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Autistic adults find their place

September, 2009

As you walk into Darlene Berringer’s apartment on Sherbrooke near Greene, Yosef Robinson and Ansovina Dolce take you into the room where they are working on their projects.

Yosef is 27 and has a masters degree in urban planning and Anso is working on her art.

Darlene Berringer helps high-functioning autistic young adults lead full lives Photos: Todd Pritchett

“Each of them is brilliant in their own respect,” Berringer says of her autistic students. Her mission is to integrate them fully into careers where their talents and personalities can shine. Berringer was the founding director of Giant Steps, a school for autistic children and adolescents. It started small, she says, in a church basement in Pointe Claire. The school now has branches worldwide.

Before starting Giant Steps, Berringer taught music therapy at Concordia University.

The shortage of resources for young adults with autism prompted her to leave Giant Steps and begin her new career direction.

She got a letter from the director of Giant Steps in New York asking what was happening with the young adult graduates. “I hate to say this, but nobody wanted the adults.” That is when she turned her energies toward high-functioning autistic young adults.

The three cornerstones of her project are work, study, and socialization. Berringer says that socialization is extremely important.

Many autistic adults hunt for relationships online and it can lead to trouble, she says. “There are sexual predators that find [them] and say ‘come to me.’ ” Sometimes the young adults try to continue the relationship even though we discourage them from doing so, she adds.

Yosef interjects to say that he craves romantic relationships because he already has friends.

Berringer says that romantic relationships are a huge issue with autis- tic adults. “When you’re a so-called neurotypical person and you start out, slowly your system sort of automatically gets into it,” she says. “For these guys, it’s not automatic.”

They don’t know how to make romantic relationships work, she says. “There’s usually a sense in you where you feel passion,” she says about non-autistic adults. “Yosef will say, ‘yes, I’m passionate about this person’ but he’s only dealing with them online. How you can you be passionate with- out them even being there?”

“We’re like stray sheep,” says Loren Gabbaor, a member of the project or “collaboratory.”

“The black sheep,” Yosef adds.

Ansovina, also a member of the collaboratory, has a similar problem when it comes to making friends. She is an exceptional artist who also sells jewellery, and has limited speaking skills. Berringer says that at Anso’s work place, when everybody else is talking and laughing, she just stands by herself. “Not even a hello or a goodbye.”

Anso works on one of her drawings

Because these adults don’t fully understand how to interact with others, there can be some awkward situations.

Yosef is an urban planner and has to go out on assignment from time to time. Berringer was driving him down Ontario St. for a project he was working on. It was freezing. When he was almost finished, he told her that she could go and that he could finish the rest by himself.

“It was very cold and I needed to write some notes,” Yosef says. “I wanted to find a warm place to write them so I found a shoe store, and the clerk started to ask me, “Can I help you?” And I told her that I was writing notes. She was about to escort me out the door so I started touching her shoulder. I wanted to make her smile and not be angry. You know, let’s be friends. And she said ‘get out.’ And I told her ‘Je t’aime.’ Not good.” Berringer explains that this is a common situation and that Yosef was misunderstood. “He was panicked because he didn’t want that negative energy,” she explains. “So when he said ‘je t’aime’ and touched her shoulder, she went ballistic. What he was trying to say was, ‘Please, I don’t want to hurt anybody, I just want to write my notes’.”

The socialization aspect of the collaboratory would involve teaching how to avoid situations like these and help these young adults form relationships. “Kind of like a matchmaking place with people from the collaboratory,” Yosef says. “Set people up according to their sexual orientation, their likes and dislikes, their background.”

Berringer says the CEGEP and High School system should be tailored to fit the needs of the autistic people in the system.

“Usually they don’t get past high school. They [the schools] sort of leave them without anything. “What I want for a lot of the kids that are in high school with autism, is that in Grade 10 or 11, I want the school to change. I want to bring in a career technical education,” she says. “By this time they are starting to look at careers that they want to get into. It could be one or two or three that they want to look at, but I want to build that for them. Not let’s continue to do math when they don’t really like math. We already know math after all these years.”

She says that during that time, students should focus on those areas that interest them so that they can build on their skills.

This way, when they leave high school, they would have the ability to enter the job market. “It shouldn’t just be study, it should be work and study. That’s my belief.”

Another main component of Berringer’s project is finding jobs for her protégés after they are done school. She is starting small, but she has succeeded in helping several young people already.

“I’ve always liked cities. Since I was a young kid, I’ve always liked geography an awful lot. I love to learn about different cities … Cleveland or Monterey or Mexico City or Johannesburg – wherever!” Yosef says

Yosef is an urban planner. He works out of the office, often in Berringer’s apartment, and they go together to get his work from his boss at the main office. She goes with him to prevent any sticky situations.

“Darlene checks the reports very thoroughly to make sure that I am writing in a writing st yle that my bosses would accept,” Yosef says.

She also goes with her students to their interviews. “You go in and you explain. You’re honest and truthful,” she says.

“The key is to be pushy in a nice way,” Yosef elaborates.

When Loren was introduced to Berringer, his dad had got him a job where he was doing very simple tasks like photocopying. That job finished and his mother called Berringer for help. “His mother said ‘he’s not working and we’ve tried all kinds of places and it’s very hard to get him in.’” He was playing computer games all day long, Berringer adds. “This is something that you will hear over and over again about people with Aspergers (a form of autism), that they live and breathe computers.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Loren says. Berringer agrees and explains the difficulty involved in autistic adults finding jobs without assistance.

“Loren wanted to get into an accounting firm and I was going to put him in one. But once we spent time here, we really look at his skill sets. No one ever really had. I told him that he was not an accountant,” she says.

“You have incredible information science going on in your head,” she told him. “He knows so much about so many things. I was so impressed. I told him that he could easily go into library sciences.

“I called Charles [Loren’s current boss] and he said that they really didn’t have any work. I said, ‘I don’t think that you know him wel l enough.’ I told him about all of his talents and he was shocked. I said, ‘I’d really like you to give him a shot, even if you don’t pay him.’

“He went in and once Charles found out what Loren had to offer, he said, ‘that’s amazing.’

“None of us knew that he was so technically aware. He’s so modest. You have to pull the information out of him,”she says.

“We want them to get a job and love it,” Berringer says. Not just sit at a job – build on a passion for it. Once they have a job and they have some money, they will be trained in financial literacy.”

“I hate it when people say that they are autistic so they can’t. We say, ‘No, no, no! They can.’”



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