverbal age, I learned the torment of being unable to communicate ones feelings and questions in words. As an adolescent with creative tendencies, I studied music and dance, and majored in theatre in college, setting out to become a professional singer. Along this path, I struggled with vocal cord nodules and was put on complete voice rest several times. As I began to question my show business career choice, which was feeling increasingly unsatisfactory, fate intervened. On a flight from New York to Boston, I chatted with a charming, articulate woman in the seat next to mine. Before landing, she said, “You realize, of course, that I am a severe stutterer”. When I registered my amazement since I had detected no signs whatsoever of a speech problem, she said “Well, I have had a lot of therapy”. Astonishing thought! People who were unable to easily express their feelings, fears or questions can change. With help and guidance they can be released from this exile. Her situation reminded me of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, where the characters are confined in a room in hell. This woman had been trapped within herself, with no avenue of escape until she received this therapy.

Being able to communicate is so much of what it means to be human, and this notion, that impediments to communication, even severe ones, could be helped, resonated within me on many different levels. To learn more about the field, I found a secretarial job in the philosophy department of Columbia University’s Teachers’ College which allowed me to take free courses at the University. After one year and two courses in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology, I was accepted into the program on a full scholarship plus a stipend to pay my rent and buy groceries. Once in the program, I began to see how Speech Pathology allowed me to tap into dimensions of my personality that show business never had. I found great satisfaction in helping people free their expression. I was enormously stimulated intellectually by the study of neuroanatomy, linguistics, child development, psychology and the evolution of language. I came to specialize in working with children because I found they were ‘in the present moment’ and intrinsically imaginative and creative. I enjoyed working intimately with mothers on the most cherished thing in their lives, their child’s well-being. Like work in the theatre, I enjoyed the comradery of working on a team including the child, the parents, doctors and a multitude of other therapists toward one powerful goal. All these aspects of the work tapped into my essential being. I had found my life’s work. I recall a day towards the end of my training, standing in line for afternoon tea at a resort hotel in the mountains. The beautiful day room was filled with afternoon sunlight and as I thought about my impending graduation, I clearly remember thinking that I was born to do this work.

After working in clinics, hospital child evaluation units and then the Head Start program, I opened a private practice at about the time that the autism epidemic began to explode. With more good luck, I connected with professionals who were establishing groundbreaking interventions for children with autism, thus deepening my understanding and passion for helping children with severe communication challenges.