Student Voices: Zack's Story

By Dale Pennell, C.A.S.

ZackZack Budryk, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), is a student with an autism spectrum disorder. He received his K-12 education in the public schools of Henrico County, Virginia. Zack entered an accelerated academic program in fourth grade and graduated from Hermitage High School’s Center for the Humanities in June 2007.

Interviewer:   Zack, briefly describe your disability and explain how it has impacted you academically, as well as its impact in the areas of adaptive behavior, social skill development, self-determination, and communication skills.

Zack:  Asperger’s Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism that’s associated with narrow topics of interest or expertise, difficulties reading social cues or nonverbal language, and obsessive routines. One aspect of this disability that has come down on both the positive and negative side for me academically is the tendency to focus on very specific areas of knowledge. It’s extremely helpful when your area of interest aligns with the topic being studied, but obviously, it can be problematic when you can’t get yourself interested in what you’re supposed to be learning.

One characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome that doesn’t come up a lot is the tendency to be very set in your routines, and I think that’s part of why I had a difficult time at the beginning of my college career. I had become so used to my IEP supports being provided in high school as a matter of course that I couldn’t process that the procedure for receiving these supports was different in college.  This slowed me down in getting some of the help I needed at VCU.

Communication issues, such as expressing empathy and reading social cues, was something I had to work on as well, not just with regard to teacher-student relationships, but also with student-student relationships within the context of school. My difficulties “opening up” with others made me feel socially isolated, which reduced my confidence level. I think the connection between academic success and social confidence too often goes unacknowledged.

Interviewer: What did your elementary and secondary teachers do to help you succeed?

Zack:   Not a whole lot, which wasn’t entirely their fault; I wasn’t identified as a student with a disability until my freshman year of high school. Not having a diagnosis complicated figuring out how to address behavioral difficulties that manifested as antisocial behavior, rudeness, and a reluctance to accept authority. After finding out that I had Asperger’s Syndrome, I began to “study” how to demonstrate characteristics of social competence that come naturally to others. Teachers and my parents helped me.

In high school, after my diagnosis, I was given an IEP, which helped a lot. I got supports like extra time on tests, the option to take tests and quizzes in private and to step outside if I started to get sensory overload from my surroundings. Something that wasn’t specifically done for me, but that was very fortunate was that in high school a lot of the lessons in my specialty center were in the form of round-table discussions rather than lectures. This made me feel like my tendency to ramble was less of a liability. Since I was diagnosed relatively recently, high school was largely a proving ground for what did and didn’t work.

Interviewer: What suggestions would you give teachers to help them teach students with Asperger’s Syndrome?

Zack:  I think the number-one thing would be to watch your phrasing, no matter how universally understood you think a word or phrase is. I’ve spoken with people whose first language isn’t English, and it seems that many of the precautions you take when you’re talking to someone who’s learning English also apply when you’re talking to someone who’s on the autism spectrum. Don’t assume we’re going to understand all your figures of speech, your body language, or any of the so-called “unwritten” communication rules.

Beyond that, I’d say patience is the most important thing. Looking back at some of the issues I had, I understand how certain characteristics of my disability caused frustration on the part of my teachers, justifiably so at times. Still, I think it’s extremely important to try to find common ground because it’s very easy for a frustrating experience to take both student and teacher back to square one.

Zack will receive a baccalaureate degree in journalism in May 2012. After graduation, he plans to move to Northern Virginia and secure employment, ideally, with The Washington Post. He is engaged to be married.

For additional stories about young adults with autism who have successfully transitioned to adult life, click on the links below.

Barnhill, G. (July 1, 2011). Supporting a person with Asperger’s Syndrome [Webinar]; http://www.vcuautismcenter.org/training/webcasts/details.cfm/178.

Harmon, A. (September 18, 2011).  Autistic and seeking a place in an adult world. The New York Times, p. 1A; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/us/autistic-and-seeking-a-place-in-an-adult-world.html?_r=1.