Autism and the Power of Memory with Ron Sandison | EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS Episode 11


 

In this episode, Hackie Reitman, M.D. interviews Ron Sandison, an author and preacher with autism and savant memory abilities. Ron discusses the importance of parental involvement for the neurodiverse, the benefits of embracing hyper-interests, and his new book “A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom.”

For more information on Ron, visit his site: www.spectruminclusion.com

Pre-order his book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Parents-Guide-Autism-Practical-Biblical/dp/1629986712/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456901696&sr=8-1&keywords=ron+sandison

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

We’re talking today with Ron Sandison. He’s the author of the forth-coming book, “A Parents’ Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, Biblical Wisdom.” He’s also autistic, and has a savant gift of amazing memory. Ron, welcome. How are you?

RON SANDISON (RS)

I’m doing good, thanks for inviting me on your show today.

HR

Well, we’re delighted to have you, all the way from Michigan. Why don’t you introduce yourself to our viewers and listeners?

RS

My name’s Ron Sandison and I have autism, and my development began normal, and at 18 months I hit the “Autism Time Clock.” It goes “tick-tick” and then I lost my ability to have eye contact, I also lost my ability to say words that I had previously learned. I said my first word at 9 months, which was “mommy,” and then at 18 months, I lost the ability to say mommy and all I could say is “mum–mum–” and my mom knew something was wrong at the 18 month mark. And I had testing done, at age 7 I was diagnosed as having autism. And, at age eight, the school specialist told my parents that I’d never read beyond a seventh-grade level, I’d never excel in sports and I’d never get married or have any meaningful relationships. My mom was determined to prove the experts wrong. And she took–the school wanted to diagnose me, before I was diagnosed as autism, as emotionally impaired, and my mom said, “it’s not emotional, it’s neurological.” And then, when the testing was done at Henry Ford hospital in 1983, when I was eight years old, it came back and it was autism.

HR

Wow, quite a story. I like your mom. I like people who want to beat the odds, you know? That’s how we do it. How did you get into running track? And I ask that because my daughter Rebecca, who also has Asperger’s, she became all-county in cross-country and track and running and really used to love that. Tell me how you got into it.

RS

The way I got involved in track is my parents always worked with my special interests. From kindergarten all the way to sixth grade, my special interests were prairie dogs, and everywhere I went, I carried prairie pup, who I have here today, everywhere I went, prairie pup went with me. And then, in sixth grade, they officially expelled prairie pup from the public school system. And then in sixth grade, my sport became baseball. I ate and breathed baseball. Every day that was all I did. I was totally focused on it, and then, when I tried out for the baseball team in the eighth grade, the Hart Middle School team, I knew that I was going to make the team.

I was the second best player trying out for the team, and then came the day when they put the results from the tryouts, and I looked on the tryout list and I didn’t make the team, and I started crying. And the coach came over and patted me on the back and he said, “son, you’re a great baseball player, but what you don’t realize is you’re the fastest runner in this school, and some day, you’ll get full ride for track and cross-country if you keep with running.” And that was when I decided I was going to run track. And I tried out for the track team, made the track team, in middle school set three schools records, and then, from there, when I got into high school, my first two years I did pretty good in track but not awesome. My junior year, my relay team, the 3200 relay, which runs at half a mile, finished 12 in the state of Michigan, and then on the way back from the track meet, Nate Cray, who ran for Minnesota when he got in college and won the big ten and could run a mile in under 4 minutes in college, looked at the coach and said, “next year, we’d be the fastest relay in the state of Michigan but we won’t have Ron Sandison on our track team.”

