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Abnormal Psychology: Autism. A Great Interview with Dr Sharon A. Mitchell

Hello, everyone.

Today's post is very speacial becuase we'll be focusing on a topic in abnormal psychology; but i beieve that Autism is normal as you're born with it but that's a topic for another time; so we'll be interviewing Dr Sharon A. Mitchell on AUtism.

Let's get started!

1. Hello Sharon, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Would you mine introducing yourself to us please?

Hi Connor. Thanks for inviting me to your blog.

I've been a special education teacher, counselor, school psychologist, school district consultant, autism consultant, university instructor and author. I'm now retired from all but the latter two. Mostly. Well, for now, anyway. Oh, and I also farm with my husband and son; our harvest this fall was interrupted by early snow, so we'll end up completing harvest before we begin seeding in spring.

2. So, I believe that autism and the term ASD is thrown around quite a lot without people knowing exactly what it is. Can you please explain what autism is?

There is a good reason why you hear the term autism and ASD so often. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects one in every fifty-nine children. In any school, likely every other classroom has an autistic student. And, that accounts for just those kids who are diagnosed. Many others are on waiting lists or might never receive a formal diagnosis.

Autism is a neuro-biological condition, meaning that it has its basis in the brain. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there is a wide variation in how it can affect the individual and the degree to which the person is affected. It was once thought that about half of those with autism also had an intellectual disability, but now many think that only about a third of autistic people have an accompanying cognitive disability.

There are a few hallmarks of autism. One is in the area of communication. Some autistic people are unable to use speech to get their wants and needs across. Others can seem highly verbal. This difference, along with the possible intellectual disability has led to the terms "high functioning" and "low functioning". But, these terms are misleading. If you think of functioning level only in terms of IQ, then you miss the variations. It could erroneously be assumed that if a person has intellectual ability in the average to above range, that they should get along just fine and do not require support.

That is actually not true, or at least not consistently true, for an individual. Under some circumstances, that adult might manage their life just fine. But when under duress from sensory input, anxiety, etc., their ability to communicate might be severely reduced or non-existent and they may not handle their situation at all. During that moment, they will not be "high functioning". There might be an autistic person with a mild intellectual disability who has less anxiety and fewer sensory challenges who actually handles his day-to-day functioning better.

Even autistic adults who have good vocabularies and are articulate can have communication difficulties. When we use language, we are often not straight-forward. Our actual words make up on part of the whole that is communication. Autistic individuals are usual concrete, black and white thinkers. Thus, they can miss nuances, facial expressions and body language. Sarcasm and innuendo can be difficult for them to pick up on.

Other defining features of autism is repetitive motions or actions and intense fascinations with certain subjects. The latter can be a good thing, especially when this interest can be turned into an occupation.

Repetitive actions can take almost any form. Common ones we thinks about are hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, etc., but can be idiosyncratic to the individual. And the motion they make can change over time and circumstance. For some, these repetitive actions can be soothing and help to reduce anxiety or being overwhelmed by sensory sensitivities.

Although not part of the diagnostic criteria for an autism diagnosis, it is a rare autistic person who is not bothered to some degree by their sensory system. They might feel things much more intently than would a neurotypical person. Or, they could be under-aroused, requiring more sensory input before the sensation registers on them.

3. Now that we know what Autism is, can you please tell us how autism can impact a child’s or an adult’s life?

Hmm. I think I might have covered some of this question above.

The main areas that impact an autistic person's life likely have to do with the areas of communication and/or sensory sensitivities.

The difficulties are more obvious in a person who is nonverbal. Especially in children, I have seen some of the unwanted behaviors go away when the child is given some type of communication system - a way to exert control, a way to say "no", a way to make their wants and needs known. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if you had no way to communicate? While speech is the quickest and most efficient way to communicate, for some autistic kids (and adults), this is not easy. Some articulate, nonverbal autistic adults talk about understanding everything that is said to them, having the words in their mind, but are unable to get them out. Typing and various forms of technology have helped them explain a lot of what we now know about how it feels to be a nonverbal autistic. For those unable to type, pictures, word cards, sign language and various forms of facilitated communication help greatly.

