Byron Ross, assistant clinical professor in the University of Houston department of communication sciences and disorders, almost pursued a career in psychiatry.
“People always told me I was a good listener,” he said. “The career surveys I took in school always suggested psychiatry as a career.”
But there is a group of UH students who are glad he did not. The group doesn’t have a name or a set number of members, but all in the group have one thing in common: all are on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. They meet with Ross once a week during the semester.
“I wanted our meetings to be a social skills therapy. I sent out an invitation to the 28 individuals who were associated with the Student Center for Disabilities,” he said. “The ones who responded didn’t want a ‘social skills group.’ They wanted someone to talk to.”
The Asperger category of the spectrum describes individuals who are high functioning, with average to above average cognitive abilities and language function. Typically, they exhibit repetitive patterns of behavior, social communication struggles and interaction challenges. These can be mild or severe.
“Many in the group have adopted the term ‘Aspies,’ which has become a positive label to self-identify with,” he said. “One article I’ve read suggested that some people with Asperger’s Syndrome consider themselves to be the evolution of the human brain. They’ve been taught not to lie, so they don’t. They focus intently. They’re passionate about topics.”
Ross is careful not to call their weekly meetings “therapy.” The meetings are not required. Students come when they can. The purpose is just to talk.
“Turning in assignments on time is an issue. For example, one student, who is very smart, felt he had to do one school project at a time, all the way through until it was finished, before beginning another. This put him very behind,” he said. “Other topics are roommates, girlfriends, becoming part of an organization — all big issues. We talk through strategies.”
The weekly meetings are also part mentoring as Ross listens to their challenges with schoolwork or relationships. Like one student who spoke with Ross every Friday during one taxing semester.
“Talking about the problems I was dealing with and discussing possible causes and solutions clarified a lot of confusion and helped me put everything in perspective,” he said. “With a thorough understanding of the ASD-related stress and its effects on academic success, Dr. Ross proved an invaluable resource for me in keeping my head above water during the school year.”
Ross, whose research interest includes eye contact, or what he calls “flicker gaze,” the sideways glance typical of some with ASD, aims to teach his students in the manner in which they learn.
“One thing I teach is dynamic skills and static skills. Static skills are things like following a recipe. It never changes. This is their strength. Dynamic things, like conversations, are not their strength, because they change all the time,” Ross said. “What I try to do is make dynamic situations static, like using something I’ve developed called a ‘conversation rollercoaster.’ It provides typical conversation greetings and what words to use to end conversations. Dynamic things become static.”
The sessions culminate at the end of the semester with a celebratory meal. Ross says he’s always proud of them.
“People with autism do conventional things in unconventional ways.”