And right there, I heard in my heart, I’m gonna provide a way for you to run. I knew it was a voice that was greater than myself, which I believe was the voice of God, and I told the track coach, I said, “next year, I’m going to be on the track team, even though past the age limit of the Michigan High School Athletic Association and Coach looked at me and laughed and said in the last 20 years, no one’s been able to keep past the age limit in high school sports, and my parents called every lawyer trying to get one to take my case, and they said it’d cost $40,000, which my parents were unable to afford. And coming in my senior year, that summer I ran 500 miles, believing that somehow, I’d be able to compete on the track team, and somehow be able to affect the school records and be one of the fastest 3200 relay teams in the state of Michigan, and I came back from a five-mile run, when I got the newspaper, there on the front page of the newspaper was a young adult named Craig Stanley, who was also born in 1975, May, with a track and cross-country runner, and had learning disabilities and was passed the age limit to compete, and it was in the Detroit news.

So my parents contacted his parents, we got together in advocacy, and we decided to do one more news paper article for the Detroit news. And his parents said they called lawyers and no one would take the case. I said, “We’re going to run. I don’t know how.” And during this time period, I decided to get water baptised to show my committment to faith, and the day I got water baptised, I came out of the water on a Sunday, the pastor looked at me and he said, “I normally don’t give someone word that I feel is for them, but this word is for you: Joel 2:25–‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten–the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts–the army that I sent among you.'” And he said, “There was an army of locusts in your past that have eaten up a lot of the good things you could have had with your disability, but today that’s going to change.” And when I got home from in-water-baptisement, answering machine was blinking red. And when I pressed the answering machine, it was a young lawyer saying I want to take your case pro-bono. “I believe that, under the Americans Disability Act, you will win your case and be able to accomplish going to college and accomplish many other things that your learning disability may have pampered you from accomplishing.”

So my parents and I went out there, met with Rick Landell, and he took our case. It’s interesting, one of the things he said to me when he took my case, I never told him that one of my special interests was baseball four years ago, he looked at me and said, “Son, if your sport was baseball, you’d be watching from the stands this year,” because four years ago in Kentucky, there was a young adult who soothed to play baseball, and they said it was contact sport under The American Disability new laws, so if your sport was baseball, you wouldn’t be competing this year in sports. And since track and field was a non-contact sport, I was able to win my case. My relay team finished the second fastest time in the state of Michigan and I went on to get full-ride to Rochester College, which was then Michigan Christian College, run track and cross-country.

HR

You know, Ron, you’re obviously a man of great faith and of great memory. This is a natural segway into–you’ve just given us a great illustration of your faith, and now–how did the faith and the memory get together?

RS

The way my memory became so great, was when I was diagnosed as having autism–the school systems, at first, wanted to diagnose me as emotionally impaired. And my–like I said earlier, my mom said it’s not emotional but neurological, and when she saw the special ed crafts room setting for the emotionally impaired, all of the kids were basically being babysat, they weren’t using their gifts, they weren’t using their talents, and my mom was a woman of great faith too. She believed Proverbs 22:29 “Do you see a man skilled in his labor, he will serve thee for kings, not obscure men.” And she knew I had this great gift, and she knew if she could develop it, I’d serve before great men, and not obscure men.

And she knew if she had me in that classroom setting where I was basically being babysat, all the best I could do would pump gas, and she was determined to take my great gift of memory that she saw that I had that ability, developed it, and then enabled me to use that to develop our social skills and our abilities. And the main way she did it was quitting her job as an art teacher and working full-time doing pre-ABA therapy with art to teach me things, and she used prairie pup as a main way of teaching, and she’d write stories that I dictated and I’d draw the pictures for the story beginning from age five all the way until age about 12, and by developing that gift, and drawing prairie pup for the Detroit art poster contest, I ended up winning the Detroit art contest for open county, Detroit-Edison and I got to meet Isaiah Thomas, and then through developing art, it also developed my memory to be able to blossom and to be able to memorize great amounts of things. And my special interests, my junior high school was both track, and memorizing scriptures, and one year I memorized over 2,000 scriptures.

HR

Now tell me about your family.

RS

My family, my dad was an architect, my mom was a professional artist, and then I have a brother, Chuck, who’s also on the autism spectrum. He has Asperger’s, and his special interest is Star Wars, so he was all excited with the new movie coming out, and when the new movie came out, he was one of the first people to see it, and he has over $40,000 Star Wars collection in his basement, where he’s made all the models from the original movies, six-inch figures, and then he has them on glass-casings with a lock because he has four kids so he doesn’t want them getting into the Star Wars collection.

