In his campaign to raise awareness, Jesse Saperstein is always sure to make one point clear – having autism is not a weakness.
Saperstein, a White Plains resident, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 14 years-old. He has since become the author of two books, as well as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying activist. This is why the South Colonie Special Education Parent Teacher Association invited him to Sand Creek Middle School on Monday, Dec. 15.
“I actually saw him at Living Resources, where he teaches creative writing, and so that’s how the whole thing came to be,” said SEPTA President Tracy Ahtila. “He really is an awesome guy….He’s just so honest, and I’ve never met anyone that has Asperger’s. He really is just encouraging. He’s the person we need to get to these parents.”
During his talk, Saperstein took questions from parents and showed some of the techniques he employed to keep himself centered, like keeping time by bouncing a ping-pong ball on a paddle and setting the alarm on his cell phone to go off throughout the day.
He also introduced Albert Newton, a Sesame Street-like puppet, which he plans to use to show young children that being on the autism spectrum is nothing to be ashamed of and that other children may not completely understand.
“Kids bully what they don’t understand,” Saperstein said to one young student on the spectrum.
Among the messages he presented to parents of those on the spectrum, as well as the kids themselves, was that life does not end with autism. Of his experiences, Saperstein said he had been bullied in school and told by teachers that his “oddness” brought the bullying on.
Saperstein discussed the difficulty of transitioning into the work place. He said he has spoken at the United Nations and has tried several different careers, but he always wanted to teach in schools. However, he said with substitute teaching positions he was sometimes fired for showing his “odd” behavior.
“The answer is not to stop the eccentricities, the things that make people incredible, but to compromise. Compromise on the compromises sometimes. I still try to act as weird as I can because it makes me feel good,” said Saperstein.
As he answered questions from parents and teachers about how to handle certain behaviors from kids with Asperger’s, Saperstein shared some of his own personal experiences to show that gaining control over the syndrome is possible.
“You should not have to let go of everything,” Saperstein said in response to SEPTA treasurer Jessica Calarco’s worry about her young son’s fixation on trucks. “Over time, understanding priorities will get easier.”
He said that one of his interests included sending cards and postcards out.When the author was writing his first book, “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters,” he found it hard to comply with his Dec. 21 deadline. This was because that was the day he felt all of his Christmas cards needed to be completed.
What he suggested was to compromise by Calacro allowing her son to do one hour of reading in exchange for two hours of playing with his trucks. It is similar to what Saperstein told one South Colonie District teacher when she asked about students with Asperger’s who were reluctant to turn in homework assignments.
“Make a game out of homework,” Saperstein said. “Give them something to fight for.”
He said that children with Asperger’s respond well to encouragement, like getting small rewards, or having the class clap for them when an assignment is turned in. This was a technique he said helped him as he was growing up.
“Save your overreacting for when a child does something right,” Saperstein told parents. “For every three times they do something right, make a big deal about it. This has allowed me to improve in the best way possible.”
Saperstein emphasized that having Asperger’s was always second to being an individual, but having the syndrome is not a weakness. He displayed photographs of himself hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, which he did, he said, because of Asperger’s.
“The reason I completed the hike is because I have Asperger’s. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve received is, you have no idea when to stop. That’s exactly the attitude that propelled me through all these miles. As long as I continue walking, no one can take anything away from me. No on can say no,” said Saperstein.
After Saperstein completed his speech, Ahtila presented him with the lifelong membership to the SEPTA association, thanking him for taking the time to speak to South Colonie residents.
Ahtila said Saperstein provided parents in the district with what they needed to hear. “That there is light at the end of this tunnel. Your kid can be anything they want to be,” she said.