Five Ways Tigers are Tackling Autism
Mizzou is at the forefront of autism research.
On the Spectrum
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Running in the Family
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English Professor Anand Prahlad started writing a memoir as a personal project. By the time he finished, he had been diagnosed, at age 57, with autism spectrum disorder and had created an unprecedented contribution to diversity literature: a book about autism, race and gender.
Prahlad’s narrative recounts his experiences as an African American with undiagnosed autism growing up during segregation in rural Virginia. He inhabits a magical inner world where sensory experiences blur together and memory is fluid. Household objects possess agency and poetry. The spirits of slave children become his best friends. For the first four years of his life, he doesn’t speak. Then, slowly, he finds his voice.
His journey takes readers across the United States and through historic moments in American culture, from the Civil Rights Movement and school desegregation in the South, to hippie enclaves and New Age ashrams in the West, to academic life in a Midwestern college town. Along the way he sleeps on the beach, performs in a reggae band, writes poetry, follows a guru, teaches inner-city children, becomes a father, earns a doctorate, survives an earthquake and finds love.
The Secret Life of a Black Aspie has won the 2016 Permafrost Prize for Nonfiction and will be published by Alaska University Press in 2017. Prahlad, a folklorist and poet, is the director of creative writing at Mizzou.
When autism is involved, an ordinary outing — to a restaurant, a sporting event, a shop — can be overwhelming. The cacophony of sensory stimuli, strange faces and confusing rules might be too much to process, leading to a meltdown.
But what if businesses were prepared to welcome customers on the autism spectrum and their families? Mizzou’s Thompson Center is working to make that happen.
In 2015 the center launched the Autism Friendly Business program. Thompson Center staff members consult with business owners and train their employees on how to support customers affected by autism. They also create reference materials and social narratives that show patrons on the spectrum what to expect when they visit. The Broadway Hotel, for example, provides a photo-filled booklet that explains its elevators, restaurants and check-in process. Mizzou Arena’s version covers turnstiles, Truman the Tiger and noise-blocking headphones — and comes with a simple, visual menu of concession stand options.
“The long-term goal,” says Jena Randolph, assistant research professor and program co-developer, “is to build an inclusive culture within the business community.”
Coming of Age
Upholding the mantra that early intervention yields the best outcomes, autism specialists largely focus diagnosis and treatment efforts on young children. Young people with autism entering adulthood find fewer resources.
MU’s Thompson Center is working to change that. Starting in the fall semester, assistant research professors Jena Randolph and Karen O’Connor will provide training to people ages 18 to 25 who have autism spectrum disorder. In the first semester, participants spend about 14 hours a week in classroom-based and employment-related instruction. They work-shadow Mizzou employees and team up with Mizzou-student peer mentors. During the second semester, they gain work experience on campus, with job coaching. The program, Self-Determined Transition Readiness through Individual Vocational Experiences, aims to equip the young adults with employment skills — and ultimately improve their quality of life.