HR

Now, are you married also?

RS

I’m married, yep. I’ve been married now three years. My famous joke is, I got married on December 7th, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor and I told my in-laws since I have autism I’m coming in like a kamakaze, and also kamakaze means “whirlwind of fire,” as a preacher, I’m a whirlwind of fire sometimes.

HR

We feel that a lot of the institutions would gladly embrace neurodiversity if they were educated in it. So I’m very proud to be giving the first ever neurodiversity lectures to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, and we believe that–you know, police would be glad to–if they were educated, teacher would be glad, doctors–I mean I’m and M.D. and I got no training in this, Ron, you know, I just–I didn’t. Let us talk, because you’ve opened a new dimension here to me because I really hadn’t thought of it, the religious institutions. You know? Religious organizations, religious institutions, do you feel that they are properly aware of neurodiversity? And if not, how would you go about spreading the word?

RS

I think that a lot of the churches don’t fully understand autism, and also the billing and the gifts we can provide for the church and also for the ministry and seeing the world in a different way. And growing up, working in the church, my first four years after I got done with my Master Divinity, I worked in a church as a youth pastor, and a lot of people saw me as being different. Most people would be real warm and friendly as a pastor, go up and then shake your hand and look you in the eye, but I had difficulties during that time being able to look people in the eye, due to autism. And also, a lot of times I’d seem aloof; unaware of my surroundings, unaware of things that are going on and people are taking it as me being uniterested in them, rather than be neurologically wired different and having to think more on the environment going on around me. I like to joke, when I speak at places, to describe how my mind is different than other people. And today I got a simple illustration that everywhere I go, I use this illustration. Most people are like bottled waters. Bottled water, there’s not much going on here. You can shake it up, you can stir it up, nothing’s going to really happen when you stir up bottled water. You can open it up–but I’m more like Mountain Dew that’s carbonated, and it has a lot of sugar in it. You start shaking it up, you start moving it around, you don’t wanna open up the Dew. I say, if you open up the dew, you’re gonna get the honey badger, and the video for a honey badger that says, “A honey badger, you don’t wanna mess with him.” And I’m more like the Mountain Dew, and a lot of people have trouble understanding the reason I do the things that I do, when I’m neurologically wired different.

HR

Tell us about your book.

RS

I wrote this book because I realized that there’s a lot of parents out there that feel hopeless. Christine Barnett, who wrote the forward for my book, her son Jacob Barnett also has a photographic memory, and a great ability–16-years-old and he already has his Ph. D from college in Toronto and, when she wrote the forward, she described best, she said, “the word can’t. Everyone uses the word can’t.” Ron can’t read beyond a 7th grade level, Ron can’t be able to develop relationships, and she got the same response with her son, and now he has a Ph. D at age 16 and she said we need to change it to can. And she–her whole model was find this spark in people, and when I read her book, “The Spark,” I had realized this is my mom, this sounds just like a book my mom would write about me, because she saw that spark in me, she developed that spark in me, and I decided I wanted to write a book, not just sharing my testimony, but telling how you develop that spark, how do you take that gift and develop it so that the child doesn’t serve before obscure men, working in the library or just hanging out in the library, but actually has a great gift that they’re able to use and develop and be able to serve before kings. And, in my old life, I’d been able to serve before many well-known people. I got to speak in front of 6500 people in Colombus, Ohio at Rob Parsley’s Church, and I’d been able to speak on Richard Robert’s Show, and share my testimony. I’ve been on CNN, I’ve been one countless TV shows sharing my testimony. My senior year of high school I was on every news station in Michigan, sharing about my running, and I hadn’t served before obscure men, but before kings, and it was all because what my mom did with developing my gifts.

HR

Well you’re inspiring a lot of people. You’re inspiring a lot of people, Ron, and it’s–it’s wonderful. Now what would you tell parents who maybe are a little bit down in the dumps about their kid?

