Wheel of Fortune Comes Full Circle for Man with Autism

Tom Iland has been solving Wheel of Fortune puzzles for three decades

It was quite a shock when Tom put down his Legos, stood in front of the TV and solved the Wheel of Fortune bonus round puzzle, “Spring Break” before the contestant. He was just three years old. Stunned, my mother and I looked at one another and asked, “What just happened?” We were relieved to witness this amazing moment together, since no one would have believed it without someone else to back up the story!

Tom was mesmerized by the Wheel of Fortune TV show from the time he was really little. I remember him freezing in his tracks as he crawled on the carpet before his first birthday, watching with rapt attention as contestants spun the wheel and called out letters. This fascination continued for years.

Tom’s early years pretty much matched what I read in the baby book with one clear exception. He started saying single words around fourteen months, but around his second birthday, he had a sudden regression and stopped talking almost completely.  Of course my husband and I took him straight to the pediatrician, who told us to wait and see, not to worry.

We were tremendously relieved when Tom began talking again a few months later, and were delighted to see that he could also read pretty much anything he saw!  He also arranged magnetic letters on the refrigerator to spell words. We discussed this with the pediatrician, and agreed that Tom had experienced a “pregnant pause.” He was using those months of silence to soak up language in all its forms.

We figured our son was a genius, and that genius accounted for any other differences we were noticing, like the fact that he lined up his toys or never joined in during playdates with the neighborhood children. Tom was presenting a mixed bag of signals that we did not know how to interpret. The word “autism” was creeping into our consciousness. Was it possible to be gifted like Tom and have autism? In 1989 when he had an informal screening, the answer was, “No.

By 1994, however, Asperger Syndrome was added to the diagnostic manual experts use, expanding the view of autism to include people with normal or gifted intelligence. Asperger Syndrome explained the social, communication, behavioral and sensory differences that Tom had been experiencing for years. The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is now used to include people of all abilities who fit a unique pattern of developmental differences.

 

When Tom was in elementary school we scrambled to get him the help he needed. These were very difficult years for him and the entire family. I think the most heartbreaking aspect for us all was the bullying and rejection by his peers. Tom found comfort in an old friend, the Wheel of Fortune TV show. He took the computer game version with him everywhere and tuned nightly to the familiar faces of Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

 

Over the years, Tom responded well to the interventions and therapy he received, and made great gains. He used coping strategies to manage the daily challenges of life. He learned to be more social and make friends. He learned to drive. He began to understand autism and how it affected him. He learned to accept and love himself without regrets. He started to speak up for himself and become a self-advocate.

Tom was excellent at math and set his sights on becoming an accountant. He got a college degree and successfully passed the very difficult examination to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). He worked in corporate America for almost a decade when he decided that accounting was not the right field for him.

Tom does not keep his autism a secret, and many people asked him, “How did you become the person you are today,” or “How can I help my students with ASD?” Tom decided to walk away from his accounting career to dedicate himself full time to speaking and training on autism.

He is also sharing what he learned from his experiences to inspire others who face similar challenges in his upcoming book, Come to Life: Navigating the Transition to Adulthood. In it he explains his mantra, “Know Yourself. Love Yourself. Be Yourself.” He speaks directly to his peers and suggests ways that youth with ASD or similar disabilities can discover themselves.

­In the meantime, Tom’s love for the Wheel did not wane, and he is still an excellent player. When his schedule became flexible he decided to try out. He did really well in the auditions and was called very soon afterwards to be a contestant. We all always pictured him on that stage, and it was a highlight of his life to finally be there!

During the contestant interview when Pat Sajak chats with him, Tom tells a short version of his life story, past and future. As his mother, that moment was enough for me, seeing him there so poised and articulate, having overcome more than anyone could know, telling the world he is ready to make a difference by helping others. I could have stopped watching then and there (but of course I didn’t).

What better time for this episode to air than in Autism Awareness Month, or as Tom prefers, Autism Acceptance Month? Tom represents the potential of people with autism and the very real ability they have to contribute to the world, whatever their gifts may be.

Tune in on Tuesday April 18 to see how it went for Tom, whether the Wheel favored Tom or if Wheel of Misfortune better characterizes his luck that day!

Visit www.ThomasIland.com for more information about Tom.

Be Safe The Movie

Be Safe The Movie

Training the Police to recognize and respond to people with ASD is one part of the safety solution. Safety training for people with ASD is the other ESSENTIAL piece of the puzzle. Visit www.BeSafeTheMovie.com for more information about the new video modeling curriculum for those with ASD and related conditions.

Law Enforcement Collaboration

Law Enforcement Collaboration

Collaborating with local law enforcement agencies is a key to safety in the community. Emily is grateful for the many years she has worked with LAPD professionals as the Autism Awareness Project Manager for the Autism Society of Los Angeles (a volunteer position!). Training thousands of police about ASD was also a chance to learn about the police perspective on safety. This led to the idea of directly training young people with ASD to understand and use safe behaviors when interacting with the police. The LAPD-ASLA Autism Symposium is a tremendous event that combines experiential learning for the police, and a relaxed, fun atmosphere for students and law enforcement professionals to get to know one another. BE SAFE the movie was also inspired by this work.

Leadership and Service

Leadership and Service

President, Autism Society of America Los Angeles Chapter. Leadership position since 2006 in autism advocacy organization.

Program developer, project manager, and lead trainer of the Autism Society-Los Angeles Police Department Autism Awareness Training, 2007-present. Providing training for Los Angeles Police Department Officers, to recognize and respond effectively to individuals with autism. More than 3,000 trained to date.

