Posted on September 6, 2012 by Linda Ruiter

Fourth-year chemistry major Robin Furness has overcome many physical challenges to study at Augustana – and manages her Asperger’s syndrome as well – with the help of Augustana’s SDSS office.

By Linda Ruiter, Augustana Specialized Support & Disability Services (SSDS) Office

Dressed in a comfortable blue cotton T-shirt and fleece hoodie, her long dark hair in a no-nonsense ponytail, Robin Furness sits quietly in the SDSS office. Her eyes sparkle with lively intelligence and impish good humour. She was discussing tiramisu, her favourite dessert, which simply has to be made with mascarpone. “Only the really good Italian stuff,” Robin stresses. “Some people substitute ricotta, but it needs to be made with mascarpone!”

Robins strives for excellence in all things. A fourth-year chemistry major and biology minor, she is focussed on a career in post-secondary education. She excels in her field and is a popular tutor who has helped students with chemistry, math, biology and biochemistry as well as Spanish and French. Robin’s teaching experience, generosity, enthusiasm and patience will carry her far towards her chosen vocation.

Despite stellar academic performance and her obvious gifts, Robin’s road has not been easy. In Grade 2, she developed a brain stem tumour. Over time, it grew into her spinal cord, requiring surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Robin missed an average of two months a year in grade school and acquired a “constellation” of adverse effects, including difficulty breathing and damage to her vocal cords. She is also easily fatigued and prone to headaches. Permanent nerve damage from both the tumor and chemo has affected her fine motor dexterity and strength.

As a result, through the office of Specialized Support & Disability Services (SSDS), Robin takes a reduced course load and receives extended time on exams.

Physical health struggles played a significant role in shaping the courageous and determined person that Robin is today. Robin also has Asperger’s syndrome. For her, it is simply one factor influencing her personality, explaining her self-admitted stubbornness, a penchant for punctuality, a tendency towards literal thinking, fondness for logic and for linear design, a knack for languages and an unusual ability to discern and remember patterns, as well as unwavering loyalty and honesty.

It is clear, however, that Robin’s childhood presented many trials related to Asperger’s syndrome. At school, she was often misunderstood and mocked by her peers for her social awkwardness. She experienced intense frustration when things didn’t go as anticipated or when she was unable to “be like everyone else.”

Robin’s vocabulary was complex for her age. As early as Grade 3, she began scoring around Grade 13 in standardized reading comprehension tests. It made it difficult to relate to her peers. “I didn’t get along well with kids my age,” she says, “They didn’t understand me. That was one of the reasons I was teased. A lot of my really good friends were older than me – the teachers and janitorial staff. It wasn’t until high school that it started changing, when being more mature for my age wasn’t such a handicap anymore. It was still weird, but weird in a good way…I started getting respect for things that I used to be ridiculed for.”

Robin says she learned language through mimicking. She learned how to read by listening to audio books over and over again when she was two years old. Later, she also taught herself foreign languages, mimicking the sounds so well that her English accent would disappear.

An insatiable need for information around special interests also boosted Robin’s language development. In grade school she spent hours in the library, devouring information about dinosaurs and coins. “I would read anything I could find,” she recalls, “the more scientific the better.” She collected over a thousand coins from different countries and different years, sorting and organizing them. Grinning, she confesses, “Every one of those special interests was an obsession!”

As with many people on the autism spectrum, Robin’s extraordinary mastery of language is mixed with unusual difficulties in communication or social language. Many children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome tend to miss non-verbal cues such as voice inflections or tone, word emphasis, or facial expressions.

“People think differently than me.” Robin says, “I like things that are logical and linear.” Philosophy, religion, and literature such as poetry that “uses a lot of figures of speech or metaphors and that have very open interpretations is like a code…everyone else has the key and I have to figure it out.” Shaking her head and chuckling at the mystery of abstract thought, she declares, “You may as well fling the pages off the top of the tallest building and scatter them to the wind. I have no idea what’s going on.”

Given her love of logic, perhaps it is no surprise that Robin is drawn to patterns. She could memorize the periodic table without difficulty because, as she states, “it is all patterns and repetitions.” Patterns help her make sense of things. She had an intense dislike of objects that weren’t in straight lines, until she was able to rationalize how curves are actually composed of straight lines repeated in specific patterns, as in parabolic design. In belly dancing, she found that once she could identify the underlying rhythmic patterns of Middle Eastern music, and match those with movement patterns, muscle memory would take over and she could dance with ease.

Being “different” isn’t easy. Social immaturity, advanced language abilities coupled with communication challenges, intense atypical interests – all those factors tend to make children on the autism spectrum targets for bullying. Robin credits her mom for helping her develop social skills while growing up. “She and my psychologist helped me find my feet and to learn to deal with new situations. We’d think up scenarios and rehearse how I could respond to them. If there was something I didn’t know how to deal with, we’d think up a script of what to do or say and I would use them as guidelines. I’ve developed my own strategies now, but they are strongly based in the foundations I received help with from them.”

Structure, predictability and routine provide reassurance and comfort for Robin and others with Asperger’s syndrome. Shifting focus is often difficult. “Even now, if I find something I’m really interested in and I’m reading, I get annoyed when interrupted,” she says. “But,” she adds chuckling, “I don’t throw a tantrum anymore.”

When things at school got to be too much, Robin would come home, fling things down and, while still wearing her jacket, sit down to the piano and play until she calmed down. Only then could she go into the kitchen to greet her mother. Favourite books also brought comfort. “I’d read the same book over and over.” She still finds it soothing to go back to old favourites, such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Robin is still easily overwhelmed, but she has strategies to cope, and she is in a good place here at Augustana. She credits her professors with understanding and flexibility. She loves learning and indulging her academic cravings. She appreciates the friendships she’s made and has enjoyed meeting people with interests different than hers. She finds it rewarding to help others and continues to gain confidence in her communication and social skills through tutoring.

If you’re looking for Robin, your best bet is to check the couches in the Forum. It’s one of her favorite places to study when she needs a break from her room and solitude. She’s the one curled up with a chemistry text, her feet up and earbuds in her ears, listening to One Republic, Maroon Five, or maybe Muse.

Stop by and have a chat.

Asperger’s Syndrome

Under the autism umbrella, Asperger’s syndrome refers to a distinctive collection of personality traits first identified by German paediatrician Hans Asperger in 1938.

It is typically characterized, particularly in early childhood, by social immaturity, rigid thinking, unusual sensory sensitivities, intense or obsessive interests in narrow topics, unusual language abilities combined with difficulty in communication, trouble with conversational reciprocity, as well as problems with motor skills or coordination.

Through early intervention, many children with Asperger’s move into adulthood shedding much of their inflexibility, gradually learning to cope with and appreciate their differences.

Suggested titles to learn more about Autism or Asperger’s syndrome

  • Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, Liane Holliday Willey
  • Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Stephen Shore
  • Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin
  • Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood

Faculty interested in techniques proven to assist students with Asperger’s Syndrome are invited to check out this SDSS resource.

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