RS

What I’d tell parents is never limit potential. Realize that your kid has great gifts and that, as you develop those gifts, and as you work and enter it into their world, then you’re able to bring them out into your world. And the key to autism is to be able to realize that you can’t always bring an autistic kid into your world, but you can always enter their world. If your kid’s interested in trains, spend time with them looking at trains, developing that gift and interest in trains, but then use the interest in trains to develop other interests, such as math and English and science, and create an environment where a child feels safe to come out of their world and safe to express themselves and be able to learn. And learn comes through playing, and learning comes through being able to develop a gift.

HR

That’s very well-said. The need to connect before your first instict is to stop doing that and stop doing that and do what we all do, one-size-fits-all, well one size does not fit all, and your theory and recommendation to first connect, and then harness that hyperinterest, for positive things, is a way we need to go. Now when is your book coming out?

RS

My book comes out April 5th of this year.

HR

And how can people buy that book when it comes out?

RS

When it comes out you can get it at Barnes & Nobles, and also on Amazon. Right now you can preorder my book on Amazon and also on Barnes & Nobles.

HR

Now what advice directly would you have for somebody who is on the spectrum themselves?

RS

What I’d recommend for someone on the spectrum is read everything you can read, and never give up, says in Charles Birds is a famous preacher who said, “By perseverance, the snail made it on the ark.” And even if you’re very slow in developing your gifts, even if you’re very slow in being able to articulate social relationships, if you start moving in that direction, there’s going to be momentum, and the more you learn, the more you educate yourself, the more you’re like that snail moving, sooner or later you’re going to accomplish something great, like the snail being on the ark and us having the snail today.

HR

Ron, let’s go back to your analogy about the bottle of water versus the bottle of Mountain Dew, okay? Would you say that that analogy holds for avoiding a meltdown by aleviating the anxiety as you see it coming, as you see those bubbles start to come up, or is there an analogy there in your mind?

RS

Yeah, I think that part of it is that, realize what makes you do the dew. They used to have that commercial where that person jumping off the bridge and they got the harness on him, the bungee cord, and then they had the dew, and they said, “I’m doing the dew.” Well there’s certain things that, where potential energy becomes kinetic. Where it starts falling, and the more you realize, what are the potential things that could cause a meltdown? And is it building up as potential energy builds up and sooner or later going to become kinetic energy. And learn what your potential for meltdowns are and try to avoid those situations. For me, my big meltdowns were caused by sensory issues. When I was a cub scout, in third grade, one day I had a hat on and they had a puppet, a clown with a puppet on, and the puppet grabbed my hat and placed it’s hand on my head. And I remember I ripped that puppet out and start beating the ground and it was like home of the clowns in living color, and then I ran out of there. But see, that sensation of someone touching my head and then taking the hat off and putting it on their kids head, created that meltdown. I think that as you get older, if you can realize the things that are going to cause a meltdown, another thing that causes big meltdowns for me is bass. There’s that song, “it’s all about the bass, the bass,” not with me, you give me the bass and you’re gonna get this and you’re gonna get a honey badger showning up at your house. So, with me I hate bass, and in college that was the biggest challenge I had, was living in a dorm and you’d have people with “boom… boom…” and the whole walls would be shaking I’d be coming down there, shaking, ready to release a can of whip.

HR

You know, you’re a very busy guy, you’re working very hard, you’re speaking, you’re writing books, you’re a pastor. What other jobs do you have?

RS

I work full-time at Havenwyck Hospital as a psychiatric care specialist, which is basically a nurses tech, but also a counselor for people who have addiction issues and who had editions with psyche. I also worked, which I’ve been doing for 13 years, as a Professor of Theology of Greek and on church history. And I also traveled about one day a week, speaking at churches, speaking at autism centers and speaking at schools and other places sharing my testimony on autism, sharing on different issues of autism and how to address them, and how to create inclusion.

HR

Now if our viewers and listeners want to find out about you and learn more or get in touch with you, how do they do it, Ron?

