Saturday, April 24, 2010

Interview with Liane Willey

I was delighted that Liane Willey, author of the book Pretending To Be Normal agreed to do an interview with me for my blog. Liane is a wonderful women on the autism spectrum who works to improve the lives of other families living with autism.

1) How did you handle finding employment and keeping it? Are there some tips you could share with other people on the Autism spectrum (and their families helping them) struggling with job issues?

It was very difficult for me to go to job interviews, but I forced myself to do what had to be done. Namely, I made resumes, practiced having interviews with myself in the mirror, and I made sure I had a nice outfit to wear to the interview so that my appearance was neat and appropriate. I cannot say this was easy. There were times I would put off going to the interview for days on end. The key to making myself go was to find a job I was qualified for. When I was 16 I was only qualified for fast food restaurant work so I applied, and got a job at, McDonald's. I applied for my position as a professor after I had my doctorate degree. I did not get every job I applied for and I was often terminated soon after the job. By the time I was in my late 20s, I knew teaching was something I was good at, so I decided to pursue only jobs where I could monologue or teach. My advice is simple: find what you're good at, pick an area you enjoy so you will stay motivated to do what it takes to obtain and keep the job, study hard and gain as much educational or practical experience as your budget will allow for, get experience even if it is as an intern or volunteer, and practice interview skills. After you do get a job, work with a job coach or counselor to make sure your social skills are of the sort your new career will demand. Finally, there is no shame in any job. I often took jobs below what I thought were my academic and experience level, but I learned something in each job, so no job was ever a waste of time.

2) What is the biggest issue facing the autism community today and how would you like it handled?

This is a tough question to answer. If I have to pick one it would be to reach the ASD affected minority, low socioeconomic and elderly populations with both ASD awareness and support programs. I would love the media to join forces and broadcast free ASD educational programs geared toward teachers, caregivers, families, and individuals. A network devoted to nothing but special needs would be great and our ASD community could have a strong voice and presence in this programing.

3) Do you have any tips for managing autistic mannerisms, like rocking, spinning objects, etc.?

I never try to break a stim or habit without having something in mind to take its place. When making a replacement habit, I try to find something that is very similar, but that may look less like a stim. For example, I like to rock, but I rock side to side, rather than forward and backward because it looks more natural- like a mother rocking a baby. And I still afford myself plenty of opportunity to stim as I wish, in private. Private may mean the back of a grocery aisle where there is no audience or a public bathroom behind the closed doors of the stall, but usually it means in my own home.

4) What can people on the spectrum and their loved ones do to keep them safe? How can a person on the spectrum figure out if a situation is "safe" or a person is "safe"? What are some red flags that a situation is bad?

I am not sure a person on the spectrum will ever be 100% able to stay safe and avoid bad situations. Our poor theory of mind and our inability to read non-verbal communications and judge hidden social curriculums make it nearly impossible to always judge a person's intent or a situation's risks. I do know that it is comforting for me to have a trusted person or two I can call the moment I feel like I might be close to something unsavory. I give myself permission to call one of my trusted friends the moment I feel unsafe. Regrettably, I still walk into bad situations, so I would like to refer readers to autism safety expert Dennis Debbaudt. His contact information is
Autism Risk & Safety Management now on FaceBook. Join us here:

5) When you're close to "melting down"; how do you handle it?

First of all, I had to learn by trial and error and many years of paying attention to my reactions, what would make me break down and how to avoid it. Now that I know what my personal buttons are, when I see the buttons are about to be pushed, I tend to go to the darkest part of my closet, close my eyes, shut out all noise, and concentrate on my breathing. If I don't' get myself out of the on-coming storm, I will surely get caught up in it and then I have to ride it out with either extreme amounts of anxiety, physical illness, or lots of tears.

6) What are some do's and not do's of dating? Is there any cautions you have? And what can a parent/caregiver do to help a person on the spectrum interested in dating?

In my perfect world, people on the spectrum would only date people they have been fixed up with by friends and family members! However, there are places and situations that are safer than others for making friends and building relationships. For example, don't toss a person with an ASD to a bar and expect the evening to go well. Family oriented centers like the YMCA rock climbing club or a local bowling league tend to be safer bets for meeting people who do not have ulterior motives in mind. That having been said, there are cruel people everywhere, so the person on the spectrum has to have a solid understanding of what constitutes good and inappropriate behavior and how to handle such behavior if it comes up. Remember that dating will often turn into something interpersonal, so don't underestimate the importance of sex education. Be direct in your discussions, leave nothing out. Discuss diseases, how they are acquired, pregnancy, the urban myths surrounding all the above, and the importance of knowing "no means no". Social coaching is a must in this area and at some point, I would bring in both males and females to talk as freely as possible about their issues, concerns, questions, etc. Let the person on the spectrum do as much self-analysis and questioning, and as much self-advocating and understanding as they can.

7) What is something about Autism that you wish everybody would know?
Yes. I wish people knew that everyone who has autism has a wonderful story to share. If people took time to really learn to listen to and learn from their autistic associates, I bet they would be surprised and delighted with what they learned from the person with autism.

8) Is there something you would like to tell parents/caregivers out there?

Take time for yourself. Shed any guilt you may have. Every parent/caregiver has moments of guilt over any human they tend to, so just know it's normal. Laugh as often as you can. Pick your battles. Know that things get better. Never underestimate the gifts your person with an ASD has. Keep the bar just high enough, and take care not to make it too low. Remember, the support you give is incredibly important and life saving. Without you, I shudder to think where folks on the spectrum would be.