Monday, November 21, 2011

Texas mom creates video helping kids with autism to excel in school environments

From the San Antonio Express-News in Texas:

Jennifer and Herb Allen long suspected something was different with their son Sam. When he finally received the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, it was, Jennifer Allen said, as if they'd been hit by a giant wave, spinning their world on its axis.

Eventually, however, they got their feet back under them, determined to help Sam find his way and excel in life.

What they didn't count on were the disapproving looks, the bullying and how Sam would be ostracized at school, during soccer games, even at church.

“Parents told their kids they couldn't play with Sam,” said Jennifer Allen, who left a career in broadcasting and TV production shortly after Sam's diagnosis.

A form of high-functioning autism, Asperger's syndrome is sometimes called “the little professor syndrome” because children exhibit advanced speech and a laserlike focus on particular interests. But they also tend to lack empathy, get frustrated easily, and exhibit poor social skills.

Sam, for example, enjoys engineering and physics and studies Japanese for fun. But, according to his mother, other than his brother Charlie, he has “zero friends” his age. (All three are pictured)

When the Allens searched for resources to help Sam, they found little available. So, relying on her video expertise, Allen produced “Coping to Excelling”: Solutions for School-Aged Children Diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism or Asperger's Syndrome.”

The 68-minute documentary is aimed at families grappling with the realization that their child may take a different path in life than what they'd hoped for and dreamed of.

Far from being pessimistic, it suggests that many of society's most accomplished thinkers — from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs — have exhibited traits of these disorders.

“In ‘The Social Network' everyone thought Mark Zuckerberg was a jerk,” Allen said. “But to me he was just someone who may have some degree of Asperger's. And that's the point of my documentary. These people may be the outcasts, the geeks, the nerds. But they're the ones who give us cellphones, computers and new medicines.”

Allen relied on the help of friends and family to make the documentary for $15,000, which included 1,000 copies of the DVD and a 48-page booklet. Pizzas slipped to a middle school custodial staff got them access to shoot several school hallway scenes during summer vacation.

While attending a conference in Dallas, she did several on-the-fly interviews with autism and Asperger's experts, including noted author, speaker and livestock expert Temple Grandin, whose story was told in an HBO film starring Claire Danes.

A recent private premiere of the documentary at a local theater attracted about 150 patients, family members, doctors, therapists and educators, including many who appear in the film. Grandin couldn't attend, but she recorded an opening message.

“High-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome is a relatively new term that's not yet out in the public, so this is a good introduction,” said Dr. Chris Plauché Johnson, a retired pediatrics professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center and founder of Children's Association for Maximum Potential. “It does a good job translating what we know from a scientific and medical perspective to a more personal, family conversation.”

The documentary is divided into chapters dealing with the basics of high-functioning autism and Asperger's, maintaining the family unit, education options, bullying and social development.