While their ability to hear might be intact, many autistic people have difficulties with auditory processing. They hear the words, but making sense of those words might be tricky. They might require more time to decipher the individual words, determine their meaning and relate them to what is already known. Auditory processing ability is reduced in noisy or crowded situations and when the person is anxious. Our speech moves at a rapid rate and the autistic student might be trying to process what he or she has heard, while the teacher or group moves on to other things. Some of the instruction will then be missed.

Much of our social world revolves around communication. When a child has difficulty with communication, understanding and acquiring age-typical social skills and social relationships will be hard. Many autistic kids find it difficult to fit it and sadly, can be the brunt of bullies.

Imagine sitting in a school classroom when your senses are greatly heightened. If you have auditory sensitivities, every scrape of a chair against the floor, every whisper, the scrape of the pencil across paper will assault. How difficult would it be to concentrate on your work when you need to consciously block out all the myriad of sounds in the room? What if your sense of smell was also overly keen? That perfume the teacher put on this morning might block out all other input in your mind. Then, it's lunch time and all the kids open their lunch kits. Again, your nose is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of aromas flooding the room.

There will be some students in every classroom who have executive functioning skill challenges. These would be kids who have learning disabilities, attentional issues, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism and other diagnoses. Executive functioning skills are things that most of take for granted - things such as the ability to organize our belongings and our tasks, to plan what needs to be done, to prioritize, to hold in our minds more than one thing at a time as we multi-task and hold things in our short-term memory, to have a sense of time, etc. When these are weak areas for us, then managing at school or at a job can be challenging and frustrating for all concerned.

But, while these are definite challenges for an autistic person, autism brings with it some positives as well, such as monotropism. Monotropism is the ability to focus intently on a select, narrow range of interests. Wonderful things can come out of this ability to hyperfocus, such as deep thinking, vast knowledge and intense experiences. But, this same monotropism can make it difficult for the individual to redirect their attention, to start and stop tasks that need to be done, but are less outside the area of interest.

4. Would you mine telling us please, what drawn you to Autism as a career and how you got into this career?

As a teen, I volunteered with some autistic kids. The way their mind worked interested me and I enjoyed my time with them.

At university, my first degree was in Psychology. My next degree was in the field of education - a B.Ed. in Exceptional Children. I was drawn to kids who learned differently and found them much more interesting. Then I spent a number of years as a special education teacher, working with kids who had learning disabilities and behavioral challenges.

Returning to university, I got a Master's of Arts in Educational Leadership; my thesis focused on autism. I worked as a school psychologist, then as a school district consultant. I was seconded travel my province (I'm Canadian) as autism consultant, giving presentations and doing consults in schools. Along the way I returned to school for a PhD in Psychology Management, again focusing on autism.

I retired from education (for one very nice week), then began a job as regional autism consultant. I did that for the next half dozen years before retiring again. Mostly. I still teach three university classes as year, as I've done for the past fifteen years or so. These are undergrad and grad classes in education, all on inclusion and kids who learn differently.

While a consultant, I heard over and over from parents and teachers that they want to learn more about autism, but don't have time to wade through textbooks, nor pour over internet sites, weeding out what pertained to their situation.

That's where the idea of some of my books was born. Rather than the learning being arduous, what if you could read a story, an enjoyable one, that would still give autism information? What if you learned about autism from being inside a character's mind? What if you could watch strategies being tried at home and at school? So, "Autism Goes to School" was born, the first book in the series. I was very lucky; since there is so much interest in autism these days, it has won awards and been on the Amazon bestseller lists.

5. I noticed that you have a lot of a very interesting autism books, would you mine telling my readers a bit more about them please?

I have a series of five novels (so far), each depicting a child or young adult who is autistic and the people who support them. Although it was my intention to just write the one book, readers suggested the topics for the other novels (and for the ones not yet written).

The novels are:

Then, again at the suggestion of readers, there are now two nonfiction books in the series:

These latter two are not meant to be read cover to cover (although you can, of course). If time is precious, just flip to the Table of Contents and find the chapters that most pertain to your situation.

If you'd like a synopsis of each book, here you go:

A single dad. A boy with autism. A dedicated teacher. Can they become the family they need?

Ben didn't know he'd fathered a child until he took custody of his five-year-old son. New to being a dad and new to autism, well those first days weren't pretty.

