Andrew Schlegelmilch is the head psychologist of California’s Orion Academy – a college preparatory school for secondary students with neurocognitive disabilities, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder.
The team at Kahlon Family Services were fortunate enough to have spent a few hours with Andrew recently, picking his brains about what it is like to spend his days in a school like Orion.
We decided to interview him for the Spectrum Blog, so that you – the parents and caregivers of kids with special needs – might be able to get a taste of all the things happening with Andrew and Orion.
(1) Tell us a bit about what you do at Orion Academy
I am the Head Psychologist at Orion Academy. I am responsible for the social and pragmatic language training students receive at Orion, and I answer to the Director of the school. My duties include teaching social skills classes to and otherwise managing Juniors and Seniors at Orion, and all that entails. My workday includes a broad range of activities in addition to teaching, such as parent and professional consultation, program development, individual meetings with students, training of clinical staff, and public speaking.
(2) How did you first become interested in Asperger’s Syndrome and NLD?
I was originally attracted to the job posting because I had clinical experience working in middle schools and high schools in and around Cleveland. I found the school work dynamic and collaborative, and I liked the idea of meeting kids where they lived and worked-out in the community-instead of exclusively in my office after school. I had limited experience working with individuals on the Spectrum at the time, and have since developed an expertise and interest in the population. After about a year working at Orion it occurred to me that several of my friends in high school and college were likely on the Spectrum. I naturally gravitate toward intelligent, verbal, kind, and quirky individuals.
(3) What do you like the most about being surrounded by teens with AS & NLD?
The attraction of being with kids on the Spectrum is, to me, similar to the attraction of international travel. I love meeting and getting to know people who are different from me, see the world differently, and have a unique experience and perspective on the world. Each person I meet on the Spectrum has a dramatically different perspective about life than I do, and I love getting to know this perspective.
(4) What are the greatest challenges with having such a large number of AS/NLD kids in the same school?
Sometimes the academic and clinical needs of ASD highschoolers can be intense and overwhelming, and especially when all the students are needing individual attention at the same time. I am fortunate to work with a talented and highly trained clinical team, and a group of the most gifted, hard-working, and good-natured teachers and staff I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I don’t know where these people get their energy and optimism, but it is one of the main reasons I look forward to going to work every day.
(5) What is the funniest, or most bizarre, situation that you have found yourself in, since working with this population? (These must be frequent)
Weird things happen every day at school. I suppose I have become used to some of the peculiarities over the years I have been working at Orion. I started keeping a log of “events” called “The Second Craziest Thing I Saw Today” because it is never one, discrete, strange moment. Such moments always happen in multiples. Coming up with the strangest story is likely impossible, and unethical to tell because it would be too hard to de-identify the players. Some of the stories make me laugh (a student once brought a cat to our dog training class), some make me cringe (a student went to tell the secretary that he was feeling sick and ended up throwing up on her), some angry (a parent requested a new psychologist when I critically evaluated the independent living skills of his daughter) and some confused (students will accuse me of getting them in trouble with their parents and, in the same breath, ask me for money for lunch).
(6) What kind of advice can you offer parents and teachers with ASD/NLD students, who do not have access to a school made to meet their needs?
Even I depend on a team of professionals to provide adequate care and training to ASD individuals with whom I work. Regardless your experience or ability, work on developing relationships with other adults who can help you in your efforts with raising and training the ASD students in your care.