Interview with Salena Briana, Special Education Student


NOTE: The following interview was conducted by student Salena Briana, as part of a class assignment for her undergraduate studies in special education at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.



My name is James Williams. I am an adult with autism and I travel all around the country to teach awareness about autism. I have also written three children’s books on autism, OUT TO GET JACK, THE H.A.L. EXPERIMENT, and WHEN GARY COMES TO PLAY. I also serve on the University of Wisconsin-Waisman Center’s Community of Practice on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities, headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin.

I graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 2010, and went to high school with Salena when she was a freshman and sophomore.


What are some things that define you?

I am a very passionate and idealistic person. I have very strong beliefs that I stand up for, and shape my work and advocacy. At the same time, I am also a person that tries to tolerate different beliefs and ideals that others might have. Rather than quickly denouncing other beliefs, I try to find the “brilliance in everything.”

Like the famous autistic Temple Grandin, dating and relationships do not interest me. I identify as “asexual,” but in reality, lack of interest in dating and relationships is common alongside people with autism, regardless of their orientation. This seemingly small fact about my personality has extensively shaped my life, from my high school career to now. It has defined my social life, my preferences, and a large part of my image as a person, since sadly, a large part of socializing as a young adult is based on assumptions that you’re interested in dating and romantic relationships.

I believe that a person’s beliefs and mindset are the product of how they cope with and respond to their life experiences and the environment in which they live in. I don’t believe in a “nature vs. nurture” dichotomy. I believe our nature determines how we cope with and respond to how we are nurtured, and that both “nature and nurture” determine a person’s personality.


How does having autism fit into that/those things?

When you have autism, you are not separate from it. You live with it 24 hours a day, 7 days and week, and it shapes every part of your life, from starting school as a child to employment in adulthood.

As mentioned above, I believe that a person’s beliefs and mindset are a product of their responses to their life experiences and environment. Since people with autism respond to their life experiences and environment differently than their non-autistic counterparts, my autism shapes the way I see the world, my beliefs and mindsets, and the way I define myself.


How was elementary school for you?

Unlike most children, I did not attend schooling for all of my education. I spent my education “in and out” of the public school. I was homeschooled for part of my education—parts of elementary and high school, and all of middle school.

Elementary school was both positive and negative, depending on the teacher that I had. Since my elementary school did not have very good special education services for children with autism, it was up to each individual teacher, when a student with autism joined their class, to adapt their teaching methods to that student and informally accommodate the student. I had good teachers in kindergarten and 4th grade, and teachers that didn’t understand me in 2nd and 5th. I skipped 1st grade and was homeschooled for part of the 2nd grade (since the teacher didn’t understand me at all) and all of the 3rd grade.

Another struggle I had in elementary school was coping with fire drills. The sound of the fire alarm is very painful for many people with autism. My hearing is more sensitive than others, so when I hear a fire alarm, I feel as if I have been electrocuted. Complicating matters was that the principal promised she would notify me prior to a fire drill in the 5th grade. She did once, and then broke her promise for the rest of the year. Today, I believe that all students with autism should be notified prior to fire drills to the best of a school’s ability.


Junior high?

After a harsh experience in the 5th grade, my mother was fed up with my school’s failure to properly implement services to meet my needs, and to properly respond to the bullying I was enduring. Therefore, she decided to homeschool me during the junior high years. I never attended junior high school—rather, I spent all of junior high as a homeschooled student.

What also complicated matters was that shortly after the 5th grade, I got very ill. I suffered a collapse of my digestive system and immune system, and was sick for much of the 6th grade. After recovering from my chronic illness towards the end of my 6th grade year, I remained homeschooled until high school.

Homeschooling during the junior high years was very enjoyable. Not having to cope with bullying and the trauma of fire drills, I excelled as a student. My mother created a curriculum for my education that combined textbooks purchased from the junior high school and some of her own textbooks. We operated on a “work until you are done” basis—she gave me assignments to do in the morning. When my assignments for the day were completed, I was done for the day—whether that lasted for four hours or ten hours.


High school?

I completed my high school education in two stages. First, three years of part-time high school, supplemented with homeschooling. Second, full time high school for three years, which eventually led to my graduation.

My part time high school years consisted of taking a few classes of interest at my high school, with my core classes as a homeschooled student. These classes consisted of Latin, introduction to business, and a series of child development classes. Latin class was not successful academically, but the introduction to business class and the child development classes were. The struggles in Latin class were not the product of a bad teacher, rather, they were because my autism makes it difficult for me to learn foreign languages. I was forced to accept this limitation after struggling in one semester of Latin and subsequently dropping out of the class.

It is important to remember than when you are autism, it’s very common to function at a different level socially versus academically. You can be gifted but have social struggles. This was the case with my child development classes. I performed well in them academically, but struggled socially, and broke some social boundaries with some of my teachers. These social struggles resulted in getting into trouble right before the end of three semesters of child development. In the end, I was asked to leave the child development program, but a silver lining emerged—the battle to find proper services for me, which was why I was homeschooled and a part time student in the first place, had come to an end. The school knew what to do with me, and I returned to full time high school the next year.

