Different, not disabled

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on October 22, 2011
Tom Jackman

Tom Jackman showed up for an interview with The Telegram toting a case full of books, movies, speeches and pamphlets about Asperger syndrome.

Although he often speaks about his experiences living with the autism spectrum disorder at conferences, the 34-year-old is more comfortable corresponding with people by email than face-to-face.

People with Asperger syndrome often find it difficult to interact with others. They pay particular attention to detail, thrive on routine and repetitious tasks and aren’t big fans of change.

“If somebody is going to move the furniture around the room, they should tell me on Monday if they’re going to do it on Wednesday so I don’t just walk into the room on Wednesday and see it all changed around,” Jackman explained.

When speaking at conferences, Jackman uses humour to break the ice.

At a Targa Newfoundland event on Sept. 17, he quipped: “Whose idea was it, anyway, to ask the socially awkward Asperger’s person to give a speech. … I am glad I can read this to you and not have to make eye contact, since making eye contact is something Asperger’s people find difficult to do.”

Jackman is on the Autism Society’s Newfoundland and Labrador board of directors and chairs an Autism Society of Canada advisory committee.

He was in Winnipeg this month to speak at a conference hosted by Asperger Manitoba Inc.

“I am glad I got the call up from St. John’s to Winnipeg. I am sure that many of the St. John’s Ice Caps AHL players would love such a call up to Winnipeg this winter,” he said in his speech.

In addition to the jokes, Jackman always gets his serious message across. People should look at Asperger syndrome as a difference rather than a disability, he says.

“By not letting it hold me back too much, I have developed into a talented and unique individual,” he told his Winnipeg audience.

Meeting the Australian-born psychologist Tony Attwood was the highlight of his trip to Winnipeg. Attwood is author of “The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome” — which Jackman had Attwood sign.

While he’s not comfortable in unfamiliar situations, Jackman says there are occasions when he’ll “come out of his comfort zone.”

That happened during his trip to Winnipeg.

Travelling alone, he became anxious waiting for his flight to take off and decided to show one of his books to a flight attendant.

“Then, when I was getting off, she asked me if I knew which gate I had to go to.”

Having someone check on him from time to time helps him feel less stressed, he said.

“I like to be social and I like to make connections. It’s just hard to make friendships and relationships.”

Jackman volunteers with the annual Targa motorsport event and speaks intently and passionately about his work.

“I program in all the car numbers and that goes onto the clock. … I don’t have to communicate a lot and if something goes wrong, they’ll just tell me to stop putting in numbers.”

Jackman also volunteers with Rogers Television and will be behind the camera at the Ice Caps hockey games at Mile One Centre.

October is Autism Awareness Month and Autism Society Canada has launched a campaign for people to share their stories to help remove the stigmas associated with autism. The stories are posted on the society’s website to raise awareness about the need for a national strategy to support Canadians with autism.

Wendy Skinner, executive director of the provincial autism society, says her group involves people with autism in its strategic planning.

 “And we are extremely fortunate to have Tom as a member of our board of directors,” she said of Jackman.

Jackman will be taking part in the local Active for Autism walk fundraiser Sunday morning at the Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism in St. John’s. After talking about the event, he leafs through one of his books — “All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome,” by Kathy Hoopman — and pauses at the last page.

“I like how this book ends, that an Asperger child is like any other child. Give them a little space and offer them a little understanding and then everyone can sit back and enjoy the unique individual he becomes. We just need a little bit of support here and there.”

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danette@nl.rogers.com