Voices From the Spectrum #31: Jesse Saperstein and the College Experience
Jesse Saperstein is a best-selling author, autism advocate, and motivational speaker. He currently serves as the Activities & Media Liaison for the College Experience, a program helping students with disabilities attend adaptive college programs and learn to live independently. The College Experience is currently trying to raise money by the end of the month to earn a permanent partnership with the Global Giving Foundation. You can read more about the campaign (and help them reach their fundraising goal!) by visiting the Global Giving website.
This is the first part of a 2-part blog post covering Jesse’s opinions and experience regarding a variety of issues affecting individuals on the spectrum. This week he shared how his college experience differed from the one he currently advocates for as well as some general misconceptions about autism he has encountered.
Jesse Saperstein: During my college experience, I felt ostracized from many of the other students due to the times and lack of understanding. Therefore, I delved into studying and made it my mission to earn high grades. I succeeded with this goal and earned Cum Laude status at the end of my graduation. A college transcript was sadly not enough to prepare me for the challenges of becoming a full-blown adult. I had received no mandatory career counseling or internship experience for four years. The absence of professional/soft skills resulted in years of failures and limited options.
I am pleased to say that my circumstances have dramatically changed thanks to this incredible program that is choosing to “walk the walk.” By hiring employees like myself, students are shown what may happen when we choose to rage against certain challenges. The College Experience is the first employment venue that has allowed me to finally achieve the most coveted goal for anybody with a disability – independence. For a year-and-a-half, I have been able to live in my own apartment in Albany, NY ninety minutes away from my family.
How specifically do you see the College Experience benefiting students on the spectrum today that you did not have the opportunity to experience?
I am very privileged to be a part of the College Experience because the students are offered the support that was not always available during my college years from 2000 to 2004. There was support such as counseling services and the Center for Academic Support Services (CASS) but we were still expected to figure things out on our own. A transition is supposed to be something that happens over a prolonged period of time, although it felt like being thrown into a freezing lake where I was expected to tread water at the start of the 21st Century. It is still very difficult for the students at the College Experience to suddenly be away from their family and living with complete strangers, although they gradually adjust with constant staff support. People on the autism spectrum have a tendency to flounder during transitional periods, which is why I feel they have a fighting chance to survive at the College Experience along with those who have other disabilities. There is no such thing as perfection or environments where bullying will never exist. But is my honest opinion that the College Experience does an amazing job preventing and dealing with issues of bullying. (I had to learn the hard way that bullying does not always stop because students are adults in college) The staff are around to help the students work out their conflicts.
Another way the College Experience is more unique than typical college programs is because the second year of the two-year program is dedicated toward helping the students thrive in internships where they may build lasting connections and professional skills. The one thing that worked out much of the time during my college education is that I thrived in all of my classes. I never earned below a B-minus except in two Biology classes. This high GPA never did much to help after the college years faded when I had to make my way in the World of Employment. I suffered dearly up until my early thirties and can tell you horror stories of working twelve-hour night shifts in my 20s and serving as a dishwasher at the age of thirty years old. Perhaps there would have been hardships anyway, but something like the College Experience would have shaved off some of that anguish because lessons would have been learned with the help of many advocates.
What are some misconceptions about autism you have encountered?
There are plenty of misconceptions about people on the autism spectrum and probably the most common one is that we have no consideration or empathy for other people. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we may have difficulty with seeing things from someone else’s point of view. This is admittedly one of the issues that have outlasted my maturity, and I am able to justify this behavior by flaunting the good intentions. For example, I still give long birthday cards to young women who are acquaintances, which is technically socially inappropriate. But I am able to easily justify this behavior by brining up the many people who are appreciative over such a gesture and play the Asperger’s card by explaining this is how I choose to communicate with people, and it does not necessarily make me a stalker. These difficulties in understanding things from someone else’s point of view is extremely different from a lack of empathy, which is a quality among sociopaths and those without a conscience. Individuals with autism are likely to return someone’s wallet exploding with three hundred dollars in cash because they know it is the right thing to do and are aware of how they would feel if a wallet was lost and nobody bothered to return it.
Another major misconception is how we are liabilities as employees instead of assets. Individuals on the autism spectrum probably need occasional support on the job site, although they may be more diligent employees by showing up early and displaying integrity where someone else may take advantage of any given situation. Change is a part of life, although a lot of us would prefer to ward off unnecessary changes. We may do what we can to hold onto a job for dear life by justifying employment through our actions and redeeming oneself after a counseling session/warning. There could be less of a turnover rate for employees with disabilities and companies are able to invest fewer resources into training new employees. Furthermore, individuals on the autism spectrum may be more motivated to do a good job especially if they have a history of being rejected or bullied. All of a sudden, they have an amazing social atmosphere created by other employees who respect what they bring to the table and do not necessarily pass judgment over petty issues such as how they may talk or what clothes they buy. I am not saying this is the case all the time, although in my current workplace the morale is much higher because I do not feel like I need to impress anybody beyond my work performance. It is possible for those on the autism spectrum to befriend individuals they normally would not have connected with in the outside world.
Jesse Saperstein is also the author of Atypical and Getting a Life with Asperger’s, which are both published by Penguin Group (USA). You can find out more about Jesse by visiting his website: www.jessesaperstein.com and YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/jessesaperstein for additional resources.