November 1st, 2012

Diagnosis changes psychologist’s work, life

Ten years ago, Michael McManmon’s life changed drastically. When the founder of a post-secondary college and employment program for young adults with learning differences was approached by a staff member who thought he showed many of the traits of Asperger’s, he began to see himself anew. After more research into the syndrome, McManmon started work on his own issues, which, in turn, led him to focus more on the children with Asperger’s he had already been serving.

Because of his diagnosis, McManmon, Ed.D., has been able to broaden his own horizons. Today, the College Internship Program has expanded to six sites across the country. McManmon has written a book, “Made for Good Purpose: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Help Their Adolescent with Asperger’s, High Functioning Autism or a Learning Difference Become an Independent Adult.” His art is being shown in a gallery at his Berkley school and he is writing more books on the subject along with the poetry he has always used to express himself.

McManmon spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his work with young adults with Asperger’s and how his experience has helped to give him greater insight into the students he assists.


Q: You were not cognizant of the fact that you had Asperger’s and yet you wound up working with people with similar issues. What made you start this program?

A: I think that a lot of us come into the work because of our own problems. When I look back at my career for the past 40 years, I think I probably became a psychologist and started the program to help myself and to help kids who are just like me. As I got healthier myself, I have been able to be more effective with them.

All this development in the last 10 years is because I was able to self-actualize after my own diagnosis. I am sort of the poster boy for late diagnosis.

Q: When your staff approached you, what did they see? How did they approach you?

A: My academic coordinator came into my office with a list of attributes for Asperger’s. She was very careful about it; she didn’t want to get me upset. She said, ‘please just look at this.’ I had been thinking about it a little bit and when she started to go through some of the aspects of it, I had to agree with her.

Q: After you were formally diagnosed, you re-focused the learning center to help Asperger’s students?

A: We knew we had some autistic students, students with autistic features, but we didn’t see the Asperger’s or the nonverbal learning disabilities. Then [after my diagnosis], we started to identify them and modified our curriculum working with Steven Shore, Ed.D., a big guru in the field and with other experts on our board.

Before I was diagnosed, we had one center and because I was very rigid, and couldn’t work with groups, and was very shut down myself, it was 15 students and I was doing most everything. Now, we have six centers with 120 employees and 120 students around the country. We have a performing arts center at the Berkshires. We have an art gallery, which my show is in now, a cafe, an organic crepery, equine therapy and are adding art therapists. The world has opened up because I have been opened to it. I can navigate the world and do these things.

Q: How has the diagnosis helped you in your personal life and with your artwork?

A: Well, I did all my drawings in black ink on paper and they were very constrictive and in small detail. In the last nine years, I have done big, color, textures and all types of art. It is sort of like being out of your box and being able to experience the world.

My life has changed dramatically in every area: socially, emotionally and the business is growing. I have six adult children and my relationships with them have changed. They have a dad now. I am not just a “human doing,” I can be a “human being.”

Q: Your book is very story-centered, telling your own personal story along with those of your students to outline the work that you do.

A: The book is stories about the curriculum areas that we have in our program. The first chapter is about diagnosis and acceptance and understanding yourself, which has been critical to me. It’s one thing to know you have Asperger’s but do you know what sensory issues you have and which you don’t? What social executive functions do you have and do you know what to do about it? It’s about accepting who you are. It’s not dysfunctional or disabled; it’s really more of a learning difference in most cases.

I pushed throughout the whole book that it’s an inside job – once you get kids able to understand who they are and all of the aspects of that and take control of that, then they are just so smart they take off.

Q: You have talked about your brother and sister, both of whom you believe were on the Autism scale and both of who committed suicide. How have you dealt with that, especially in light of your own diagnosis?

A: I do what I have to do for myself, to self-soothe and to help myself. It is a source of strength for me to help other people. I get it and it really does help me in my work and in my own life.

I am going to write a story about my brother and sister, showing aspects of their Asperger’s and high-functioning autism and then make it into a book. What killed them both is the cognitive rigidity and an inability to form long-lasting relationships. They could not do it and they got depressed about it.

My staff will get a lot out of it – the understanding of what I have been through recently. It can be fairly insightful to understand how this works with people.

It is a serious game we are playing here with these kids and it is sometimes life or death for some of them, in the sense of having a life. If you can release them from a life of rigidity, anxiety, fear, and depression, that’s a big thing.

Kids on the spectrum look like they are very functional and they can think on a high plane in spiked areas but their lows are much lower than other people’s. The important part is that they do have the same emotions and feelings; they just don’t express them the same way. It takes me a couple of weeks to understand what I was feeling two weeks ago.

I think really that you just can’t go confidently into the world as a young adult if you don’t know who you are and you don’t understand yourself. 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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