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Monday, 01 May 2017 08:00

Educator fine with being an ‘Aspie for Life’

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Terri Robson has been a survivor and is now a thriver. Robson, a resident of Edmonton, was in Medicine Hat Feb. 23-24 to make a presentation to the teachers convention for instructors in southeast Alberta schools. 


Robson was on hand to talk about Autism Spectrum Disorders including characteristics, coping, diagnosis tricks, and social skills using herself as a real life example. Asperger’s syndrome was not put into the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-IV until 1994.
According to MyHealth.Alberta.ca, Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that makes it hard to interact with other people. This is a difficult challenge to have as those with Asperger’s may find it hard to make friends because they can be socially awkward. People with Asperger’s syndrome have some traits of autism. For example, they may have poor social skills, prefer routine, and not like change.
Unlike those who have autism, children with Asperger’s syndrome usually start to talk before two years of age, when speech normally starts to develop. Usually, the syndrome is noticed at age three or older.
In her presentation to the teacher’s conventions Robson touched on what teachers should watch for in the way of behaviours in the classroom, aspects of communication which affect both teachers and students as well as coping strategies for adults with Asperger’s.
Growing up, Robson faced many trying times and describes her childhood as “really difficult and challenging.”
“Not all of my difficulties and challenges arose from undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. There were other dynamics within the family that created their own problems,” explains Robson. “I’m not sure how much detail I remember, due to many concussions and a traumatic brain injury.
“I was involved in sports in school even though I was very awkward. As a result of my awkwardness — not just the typical teen stuff, but more associated with the Asperger’s — I was constantly hurting myself and hitting my head. That didn’t stop me. I just kept going. In hindsight, the people in my life did not know to treat me differently because nobody knew I was different or why.”
According to MyHealth.Alberta.ca Asperger’s symptoms vary, so no two children are the same.
Generally, children with Asperger’s have a hard time relating to others. They don’t necessarily avoid social contact, but they lack instincts and skills to help them express their thoughts and feelings and notice others’ feelings; may be bothered by loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures; they like fixed routines. Change is hard for them. They may have only one or a few interests, or they may focus intensely on a few things; lack co-ordination; have unusual facial expressions, body postures, and gestures; or be somewhat clumsy. 
They may have poor handwriting or have trouble with other motor skills, such as riding a bike and may not recognize verbal and non-verbal cues or understand social norms.
For example, they may stare at others, not make eye contact, or not know what personal space means. They may have only one or a few interests, or they may focus intensely on a few things. For example, they may show an unusual interest in snakes or star names or may draw detailed pictures.
“I was bullied and teased a great deal even though I was bigger than my peers. As Kermit the Frog would say: ‘it ain’t easy being green,’” explains Robson. “Being different isn’t a walk in the park, but I didn’t make it any easier on myself by pumping my fist and saying, ‘yay, 100 per cent again’. Nor did it help when I didn’t get everything right and complained because I didn’t understand what I had gotten wrong. Apparently, I was seen as a big mouth and a braggart. Unfortunately nobody thought to tell me I should behave differently. If they did, I don’t remember or I just tuned them out. Some of the teachers didn’t like me much either. I had a tendency to blurt out the answer even though I’d been told numerous — and I mean numerous — times to put my hand in the air first. I also remember my teachers asking for someone other than Terri to answer the question. It didn’t help. I was always talking, even if nobody was listening, and consequently getting in trouble.”
Robson adds the love and support of her maternal grandparents, Godparents and their children; an aunt, uncle and their children, and a few other adults who loved her in spite of her quirks and behaviours, made her childhood bearable.
“My mother, father and siblings thought I was being rude and obnoxious just to get attention. My mother’s sister and family were of the same opinion,” she explains. “Understand that I’m not saying my growing up years were 100 per cent bad; I just don’t remember many of the moments due to various traumas in my life.
“What inspired me and what kept me going? I didn’t know any different and if I didn’t do it who was going to? I’m still like that. If something has to be done, even if I’m in incredible pain or having an especially bad Aspie day, there is no one else so I have to do it.”
She was especially inspired by a music teacher and her grandmother who showed her unconditional love and supported her. This was critical in keeping her pushing forward. They were proud of her accomplishments such as some student and athletic awards and in the case of the music teacher, he also instilled a love of music which helped her focus. She played in various concert bands for 42 years.
Robson also enjoyed reading as it was her escape from the day-to-day reality of many social situations she found to be confusing.
“The books were a world I could understand. There were no judgements or bullying or trying to fit in. Just me and a ton of books. It was great,” explains Robson. “It’s still easier to read and fit into the world of the book than struggle to fit into the real world. It’s often that way with Aspies. We feel like aliens living on a strange planet where we don’t belong. I belong when I talk about Asperger’s syndrome and educate others. Then I know why I’m here.”
When she was 26, she attended university to earn a degree in Secondary Education. She majored in music and minored in English, still not knowing she had Asperger’s.
“I mistakenly thought teaching junior- and senior-high students would be my niché. Oh boy, was I wrong. Not a great place for an Aspie, especially an undiagnosed one, to be working,” explains Robson. “Too much overstimulation, not enough understanding (by me) of myself, the students, the situations that arose — everything. It was incredibly overwhelming and I decided I just couldn’t do it. I lasted one year. Two years after that, I received my diagnosis. It might have been different if I had known, but now I’ll never now. I never had the opportunity to show others, let alone myself, what a good educator I am. In many ways I have educated people all my adult life, but after that year, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to use my degree. Time for a rethink.”
She was finally successfully diagnosed in 1995 when she was 33 years old. When she received her diagnosis she felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.She was able to understand why she had been so different throughout her life and why she behaved and acted the way she did.
“It explained so much about me and who I was,” Robson explains. “After I did some initial research I felt as if I could’ve been the poster child for Asperger’s syndrome. It gave me so much insight into the struggles I continue to have as an adult. Even though I have a greater understanding I still don’t ‘get’ all the unwritten social rules. I’d say my life has improved to a point. I’ve learned coping skills and been fortunate enough to have a few people in my life who were and are willing to teach me ‘in the moment.’ These are the same people who love my quirks and all. Some days, it feels as if my life has improved, other days it feels the same and the rest are different.”
Now, Robson does speaking engagements and operates Awkward Spirit which is her teaching launch pads with both Facebook and websites. Her role as a private consultant provides teaching and support programs for teachers, children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome. She also provides job coaching and mentorship training
Learn more about her work on her Facebook page or her website at: www.askmeaspi.com.

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Ryan Dahlman

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