When I returned to high school full time, I was 19 years old. After taking part-time classes from age 15 to 18, I went back to full time school. It was the first time I had been back to full time school since was 11, in the fifth grade. Academically, I did well, but I pursued a different strategy than most students. Rather than try my best to overcome my weaknesses, I decided to play to my strengths. I was good at writing papers and completing homework assignments, but tested poorly, with the exception on math tests.

Socially, high school was very unique for me. Not having an interest in dating or relationships made it very hard for me to fit in with the other guys, but resulted in me getting along quite well with girls. As a result, I had mostly female friends, and my best friends were always female. Some of my friends made me “one of the girls,” and would let me join their groups, where we spoke about “girl stuff” freely. And to the shock of so many of my high school peers, my female friends and I never dated—the idea disgusted us. Having mostly female friends didn’t bother me, but it did bother many of my teachers who thought it was inappropriate and wrong at times. Despite that, I enjoyed having mostly female friends, and I still have mostly female friends to this day. It just works better for me.

Fire drills were still difficult for me, but unlike elementary school, I found my own way of coping with them. In high school, they were scheduled, and there was a “master list” of when the fire drills were scheduled in a secret location. I found the location, and memorized the schedule. I would also tell my friends and other students I knew struggled with fire drills as well when I gathered the knowledge of when the next fire drill was scheduled. I did this so successfully, not a single teacher or administrator ever caught me doing it.

In the end, I ultimately was successful and graduated, at the age of 21, in three years.


What did some of your worst teachers do to make it hard to learn?

My worst teachers struggled to understand my autism and the accommodations that were necessary for me to succeed in school. They did not understand my social challenges and would try to overemphasize friendships that they deemed “appropriate,” even though they were very difficult for me to maintain, and sometimes dangerous.

They also would refuse to accommodate my need to work by myself rather than with groups or partners, if necessary. They also struggled to understand certain things that my autism made it difficult for me to do in class, such as take tests or take notes in class.

Most importantly, they tried to force social interactions on me with the other students. I personally believe teachers should not facilitate

What did some of your best teachers do to make learning easy and successful for you?

Teachers I have worked well with had a willingness to adapt their curriculum to my educational needs, and a willingness to allow me to sit by myself, and work by myself in the classroom as much as they possibly can. They also acknowledged that I would not do everything well—rather, I would use my strengths to counterbalance my deficits. I tested poorly but did well on homework assignments, question sheets, and papers.

Group projects and partner assignments were very difficult for me, and if the teacher allowed me to complete assignments alone, that meant a lot to me. I believe that a teacher’s job is to educate their students, not to force friendships or social interactions between them.

Although fire drills and other drills were difficult for me to manage in school, fire drills are planned by school principals and administrators, not teachers. Therefore, I never blamed any teacher for the struggles I coped with during fire drills.



What discrimination have you faced with having autism?

I have faced extensive discrimination having autism. First of all, despite being an adult, it’s very common for people to “talk down” to me as if I was younger than my age. Sometimes this works to my advantage since, despite being an adult, there are many characteristics I share that are younger than my age. It can be frustrating, however, when people still “baby” me and parents try to “parent” me, even when I often am out independently in society.


Second, as a male with autism, I have to deal with the extensive discrimination that autistic males face in society. Men with autism are often stereotypes as budding perverts and criminals, and are often targeted by law enforcement. Men with autism have to worry about being thought of as predators when they act kindly towards children and adolescents, even though they don’t mean them any harm. Men with autism have to worry about women assuming they are making passes on them or trying to date them even when they just want to be friends.


Third, since men are stereotyped as being hypersexual, and having strong sexual interests, it is very difficult for me, as an adult male, to live in a world that stereotypes me and has a created a social code of rules based on the assumption that I am straight and obsessed with relationships. Like famous individual with autism Temple Grandin, I’ve never been interested in dating or romance, and have identified as “asexual” and “aromantic” since I was 18 and learned about those terms. It can be frustrating and to be judged and stereotyped based on feelings I’ve never felt before.


Finally, I routinely am stopped by police officers due to this judgment and prejudice, even though I fortunately have never been arrested due to my ability to help officers understand that I have not committed a crime when stopped (not a single time, when stopped by an officer, was I ever committing a crime).



What are some personal challenges you face with having autism?


Having autism makes it difficult at times to have proper social skills. Although I’ve had extensive social skills instruction, and have learned many social skills in my life, many social rules do not come naturally to me like non-autistic people. The reason for this, in my opinion, is because of different emotional responses—many behaviors people call “inappropriate” do not make me uncomfortable. Thus, I do not instinctively “know” a social rule the way others might. This lack of knowledge has sometimes cost my friendships when I have behaved inappropriately at times with them.