RS

They can go SpectrumInclusion.com, and the reason I chose the title, “Spectrum Inclusion,” is everyone on the–with autism, is at a different place in their walk with autism. Some people are high-functioning, some people are pre-verbal, and some are struggling at the lower end trying to just develop those skills, and my full goal is to help people move up the spectrum and also be included in activites, such as religious activities, such as school activites. Because I knew how I felt, my senior year of high school, to be told you’re not gonna be able to compete on the track team because you’re past the age limit because you were held back in Kindergarten because of autism, and I wanna make sure that no one else ever has to experience being kicked out or not accepted because of their neurological diversity.

HR

Do you agree with me or disagree, see I’m starting to see things on an overall spectrum, not just an autism spectrum. But that we’re all on a spectrum, and many of the characteristics you just described overlap into other areas–you know, dyslexia, OCD, ADHD, PTSD, so forth. Do you see it in your brain that way, or, you know, when you look at the whole thing–or do you see autism and asperger’s as kind of a separate thing? How do you see it?

RS

I see autism being a spectrum; like you said, everyone’s on a spectrum, some, there are debilitating effects from being farther up on the spectrum or being farther down on the spectrum, and I think that that’s different. There’s a quote from a famous writer, Newberg, who said, “no person is totally autistic and no person is not at all autistic.” Even God is a little autistic because the planets spin. And I think that’s the best way of expressing it. Gerald Newberg who said that.

HR

Funny. Do you have–tell us about your book, tell us about your book, tell us the name of the book and what’s in the book, we know why you wrote it but tell us what’s in it?

RS

My book is titled, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, Biblical Wisdom,” and my book begins by giving you an understanding of autism, how is autism unique, what causes autism or what are the contributing factors, we don’t know exactly what causes but we know there’s contributing factors. And then it works into how do you build a kids self-esteem? Parenting; How do you develop the gift, how do you get your child from where he’s at to where you want him to be? Graduating from college, having meaningful relationships, and if you notice from me talking, there’s still areas where I have quirks, autism quirks; one is I say “TH” and “L’s” wrong a lot of the time, because I say that I’m wired different and I don’t have all the speech wiring that other people have, but I also have neurological wiring for memory that’s storage based and bandwidth, and a lot of people don’t have that type of bandwidth with memory, and it takes away sometimes with me saying certain words and I have to watch those words. It’s not intuitive for me to put my tongue between my teeth when I say brother.

So I’ll say it sometimes lazily when I speak. And my book teaches parents how to look at those areas, how to–also bullying, one of the things that I experienced hardcore with having autism was bullying, and I love to share a funny story, people always ask me, “What is it like to have autism?” I share this story in my book. I said it’s like the unfortunate seal named Sally, and I got Sally the Seal here. In 1989, XN Veldez hired an alcoholic to take their boat out with 53 million gallons of oil the tanker had, and it hit an iceberg, and within three days, 11 million gallons of oil was contaminating Alaska. And they spent $2 billion cleaning up the water, cleaning up the environment, but then they realized they had forgot one major factor: The wildlife. So what they decide to do is they took Sally, and they each spent $10,000 on one lucky Seal and named her Sally the Seal, and she became their mascot. Arnold Shwarzenegger said, “Sally the Seal will be back.” Michael Jackson said, “I really hope Sally comes by Never Never Land Ranch and brings in all the kids.” And they made a slide for Sally, and then came the big day when Sally was being released into sea. She had a water slide and she goes flying to the sea, and out of no where comes a killer whale, and Sally the Seal, she became Sally the Meal. And many times in my life, I’ve felt like Sally the Seal, and that’s one of the things that, with writing my book, I want people–I mean I felt like Sally the Meal not Sally the Seal–and that’s one of the things I want to see, is that kids don’t feel like that. That they have resources, the parents, so the kids can learn to be able to be bully-proof, which I have a chapter on. And they can learn the skills and be able to succeed in life.

