Psych students get inside look at the life within the lesson

John Harris doesn’t mind public speaking. Yes, he admits to being a little nervous at first each time he does it, but he feels he has a duty to do it. In fact, he considers it “a goodwill mission.”

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John Harris and mom Karen spoke to Rajesh Kana’s Autism: Brian and Cognition psychology class recently about their experience with Asperger’s syndrome. John was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 9. He has lived on his own for the past six years, is a college graduate and a certified scuba diver.

Harris also doesn’t like sitting in the classroom for the first 20 minutes listening to his mom Karen Harris tell their life story — how Asperger’s syndrome has affected every moment of their life since he came into the world 28 years ago. So he sits outside the classroom of Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, and waits for her to finish.

The Harrises were invited by Kana to speak to his Autism: Brain and Cognition (PY354) class — an undergraduate psychology course that gives students a comprehensive overview of autism from cognitive, behavioral and neuroscience perspectives. Kana’s students are listening to a parent and child talk about Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Classmate Andrew Rozsa and his father had spoken to them the week prior about the UAB senior’s life-long battle with Asperger’s. 

This is the third year the Harrises have spoken to Kana’s class; Karen first did it as a student in 2009.

“I think it’s important for people to see what a family has to go through,” Harris says of her reason for speaking. “Maybe seeing it from the parent’s point of view the students will be more patient when they are in the clinical setting or maybe it will trigger something for them later in a research setting.”

This part of the class is the highlight for Kana. His students have spent the previous weeks learning about autism, its characteristics and behaviors. They’ve examined cognitive levels, ways in which behaviors are triggered by thought processes and the brain mechanisms driving them.

But Kana says the visits from parents and their children bring the lessons to life.

“By now, the students know the nuts and bolts of autism conceptually, and they have a good understanding of the theories and brain functions that may drive certain symptoms,” Kana says. “But for the last part of the class, I want them to meet a person with autism and listen to their experience and a parent’s perspective. Ultimately, this should make them think about ways they can help this person as a clinician or researcher.”

When John Harris takes the podium to speak, he is just as his mother promised he would be. He is nervous and talks quickly at first before settling down. He is funny — although often you are not sure if he is trying to be. He is opinionated, especially when it comes to religion and politics.

And when he talks about his childhood and the bullying he was subjected to daily in middle school, the pace of his speech quickens again — and his agitation becomes clear.

“He still has nightmares about middle school,” Harris says of her son. He refers to his middle-school days often during a 40-minute question-and-answer session with Kana’s class, many times unprompted.

“I made a lot of good grades in school,” Harris says answering a question about his school years. “I had a lot of good friends, especially the smart and nicer people. But I was singled out by all the the bullies, jerks and dumb jocks. And middle school was three years of straight-up torture and unending misery because of those creeps. And the teachers never seemed to notice or the baddies would always do it when the teachers weren’t looking. And they never really got in any trouble for it.”

His mom, sitting to the side of the class and away from John, reminded the students about a key autism characteristic that explains the reason her son threw tantrums in school when it seemed he was unprovoked.

“You might not think because a person has Asperger’s or autism that they’re really singled out and bullied, but they make easy targets,” Harris says. “So when they get mad and throw a tantrum, this might be why. An hour ago they might have been picked on or bullied, and they’ve spent that past hour focusing on it before it finally comes out in the form of anger and frustration.”

The story was eye-opening for the students. They were intrigued by the difficulty Karen Harris had obtaining a diagnosis for John: They went through eight doctors before they were finally told he had Asperger’s at age 9. At one point prior to that, they were told he was retarded.

“This was at age 5, and he was reading encyclopedias,” Harris says. “At 2 he could say the ABCs and count to 100. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I didn’t believe anything they said.”

The students in Kana’s class also were surprised to learn John has lived on his own for the past six years, and he is a college graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology, a certified scuba diver and an intern with the Birmingham Zoo doing what he loves best — being around animals. He hopes that the internship will lead to a job with the zoo.

Rozsa found Harris’ story to be fascinating and different in many ways from his own despite their same diagnosis.

“It just shows there are many, many different levels on the autism spectrum,” says Rozsa, a senior majoring in psychology. “It’s not on a line. It’s more 4-D, because the spectrum is constantly changing. How you treat someone really depends on the person. You can’t look at it as a cookie-cutter. What is done for one individual wouldn’t necessarily work for another. Obviously certain things worked for John that wouldn’t have worked for me, and things that worked for me probably wouldn’t have worked for John.”

Kana says it is important for his students to see that even though Rozsa and Harris have the same diagnosis, their behaviors aren’t the same.

“The mechanism driving them internally may be the same, but the way it manifests and as a disorder, the symptoms are different,” Kana says. “I hope the lesson the students take from this is that you cannot plan help for an autistic child without meeting the child first. You can’t use a cookie-cutter approach. You have to see the person, spend time with them, discover their preferences, problems and sensitivities and then devise a plan that fits that individual. When you move to the next person, it’s completely different.”

The goal of Kana’s course is to introduce students to autism and hopefully generate a genuine interest in them becoming a clinician or engaging in research on developmental disorders. Rozsa plans to be a clinical therapist focusing on behavioral analysis for developmental disorders. Sophomore Kayla Recchio of Millbrook also has decided she will work with autistic children in some capacity.

“I knew I wanted to be a psychology major, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that,” Recchio says. “I took this class because I thought it would be interesting, and it has been eye-opening to see people with autism and Asperger’s and the way they deal with things in their daily lives that we take for granted. It’s been a great learning process, and I feel pretty certain that I want to have a career in autism.”

Learning & Development