What started as a fun chase game now has deadly possibilities. Six year old Ethan has been kicked out of one school for his tantrums and for blindly fleeing when he gets overwhelmed.

Now, enrolled in a new school, his mom clings to her phone, waiting for the call to come get him, that they can't handle an autistic child.

Return to Madson School as the students and staff welcome Ethan into their midst.

Manny isn't like other kids. He doesn't talk. He doesn't go to school. His parents frantically try to re-arrange their world to Manny's liking because when he gets upset - well, the aggression was getting worse.

Is trapped in a tiny apartment with mounting frustrations all there is for Manny? Is he doomed to isolation and silence or could it be that there is a place where he belongs?

Karen is bright, vivacious and highly verbal. Too verbal. She remains on the fringe, looking at other adolescents having fun together and wondering if she could ever be a part of the group. Karen has Asperger's Syndrome.

Who best to help her but an autistic chef. What?! Yep! Meet Jeff. His special talents and view of the world are just what Karen needs. And, Jeff learns that he is just what one particular woman needs as well.

At twenty-one, Suzie has withdrawn from a world she finds alien and confusing. Ability is not the problem, nor is interest - many things fascinate her. But, she has Asperger's Syndrome and high anxiety. To her, the world is a harsh, scary place where she does not fit. She spends much of her day sleeping and most of her nights on the computer.

Her mother, Amanda, wishes Suzie would get a job, go to school or at least help out around the house. Suzie feels that her time is amply filled with the compelling world lurking within her computer. She is most content when alone in the basement with her computer. Staring at her monitor, the rest of the world falls away and she feels at home.

Amanda meets this gentleman. Jack gently persists and Amanda glimpses what her life if only things were different.

Then, when an intruder breaks into the house, Amanda has no one but Suzie to rely on.

Your child has an autism diagnosis. How can you help? First, do no harm. Well, that’s a no-brainer for parents, right?

When your child receives an autism diagnosis, the research begins. You want to learn all that you can and find the best ways to help him. You will receive advice from specialists that makes sense to you - it fits with your life philosophy and with what you know of your child. You will receive advice that does not sit so well with you, the needs of your family and what you feel are the needs of your child. Trust your instincts. You know your child the best and no one has his well-being at heart as much as you.

Whether or not you feel prepared right now, you as the paper will be your child's primary therapist. You spend the most time with him and have the biggest impact on his life. This book is for you. It's written by a parent who is also a special ed teacher, counselor, school psychologist, district consultant and autism consultant. The language won't require that you sit with a dictionary in your other hand but when you do find something that makes you want to research further, links and provided to help you with your search.

Helping your autistic child be the best he can be is doable. It's within your reach and this is the book to guide you.

One in every 59 children has an autism diagnosis. Once thought rare, now every teacher will have an autistic child in their classroom. Maybe not last year, but this coming year....

Our rooms are full of diverse learners. Sadly, most university programs don't prepare teachers for this reality. With all those bright little faces gazing at you, the needs can seem overwhelming. How can you be everything to each one?

This book is for you. It will calm those panicky feelings. You can do this. By learning about autism and the characteristics that affect being in a classroom, you can tailor strategies that will help that learner, you and the other kids who are in your care. You cannot turn your room upside down for one kid but you can use strategies that are doable and will help many of the learners.

Dr. Sharon Mitchell gets it. She's been a teacher, counselor, school psychologist, district consultant and autism consultant for decades. She has presented to thousands at conferences and workshops on ways to successfully include kids who learn differently. She teaches university classes to wanna-be-teachers and to school administrators on inclusion strategies and students who learn differently.

6. Finally, where can people find you and your books?

For the readers of your blog, I have created a special link where they can download a gift copy of Autism Goes to School. If they’re interested in reading the book, they’ll have the choice to download it in mobi format (for Kindles and the free Kindle reading app), as an epub (for all other e-readers and reading apps) or as a PDF. Here’s the link:

If you prefer to read paperback books, then you can purchase any of these books on Amazon or on Ingram-Spark.

If you read e-books, they are available:

· Kobo

· And most other online stores

Clicking on the book’s title will show you all the stores where you can purchase the book:

Well, I hope that you enjoyed the interview; I know that I did; please comment down below if you enjoyed the interview and would like to see more interviews, and please check out Sharon's books!

Have a great week everyone!

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