HR

What tips can you give people on the spectrum on dating? You’re married, you have a family, what tips can you give the neurodiverse and their parents and caring third parties?

RS

The advice I’d give is this: is never give up. It says a righteous man falls seven times, but he rises again. And that’s a key to me getting married. I like to joke that, and this is a true story, is I had dated over 300 women to meet one who is willing to put up with my autism quirks. And it was by not giving up, but by learning from every date something new. One of the things I learned was first seek to understand, then to be understood. And being able to listen before I just speak. A lot of times I’d go out on dates, and women would be like, “you’re a handsome guy but you just need to be quiet more,” and be interested, but not hovering. A lot of people with autism, they’re so focused on something that becomes their new special interest. And dating, that will lead to getting a restraining order. So some of the simple advice I give in my chapter in my journey with autism.

HR

What are your career goals going forward?

RS

I want to be the first congressman with autism, because there is a pattern that I see going on, and it’s a huge pattern, it’s called the Rule of Law. You have a set price for a set commodity, you can put whatever you want and determine your own wages. What we’re seeing is that the reason our economy is poor, it’s not a poor economy, it’s a rich economy for the rich, but it’s oppressing everyone else, and it’s based on the Rule of Laws. The government will have organizations like UHS: Universal Health Services, which I worked for, to give them a set price for medicare/medicaid, and then they cut the wages of everyone working under them, and then they determined their own wages. So ahead of UHS, Allen B. Mill is a company I work for, makes $20 million a year, that side is real money. As real comes from it’s 4% of 1.8, $3 billion profit they’re making, and the average company in America only makes 4-5% profit.

The average privatized company that gets money from the government is making 20-25% profit, and we have this lobbying going on which is creating that environment where, for every dollar accounted in lobbies, it cost taxpayers $350 in expenses of things costing more than they normally cost. Airplanes are a perfect example, right now to go to Florida and back, it’s over $600, where the price should be going down because the price of gas is only $1.48, where, when it was $3.10, the price was lower for the plane ticket, and again you have the airplane companies lobbying bigtime. So my goal is to end the lobbying. What I like to say is “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? And what does K Street have to do with the roads of America,” meaning the average road, and what that quote is fortelling is Jerusalem was a religious center of the world and Athens was a philosopher center of the world, and K street is where the lobbying is, and the street where we live on, why should we be impacted by this lobbying? We are a government of the people for the people. So I’m gonna become the first congressman with autism, and I’m going to show up in a honey badger outfit and Jesus cleansed the temple, and I’m going to cleanse K-street, or North street, where all of the lobbying is going on, and people follow, because it just takes one person to stand up and then everyone else will follow, like dominoes.

HR

Well, Ron, I want to tell you, this has been a privilege and a pleasure to talk to you. I learned a lot today. A lot. And you certainly are a unique human being, and I’m looking forward to reading your book and I look forward to talking to you again and keeping in touch. Over here at DifferentBrains.com, we want to help mainstream the postive messages such as your giving here, all right? Thanks again Ron, take care. Once more, tell the people the name of your book, how they can purchase it and how to get in touch with you.

RS

Again, my name is Ron Sandison. The name of my book is, “A Parents Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, Biblical Wisdom,” and then you can preorder the book on amazon and my website is SpectrumInclusion.com, and I just want to end on one quote that I keep thinking about: Our play of today, becomes our technology of tomorrow. So, don’t just get your kids in therapy, get them involved in like–get them involved in every asset of life, and let them enjoy life, and don’t think your kid has to be like you, for them to enjoy life. Let them enjoy life in the unique way that they were neurologically wired and that their play will develop into social skills, their play will develop into developing relationships, academics and maybe even some new technology that we don’t know about today. Maybe there will be a flying car some day because of some kid who was pre-verbal and his parents worked with him, like my parents did and Jacob’s parents did, and now they’re inventing things because of their play.

HR

Well thank you very much, Ron. Great to talk to you. We’ve had the privilege today of talking to Ron Sandison, the author of the forthcoming book, “A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, Biblical Wisdom.”

 

 

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