This results in extensive social anxiety, since I often find myself unsure of whether or not I am behaving appropriately, or if a certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable in a certain setting. Very few social behaviors are universally appropriate but mean different things in different social contexts, which makes it difficult for many people with autism who have a hard time understanding those contextual differences. My anxiety is the byproduct of being socially burned and making social mistakes with little or no understanding of what I did wrong, and losing friends seemingly “out of the blue” when in fact, the friendship ended because of a social mistake I made, even if I didn’t know it was a mistake.

I also have other struggles. I have depth perception issues, which result in an inability to drive a car, and periodically results in me bumping into people when I am out in public. In addition, I have motor coordination and muscle issues with prohibits me from some forms of heavy lifting. Finally, I can be absentminded at times and am constantly losing my things. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to keep track of my things at times.



What are some strengths you have that you can give some attribution to your autism for?


I try to be loyal to my friends. My lack of interest in dating or relationships is a strength with my friends of different genders, since they can feel safe around me and know that I am not going to try to hurt or take advantage of them.

I also have very good eyesight and hearing. I can read things from afar, and my sensitive hearing makes me able to hear well. This can be a weakness sometimes, but also can be a strength.


Finally, my autism makes me able to memorize many facts of data, even if they may not be practical data. I’m constantly memorizing trivia and other “little known facts,” and use that knowledge to impress people when appropriate.


What would be one piece of advice you'd want to tell a teacher to do when working with some one who has autism?


Be adaptable to the needs of the student, and judge your educational success on what’s working best for the student with autism—not how well you are implementing a specific method of educating a student. Don’t keep using an educational method if it isn’t working for the student. The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes, and in this case, the proof of effective education lies in your student being able to perform their best in the classroom.


If something isn’t working or your student isn’t doing well, this doesn’t mean your method is flawed—it just means it doesn’t work well for the student with autism.

Kids with autism learn differently and don’t always function well with traditional teaching methods. The “tried and true” teaching methods you may have learned while getting a teaching certificate may not work for your student.



Is there any intervention techniques that you think work best for teaching social skills, like, peer-mediated, behavioral, TEACCH, video modeling, developmental/relationship-based?


Yes. Although all of the approaches mentioned above have helped many students learn proper social skills and I do not dislike any of them, I am the biggest fan of two social skills teaching methods--the “social thinking” curriculum and the “integrated play groups” model.


The “social thinking” curriculum, created by Michelle Garcia Winner, is a method of teaching social skills that fills the gap found in other methods of teaching social skills. Other methods of teaching social skills taught social skills as a set of rules, without any understanding of how to properly implement them, and the nuances and differences social rules often have. The “social thinking” curriculum focuses not only on teaching social skills but teaching the ability to “socially think,” in other words, having the ability to adapt one’s social skills to one’s environment and one’s context, and to understand how to properly behave in social settings.


The “integrated play groups” method, created by Pamela Wolfberg, is a method of teaching social skills through facilitated play. This therapy is based on the idea that children naturally learn social skills through play, and children with autism often do not get the same opportunities to play because of their social deficits. This deficit tries to facilitate, through “play groups,” opportunities for children with autism to play with other children and acquire those same opportunities to learn social skills through play. The play groups consist of children with and without autism, and are facilitated by a “play guide,” an adult who is trained to start play in the group but to eventually let the children play on their own. In the groups, the children play with one another in activities designed to teach the child social skills.


Finally, I believe what Peter Gerhardt, an educational consultant, put well: “You can only truly teach proper social skills inside their context. If I want a child to learn how to behave at Burger King, I have to take them to a Burger King to teach the skills needed to function at a Burger King.



What is the best way a teacher can prepare a student with autism for the outside world and/or college?


Let the student know that ultimately, the endpoint of any plan after high school should be a path leading to a chosen career goal or job. College shouldn’t just be for the college experience, it should be a means to a career that requires a college degree. And ultimately, the outside world has social rules and requirements that are needed to be understood to be successful, regardless of whatever degree you have. If you don’t have the proper social skills to function in the job you are in, having a degree in that job won’t mean a thing. Teachers need to be more aware of this reality that adults with autism face in the outside world.


In addition, if a student’s career path does not require a four-year college, then a student should not be pressured to attend college. However, if a student does want to attend college, then that should be taken into consideration as well. And teachers should remember that a non-college bound student is not necessarily a lazy student. Just because a student doesn’t plan to attend college doesn’t mean they aren’t hard working or dumb. They’ve just chosen to work hard in a different way outside of school.



Do you think having autism affects the way you taste things? Do you have any specific foods that you really cannot eat and is it because of taste or texture?


Yes. Many people with autism often find that they dislike certain foods based on how they taste and their texture, and are frequently picky eaters. I have friends with autism who have to prepare their French fries a certain why because of their dislike of the texture of those fries, often skinning them so that the sharp edges have been removed.


I used to have many more of these issues growing up, but they have mostly resolved themselves in adulthood. As a child, I disliked tomato chunks in pasta sauce because of their texture, and melted American cheese because of their taste. This is no longer the case now. But one dislike from childhood has survived--I dislike raw onions because of their taste to this day.



So there you have it—my answers.



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