Third of a three-part series
By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau
A degree from Northwestern, a career in Christian ministry for the disabled and 20 years as Austin Forney’s mother have given Melissa Pullon exceptional insight into her son’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Eighty to 85 percent of his energy is spent understanding the world around him, just trying to get on the same page,’’ she said. “He has difficulty reading people. It can be euphoric when everybody loves him or it feels like they love him. If there is rejection, it is very dark, and there is a lot of anxiety.’’
That’s why Grand Canyon University's Welcome Week in August 2016 was critical for the freshman from Scottsdale.
“GCU was so amazing for Austin from the very beginning because the invitation felt so big and the welcome felt so genuine, and the purple everywhere was like saying, ‘You can do this, too -- you have the same teachers that I have,’’’ Pullon recalled. “I can remember when Austin went into his room for the first time. The suite mates and RA’s (Resident Assistants) and Life Leaders, those kids were so about inclusion. Not because someone sat there and taught them about it. It came about because of who they were and probably was a huge part of why they were selected to be doing what they were doing. He was cocooned as a freshman.’’
Unfortunately, his freshman friends went their separate ways, leaving Forney isolated in the early months of his sophomore year.
“Kids would go out for coffee and there wasn’t enough room in the car,’’ Pullon said. “So the pain would re-emerge. And it is hard for Austin to read social cues in terms of, ‘Is this person really my best friend, or is this person just smiling back at me?’ Weekends are the hardest, loneliest times. He would hear people around him making plans, and he didn’t know where he belonged or how to engage.’’
At his lowest points, Forney retreated to his room, skipping meals, skipping class and procrastinating with assignments. A saving grace was his student worker job mixing music at The Gathering, the all-student worship service every Tuesday night.
Faith and music mentor
Worship manager Jared Ulrich mentored Forney’s efforts.
“That kept me on track to stay here,’’ Forney said. “He is an amazing, amazing godly man who has been an excellent figure for a lot of people in the Worship program.’’
Ulrich said, "I saw in Austin a desire to find a place to belong. Not only a place to belong but a place to contribute, and I think that contribution was huge for him. He used his love, creativity and passion for music to give himself a role on the Worship team. For him to be a part of something and to know that others were counting on him was monumental. Ultimately, it gave him that true sense of belonging to a community that left him feeling, 'This is my tribe, my team. These are my people."'
As Forney forged new friendships the past 10 months, his need for support in his residence hall has decreased, yet he’s keenly aware of the need for RA’s to step up for all students.
“The one thing I would like is for people to be there for someone with anxiety, be there to help when they have panic attacks, be a mentor and friend,’’ he said. “I am blessed to have a platform to be able to advocate for people. There is a negative connotation sometimes with autism, and that should not be the case.’’
A musical prodigy since pre-school – he played Mozart on the piano at age 4 – Forney has an exceptional ear for mixing sounds.
“Since freshman year of high school, I’ve acquired better equipment and gained more knowledge of how it works,’’ he said. “How fast are the beats per minute? What key is it in? How would it blend with another sound? I try to deceive people; they think one thing is coming and another thing happens and it catches them off guard.’’
Watching her son pump up the crowd at his new student worker job, mixing music at athletic events, is a surreal experience for Pullon, who was informed of her son’s brain abnormality before he was born.
A mom for all reasons
From birth, Forney was extremely sensitive.
“It is so hard to watch it in your own child,’’ said Pullon, who became her son’s life preserver when he was bullied and his translator when people didn’t understand his behaviors.
“She’s always been in my corner,’’ Forney said.
Pullon had to learn how to deal with it as her son became fixated on Spider-Man, Buzz Lightyear, hieroglyphics and ancient Egypt for certain periods of time. "There was nothing that was going to get him off that topic," she said.
During the latter phase, Pullon buried artifacts in their backyard early each morning, so when Forney woke up he could begin an excavation.
There was nothing simple about a trip to the park or the library.
“It felt like I was always playing offense, researching every environment,’’ she said of pre-determining whether dogs would be present or crowds. Or, in the case of a haircut or doctor’s appointment, how long would they have to wait?
Understanding the triggers that affect some students identified with ASD and not others is part of the Master of Arts in ASD offered by GCU since 2015.
Lindy Gaudiano, a program director in the College of Education (COE), organizes the 32-credit program, which has nearly 300 online students.
“Our Student Success Counselors told us that students were inquiring about programs specializing in autism spectrum disorders because it is on the rise,’’ she said.
Learning more about ASD
The program is limited to students who have obtained a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in Special Education and have worked with special education students.
Field experience is required for the program, including observations and one-on-one interventions with students on the spectrum, collaboration with classroom teachers, and interviews with the parents of students with ASD.
“They have to see how a student on the spectrum interacts with other students,’’ Gaudiano said. “It is a lot of observation, working with them one-on-one and working with the support team around that student, too.’’
GCU’s clinical practice team sets up the master’s student with the students on the spectrum through their partnerships with schools nationwide if placement is necessary. GCU students complete required practicum hours with students on the autism spectrum and work with a mentor throughout their program to verify all hours are completed.
Dr. Rebekah Dyer, whose Ed.D in special needs includes a 214-page dissertation on students identified with ASD, is constantly adding to her knowledge base. Arizona is an apt place for her studies because parents of children with ASD have intentionally moved to the state, drawn by its numerous resources, including SARRC, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in central Phoenix.
SARRC is comprised of a school for exceptional children, a research center and a vocational and life studies academy. Increasingly recognized as an expert, Dyer spoke last fall at an international autism convention in China, and the results of her research will be added to the master's in ASD curriculum when it is revised in June.
In Dyer’s role as a COE associate professor, only one student has shared his ASD diagnosis with her.
The student who did speak up “was very upfront about it, and that led him to wanting to be a special education teacher,’’ Dyer said. “He is high functioning; he recently graduated and he went back to his school, a private school for students with disabilities, to teach.’’
Through his willingness to share his condition, Dyer was able to ease his stress.
“For him, trying to retain all the information that I was sharing was overwhelming in a classroom with a whole lot of other people,’’ she said. “So he would come by my office and we would go through all the information from class. And he was one who would ask me to look through his assignments before he would turn them in.’’
Dyer has collaborated with Beth Jamison and her Student Disabilities Services (SDS) staff on a mentoring program through the new ASD Connection program and consulted with Pullon, who views the caring educator as another link in a GCU fabric that has wrapped itself around students with ASD.
“I believe that GCU could set a precedent for being a Christian university that sets the example for what it is to live out the mandate of Luke 14 (“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”) with regard to autism spectrum disorder,’’ Pullon said. “That is my dream. My heart is on fire for this.’’
Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].