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Author Jeannie Uhlenkamp talks about autism spectrum disorder at library

Redwood Falls Gazette - 4/12/2017

April is national autism awareness month. That makes it the perfect time of year for a presentation by Jeannie Uhlenkamp who has been a special education teacher in the Redwood Area School District for nearly a decade. She presented information from the two books she has written at the Redwood Falls Public LibraryApril 4.

Uhlenkamp noted the widespread effect of the autism spectrum citing a rough statistic of one person in 88 having a diagnosed condition somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Autism is not an easily defined condition or state of impairments; it is a broad range of neurodevelopmental disorders with some common characteristics often involving communication impairment. While the cause or causes of autism spectrum disorder are hotly debated the fact that the diagnosis is common means the public should possess a basic understanding of the condition.

Uhlenkamp stated, "It's been said that 'if you've met one person with autism, you've only met one person with autism.' It's varied and different from person to person."

Her first book was "The Guide to Dating for Teenagers with Asperger Syndrome," which is a high-functioning disorder on the autism spectrum, meaning they very often lead normal lives but often have awkwardness or low social skills and often have discomfort with many kinds of socialization.

That makes the demand for this sort of book obvious. She originally wrote this book during her time teaching in White Bear Lake when her students began to take romantic interests in each other; she recognized a need to address specific concerns. Some of those concerns specifically covered in the book are how to read and interpret social cues in the dating world.

"The biggest two risks for them are acting too interested and looking like a stalker or else being taken advantage of," Uhlenkamp said while sharing an example of a student who called another party 40 times in a row when they failed to answer.

Other helpful information covers things like maintaining friendships and dealing with break-ups. A common condition of autism spectrum disorder is a sense of heightened sensory input and emotional responses. While that's not a good reason to reject the idea of romance, it's something that individuals must bear in mind – especially if a relationship is ending.

Uhlenkamp wrote the book in a "Dear Abby" kind of format to give teens realistic scenarios for the kinds of situations that come up.

Uhlenkamp often speaks on the topic for teens on the spectrum and has had success by breaking out into small groups and practicing social skills during mock scenarios.

That led to the second book, "Act It Out," which is a workbook that helps provide exercises to rehearse those kinds of situations people on the autism spectrum struggle with. It uses methods such as skits, games and role playing to help implement skills that don't always come naturally – topics aren't limited to dating but include common subjects such as responding to bullies, making friends, knowing when to apologize, etc.

"Imagine the social intricacies of a dinner party and then think of all the difficulties a person on the autism spectrum might encounter and you can understand the need for practicing those social skills," Uhlenkamp said.

She reminded people that "people with high social skills are really just a bunch of fakers anyway," in that they know when to dodge questions and avoid talking bluntly.

Jim Carrey's film "Liar Liar" comes to mind; social skills are often centered around knowing not to honestly answer the greeting, "how are you doing today?"

Men and women on the spectrum would tend to answer that honestly and take the greeting as a genuine question.

Both books are available online or can be found at the local library


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