Learning Social Skills from the CEO of the Sluis Academy as an Autistic Adult

Many of you may know that as someone on the autism spectrum, I struggle with socializing and communicating so my parents decided that I should try out some sessions with the CEO of the Sluis Academy.

The program was supposed to help special needs children with their social skills. A friend introduced the CEO to my parents.

At that time, I was studying at BCIT.

For the first session, he came to my home. He taught me what to do when socializing. I learned that when socializing, we should gradually introduce something we want to talk about rather than be too abrupt. I was reminded to keep my back straight and have eye contact. One technique of eye contact involves looking near the person’s eyes but not at the eyes.

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Straight back.
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Eye contact.

I also had at least one Skype session with him.

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Using Skype on a tablet.

For one of the next sessions with him, we went to a restaurant nearby. That meant I could practice my social skills with the restaurant staffs while they were serving such as by asking them some questions. I was also reminded to keep my back straight and have eye contact while I was talking. He did it in a way that was clear enough but without interrupting.

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If I remembered correctly, the restaurant session was the last session with him. For the next sessions, one of his employees visited me to train me for job interview skills. I practiced with some common job interview questions. I had a few sessions with her.

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Special Education Program During my High School Years

During high school, I was in a special education program instead of regular classes.

Before high school, I struggled with my classes that I needed assistance from SEA’s and tutors. One of my tutors was my SEA at school. I often went to the resource room. If I remember correctly, I had essays omitted because I was very stuck on them quite a few times. They were likely the school wide write essays. Other big exams may have been omitted as well.

In grade 8, I went to the Learning Assistance Life Skills program. The school was a little further away since the closest one didn’t offer the program.

They taught us how to be independent. We learned money math, writing, reading, and life and social skills. The academic subjects were around grade 3 in terms of difficulty. Sometimes peer tutors, who were students in regular classes, helped us out.

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Learning Assistance Life Skills classroom.

For most of grade 8, I took the school bus to school and home. Near the end of the year, I learned to take public transportation alone.

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School bus

We regularly took turns planning field trips. We did the research and reservations. We were in charge of the timing. If the field trip costed something, we had to do the banking. The field trips included museums, shopping malls, bowling, swimming, hiking, restaurants, and cinemas. Some of them were half day and others were all day, depending on the time needed. Some of the field trips were places were Richmond Centre, Grouse Mountain, Varsity Ridge Bowl, Red Robin, Granville Island, Science World, Silver City, Planer Lazer, and the Student Union Building at UBC.

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Grouse Grind.
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Bowling alley.
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Red Robin.
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Bowen Island.

We cooked as well. We did the planning, shopping, and food preparation.

We had PE with the students from the Life Skills program. The LS program was different from the LALS program in terms of the functioning levels of the students. The PE class was different from regular PE classes because it needed to accommodate people with disabilities. We had warm ups and stretching, and played other sports including basketball, hand ball, volleyball, and California kickball.

Some of us actually took regular PE classs. They took two PE classes so that there were enough students in the special ed’s PE class. That’s what I did for my last year of high school.

For after school, we were encouraged to try out after school special needs programs. I went to the TLC Special Needs Program at a community centre for almost a year, and Special Olympics doing basketball and aerobics for about a few months.

For the last two years of high school, I tried out cross country running and track and field.

We had work experience. Some of them included grocery stores and department stores.

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Serving meals in the community lunch program near our school.

We were allowed to take classes that we were interested in. I took regular chemistry, physics, math, and communications classes. That meant about three classes at a time. I had tutors outside of classes and my grades were reasonable. Some students took wood working, sewing, and cooking.

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The program also covered transitioning to post secondary education. The students had tours to different colleges such as Kwantlen Polytechnic University. After graduating at age 19, I went to the Food Technology program at BCIT. What I needed to do was to pass a communications exam because I didn’t take English 12 or other suitable courses.

Updates on my Employment

After almost a year of getting support for employment, I was hired last year to work at a company that installs taxi equipment.

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Taxi meter.

If you know me on social media, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sharing autism posts. I think it can improve autism awareness which may lead to better support as autism is often invisible.

In January 2017, I stopped working at a full time job doing data cleansing because I wasn’t able to keep up with it.

I started applying for some job positions such as electronics assembly. I had some job interviews.

A month later, I was getting support from Jobs West. They help people with developmental disabilities with employment. Autism is a developmental disability which was why I was qualified for the support. They did employment discovery, helped with writing resume and cover letters, and accompanied me during job interviews and job fairs.

I showed my job coach some of my LEDs projects. She thought they were interesting. She shared some pictures of them with my potential employers.

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Custom made sunrise simulator without its diffuser.

I also contacted some staff members from Pacific Autism Family Network for more support.

