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Professor taps into autism’s ‘superpower’


West Hempstead resident Dr. Stephen Mark Shore was nonverbal until age 4, and was recommended for institutionalization. Today, he is a clinical assistant professor of special education at Adelphi University, author of four books about autism, sits on the board of Autism Speaks, is president emeritus of the Asperger’s Association of New England and speaks about autism all over the world.

During Adelphi’s second annual TEDxAdelphiUniversity last week, Shore ­— a guest lecturer — spoke about how society can help people with autism lead fulfilling and productive lives. He said that the general public’s acceptance of people with autism for who they are, combined with an appreciation for their individual talents and interests, would help those on the spectrum become independent members of society.

Shore, 55, attributes his own successes to his parents. “My parents found a way to reach me because I couldn’t reach them,” he said. “My parents accepted me for who I was, but at the same time realized that there were a lot of challenges to overcome.”

When Shore developed a passion for astronomy, for example, his parents introduced him to telescopes and woke him up at 2 a.m. to look at the sky. “They got involved in my interests,“ he said.

Over the years, he fell in love with music, and taught it as a professor in the Boston area, where he still lives when he’s not teaching at Adelphi. “I believe that whatever scrambles the speech center in the brain for people on the autism spectrum tends to leave the musical ones intact,” he said. Shore recalled one of his autistic students who couldn’t speak, but learned to play the piano well despite it. Shore himself plays cymbals, piano, tuba, French horn and trumpet, among other instruments.

He identifies the talents autistic people have by asking them how they like to spend their time. “Given the fact that we tend to do more things we like, that leads to particular interests,” he said. “If you have a person with autism that likes trains, for example, maybe they’d be interested in transportation systems. If you have someone who likes taking apart watches, like I do, maybe that could lead to a job or a career in watch repair.” Sometimes, special interests take a little molding and shaping, he said.

Social interaction — a problem for many on the autism spectrum — is one of the many issues that can be addressed through autism acceptance. “There are people on the spectrum that don’t like to interact, but I think what really happens is that there have been so many bad experiences with attempting to interact that they just give up,” Shore said. Acceptance and patience when interacting with someone with autism helps the individual have better social experiences, Shore said.

Following his music career, Shore earned his doctorate in education and began teaching in college. “A lot of people on the spectrum are good teachers, because they can take apart and analyze the components of a particular subject or area,” he said. That led him to write books on the topic.

He is also involved in the Gersh Academy, the West Hempstead school on Eagle Avenue for those on the autism spectrum. As part of his college classwork, he sends students to Gersh to observe and learn. Shore is also collaborating with the school’s founder, Kevin Gersh, on other initiatives that he declined to discuss.

“Everyone I know on the autism spectrum who is successful has found a way to tap into their abilities,” he said. “Where there are extreme challenges, there are going to be extreme strengths, and if you can tap into those abilities — that is the superpower of autism.”