Subject Matter Expert, State of California POST Autism Awareness Training Video, Spring 2009 (Peace Officer Standards and Training). Selected as 1 of 8 civilians to help create the law enforcement training materials on autism for the state of California, mandated by SB1513.

Senate Select Committee Taskforce on Equity and Diversity, 2012-2013.

Statewide leader making policy and legislative recommendations promoting equity for underserved communities and cultural competence to work with diverse families in the Regional Center System.

Senate Select Committee on Autism, 2009-present. Chairman of the North Los Angeles work group on education and employment for adults with autism spectrum disorders. Also addressing issues of diagnosis, insurance, eligibility and access to appropriate services and supports. Los Angeles County delegate to the Community of Practice Autism Advisory Workgroup on Transition & Employment, 2011.

California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism, 2007. Member of the Transition Task Force drafting state legislative recommendations for teens and adults with autism, including SB1513 mandating creation of autism awareness materials for law enforcement organizations.

Founding member and Chairman of C.L.E.A.R., Community and Law Enforcement Aware Response, 2003-present; Project Manager effective 2008. Created a computerized Special Needs Registry to assist the public served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, Santa Clarita Station, recognized in 2011 as a national model by the Department of Homeland Security. Train Santa Clarita Valley Sheriffs to recognize and respond to individuals with autism.

Founding Member, Board of Directors, Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network (SCAAN).

Leader and advocate in local autism support group, 1995- present. Provide support for families and encourage collaboration with autism groups, and support organizations and service providers.

Getting the Word Out

Getting the Word Out

Emily is ready to raise awareness about ASD, in English or Spanish. She has done many TV appearances, as well as newspaper and radio interviews. Video and excepts will come to the site soon.

Biography

Biography

Emily Iland, M.A. is an award-winning author, advocate, researcher, and leader in the autism field. She is the mother of a young man with ASD and brings personal experience and insight to her professional roles.

Emily is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Special Education at California State University, Northridge. She is an educational consultant, presenting a variety of topics at conferences in both English and Spanish, all over the U.S. and abroad. She is known for the clear way she presents complex information!

Areas of special focus include Reading Comprehension & ASD, Autism 101, Sibling Issues & Family Balance, Social & Friendship Skills, Play & Social Inclusion, Skills for Safety & Independence, Autism & Law Enforcement,  Transition to Adulthood, Autism & the College Experience, Autism in the Workplace, and Adult Relationships.

EDUCATION & RESEARCH

Emily received a Master’s Degree in Special Education with distinction at California State University, Northridge in 2007. She was the Nathan O. Freedman Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year, an honor reserved for a single master’s candidate. Her thesis on the obstacles faced by Latina mothers of children with autism is the largest study to date of this population, with significant findings. Emily’s area of specialization is Educational Therapy.

BOOKS

Emily’s newest book is Drawing A Blank: Improving Comprehension for Readers on the Autism Spectrum, which focuses on building understanding for those who can decode but do not understand. DaB examines evidence-based practices and offers practical ideas to improve comprehension.

Autism Spectrum Disorders from A to Z by Barbara T. Doyle and Emily D. Iland is a practical, comprehensive guide that offers in-depth information to help readers:
* Understand Autism
* Secure a diagnosis
* Deal with the impact within the family
* Understand and obtain in-depth, meaningful assessments,
* Obtain supports and services,
* Work effectively as teams,
* Transition from one phase of life to another, and
* Understand the causes of ASD.

Emily translated and published the award-winning Spanish version, Los Trastornos del Espectro de Autismo de la A a la Z, the most comprehensive book on autism available in Spanish.

AWARDS & HONORS

 Los Trastornos del Espectro de Autismo de la A a la Z won the 2006 Outstanding Literary Work of the Year award from the Autism Society of America. That same year, it was awarded the International Latino Book Award for Health. In April, 2007 both books were honored with the Exceptional Parent Magazine Symbol of Excellence Award. In 2008 Emily was spotlighted as a “Know the Signs” Campaign Champion by the Centers for Disease Control.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP

Emily is the President of the Autism Society of America, Los Angeles, and a founder of SCAAN,, the Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network.  She collaborates regularly with Fiesta Educativa, conducting parent education workshops and raising autism awareness in the Latino community. Emily is a collaborator with Dr. Sandy Magaña on a new training project to help Latino immigrant parents of children with autism.

ADVOCACY

Emily is involved at the state and local level in initiatives and policy related to Autism. She is currently a member of the Senate Select state-wide work group on the Employment of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and is helping create a practical guide for employers. Emily was actively involved with the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism and provided data from her thesis on Latino families of children with autism to the Commissioners. She was also the co-chairman of the Transition Work Group for North Los Angeles County.

AUTISM AWARENESS & LAW ENFORCEMENT

Emily was selected as a subject matter expert (SME) to help create the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Autism Awareness DVD that was provided at no charge to all law enforcement agencies in the state of California in 2010. She is a founding member of C.L.E.A.R, Community and Law Enforcement Aware Response. CLEAR is a collaborative to reduce criminal involvement of people with disabilities and help law enforcement officials be informed in their response to people with special needs. Emily is currently coordinating autism awareness training for up to 9,000 L.A.P.D. officers. The L.A.P.D Police Commission has honored Emily twice for her contribution to this effort.

Drawing A Blank

Drawing A Blank

This practical and well-researched resource provides educational professionals and parents with the tools to improve comprehension for good decoders who have reading comprehension difficulties, as well as readers who struggle with both decoding and comprehension. In keeping with current standards, the book emphasizes the importance of using evidence-based and promising practices based on thorough assessment of students’ needs.

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