During spring, when I was asking to get some work done on my bike, a mechanic from a local bike shop was interested in my bike setup so he asked me whether I wanted to work there. My bike had electric horns and custom made lights. I worked there as an assistant until the bike season was over.

Bicycle mechanic in a workshop in the repair process

During fall, my job coach recommended that I volunteer at Bike Kitchen to improve my skills and get more experience. I volunteered there for a while overhauling hubs and truing wheels.

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Truing a bicycle wheel.

Around December, I received a job posting for an equipment installer position from a staff from PAFN. I mentioned that I was interested in it. One month later, I was interviewed and accompanied by my job coach, and was hired. For the job, I installed taxi equipment in cars.

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My tool box at work.
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My bike parked at work. It’s more secure inside.

Once in a while, my job coach kept in touch with me. If I have any concerns, I could contact her. The company didn’t mind that I used noise cancellation to concentrate.

It’s now almost a year of working there.

Updates on Using Noise Cancellation for Sensory Overload at Work

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Ear plugs and ear muffs for increased hearing protection.

I’ve been using noise cancellation to concentrate better at work and would like to give an update about it.

 

I used them heavily so that two pairs of earmuffs were broken! I know I’ve written a lot of articles about needing noise cancellation!

Even on the first day of my most recent job, I used dual hearing protection. My goal was to block out music playing and other noise sources which tend to affect my concentration, cause zoning out, and affect other areas of functioning. Thankfully, my job coach mentioned to my employer that I needed hearing protection and they didn’t mind it.

Around this August, the need for hearing protection was reconfirmed. My supervisor noticed that I was easily distracted and it took too long to complete my work. That day during lunch, I even took the time to hand write a letter and showed it to him, pointing out that I thought I needed good hearing protection.

After lunch, I did a simulation of the tasks which was timed. That means instead of doing the actual work, I did it on a workbench so that I could practice it as often as I like. For one of them, it’s reasonable to complete it in 20 to 30 minutes.

For a long time, I was taking 45 to 60 minutes to complete it even when using only ear muffs. When I did the simulation with dual protection, I was able to complete it in less than 25 minutes! My supervisor was even surprised that I was faster doing the simulation compared to doing the real work.

One issue with regular ear plugs is that they get uncomfortable from prolonged usage. If you wear regular ones for a long time, you may find that your ears hurt. I decided to try custom fitted non-vented ear plugs from Nextgen Hearing. The non-vented ones offer the most attenuation. What they did was put silicone in my ear canals to get an impression. They took around a month to arrive. My reasoning was that being able to work was well worth the cost even though they were quite expensive.

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dB Blocker non-vented custom fitted ear plugs.

Once they arrived, I found that they could be worn all day. The problem was that they weren’t really suitable when there’s a lot of movements which my job involves.  Non-vented ones amplify internal noises more than vented ones. The amplified noises can mask sounds too.

Interestingly, I was told that I acted more withdrawn and moving on to the next tasks was even harder after I got the custom fitted ear plugs. They recommended that I experiment including going to a quiet and dim place or taking a walk when overwhelmed. That makes sense because most of the time, autistic people have more than just one area of difficulties.

Because the custom fitted ear plugs seemed to decrease performance, I decided not to use them at work. They were probably be more suitable for desk jobs which involve less movements.

So far, I have other options including turning down the music and not wearing the regular ear plugs all the time. At work, I’m now using dual protection to concentrate during more time sensitive tasks, and using just earmuffs when it’s less busy to let my ears rest.

Abnormal Sense of Taste in an Autistic Person

I didn’t think my sense of taste was abnormal as an autistic person. This makes sense because an autistic person can’t experience a non-autistic brain and vice versa.

With an abnormal sense of taste, it’s possible for the person appear to be a picky eater, or not trust his or her sense of taste.

I remember avoiding flavoured potato chips. I tend to stick to plain chips.

There are foods that I don’t seem to mind such as green smoothies and cacao. Interestingly, some people find cacao bitter but I don’t really notice its bitterness. Since dark chocolate is healthy, this may be desirable. It’s also possible to easily eat too much of it even though some people may find portion control easier with dark chocolate. I can easily eat too much dark chocolate in a sitting.

With an abnormal sense of taste, I might not be able to trust my sense of taste enough for food safety issues if there’s no heads ups. That’s why I ask people when I had to rely on my sense of smell. What if the food was spoiled or contaminated? Fermented foods may have some similarities in taste compared to spoiled foods. I’ve accidentally consumed alcoholic cocktails and didn’t remember tasting the alcohol. I ordered them because I misread the menu. I found out only after I was told about it which was too late because I already finished the second order.

 

Attemping to Prevent Sensory Overload While Driving

Today, I drove a car without an instructor and attempted to prevent sensory overload.

I’ve tried different ways of preventing sensory overload such as:

  • Keeping the windows closed.
  • Keeping the fan low.
  • Turning off the radio.
  • Using only one ear plug. In BC, you’re allowed only one headphone in an ear.
  • Covering the other ear when it’s noisy if it can be safely done. For example, when there’s a loud passing vehicle.
  • Avoiding excessive noise even when stopped between driving sessions so that less recovery time is required. For example, while shopping.

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With sensory overload, it’s easy to get distracted by irrelevant sounds. Non-autistic people tend to even agree that it’s easy to tune out many kinds of irrelevant sounds but for autistic people, it can be a different story as shown in Willow Hope’s sensory overload simulation video.

When driving, it’s important to be alert and fit to drive. That’s why I feel it’s important to avoid sensory overload when driving.

If you find noises distracting for driving, you should minimize them if possible. At the same time, you need to be able to hear warnings. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

It’s hard to say whether sensory overload becomes less of a concern when we get better at driving. Maybe driving will be easier as we get used to it which frees up brain resources. Maybe we’ll learn other ways of driving more cautiously.

Do you think sensory overload is a concern for autistic people when driving? Please let me know by commenting below.

 

Can Sensory Overload Affect Driving Performance and Safety

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Before learning driving, I had concerns that sensory overload can affect safety when driving.

Even before I drove a car, I felt that the lack of alertness from sensory overload may be a concern in terns of safety. I found out that it may actually be valid when I started driving lessons!

In cars, the noise sources include engines, traffic, vibrations, wind, fans, radios, and conversations. Even with the windows closed, it can still be loud enough to trigger sensory overload in autistic people. I measured at least 80 dBC with a Scoche decibel meter in cars. That’s comparable to a vacuum cleaner! With the windows open, it can get even louder.

When I had driving lessons, I seem to need reminders from supervisors even though I had more than few months of lessons. The reminders include shoulder checking, 360° scanning, mirror checking, signalling, and turning off the signal lights. In the first few lessons, the instructor was happy with my performance. After more lessons, there was a lack of progress.

In today’s driving lesson, I learned something new about my sensory overload. Thankfully, my instructor noted improved performance when the windows were closed even though they were open at least 10 minutes ago.

Signs of sensory overload in driving may include

  • Not noticing the clicks from turn signals which can make the driver seem forgetful when the turn signal is left on after turning or changing lanes
  • Not driving confidently
  • The need for excessive double checking
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of interest
  • Difficulties staying in the lane
  • Slower reaction times
  • Driving more slowly so that there’s more time to react
  • Forgetting safety procedures such as mirror checks, shoulder checks, and signalling
  • The need for more reminders from the supervisor
  • Lack of improvement in performance
  • Variability in performance
  • Not noticing that noise sources are distracting or noisy
  • Reduced performance in other areas such as socializing, work performance, and school performance
  • Other autism symptoms becoming more serious

From the symptoms, you might see how dangerous driving may be with sensory overload. With driving, since it tends to be at higher speeds, alertness is very important. At high speeds, a small change of time means a large change of distance. It can also make it harder to pass road tests. I agree that we should only drive when we are fit to do so for the safety of the driver, passengers, and other road users.

I don’t know how sensory overload can be prevented while driving since ear plugs and ear muffs aren’t options as we need to be able to hear car horns and sirens. Some motorcyclists use them to protect their hearing. It makes sense for them because they’re not in an enclosed space. Closing the windows, turning down the fan, and turning off the radio can reduce but may not eliminate it. Would it make driving safe for the driver?

It would seem like autistic drivers need restrictions such as noise levels to be able to drive safely. I think predictable performance is important for our road safety. Maybe they should look for safety features when shopping for a car or if it’s still unsafe, use a self-driving car instead.

I can’t conclude that my sensory overload is less serious than in other people on the autism spectrum. I’ve personally met autistic people who drive and are sensitive to noise. They wear hearing protection most of the time at work. I don’t know how much it affects their driving.

I think if a person zones out, distracting noises are less noticeable. That doesn’t mean the person became immune to them. It’s possible that since it’s too subtle, the need for accommodations are easier to be overlooked. It might be mistaken for a lack of sleep, not having the natural ability to learn driving, a lack of interest, and daydreaming instead when the performance suffers. The person may need reminders to use hearing protection or cover the ears.

I think even if an autistic person doesn’t seem too sensitive to noise, it should still be checked out especially when the performance is unsatisfactory. The person should still be allowed hearing protection. We should look for subtle signs of partial shutdowns too. Not just the more obvious meltdowns or ears being covered. Not all autistic people are very expressive and their symptoms may be different from those listed above.

Do you know how autism or sensory overload affects driving? Please feel free to comment below.