In the journey of life, there are many twists and turns, mountaintops and valleys, mistakes and rewards, successes, and failures. For Ethan Tutaj-Blaz, his journey into the skilled trades included being diagnosed with Autism.
Each of us has unique challenges and abilities that make us who we are. In the latest episode of The Journey, Ethan shares his story of growing up and finding his place as a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD is a developmental disorder that is caused when there are differences within the brain. People with ASD often have difficulty with social situations, more specifically communicating their feelings effectively to others. They can also struggle to understand social interactions between people and their peers. Someone with ASD, can display restricted or repetitive behaviors and often require new approaches to learning, moving, or paying attention.
Discovering Strengths and Challenges
From a young age, Ethan displayed signs of challenges in social settings and following basic instructions. All the while he excelled in math and went to school for the gifted and talented.
“So it was pretty frustrating to know that he was brilliant and should be doing really well at school, but yet we were struggling.” Glory Tutaj, Ethan’s Mom
By the time Ethan was in Grade 8, he was taking AP Calculus and watching Quantum Mechanics lectures from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
on YouTube, meanwhile, he was failing in other subjects that didn’t interest him, and having difficulty making friends.
High School was challenging. Ethan attended a private school because he thought it would be a better fit for him. The struggles came when Ethan was ill-motivated to complete the work, he felt he knew the material but it wasn’t challenging or interesting enough for him to invest effort into the work. However, when he did apply himself, his work would earn him excellent grades.
The Autism diagnosis came while Ethan was in high school. Initially, Ethan struggled to accept the diagnosis. It took a while for Ethan to come to a place where he could see that the diagnosis doesn’t define who he is, but it does explain some of his strengths and challenges.
“I’ve come to live with it. What I feel about it is, I am just like everyone else, I just got a few little things added on.” Ethan Tutaj-Blaz
After high school, Ethan had no clue what the future held for him, so he chose to take a gap year. He worked in the fast food industry and realized it was not a good fit for him.
Set Up for Success with Uniquely Abled Academy
Glory, Ethan’s mom became aware of a new program being offered at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) that seemed to be a good fit for Ethan. MATC wanted to help students with autism navigate through college more easily, so they created the Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA) — a program inside of the college specifically created with autistic students in mind. Instead of just talking about the skills gap, the college is leading the efforts to educate the students who will help close it.
The Uniquely Abled program has helped Ethan to develop and grow not only in his knowledge of skilled trades but also helped him to become more confident. Being able to successfully earn his driver's license and engage in social interactions and make connections with others. He now sees a way forward in his career and life choices.
Ethan is looking forward to giving back to the UAA program as a tutor for other students like him because he can connect with them. He also wants to advance in his Tool & Die making career.
“I want every student when they leave here to feel that they have achieved something. A lot of times Uniquely Abled students are not put into a fairly high-paying job. What we’re trying to do is get them to earn a decent living and to function on their own. I want to see them make a lifelong career out of what they do and make good money doing it.“ Dale Howser, Sr. Instructor, UAA
Changing Lives, One Student at a Time
As an educator that worked with learners that fell on the Autism spectrum for many years, I can say it was often challenging to understand them and their needs, build a positive relationship, and adapt my teaching style. It involved constantly innovating and brainstorming new ways to present information and encourage them to engage and pay attention. But I can say I wouldn’t change a thing. They were worth every effort, I was often reminded of a quote by Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Anything worth doing well is often challenging and is ALWAYS the most rewarding.” The students taught me as much as I did them. I learned the power of inclusion, reliance, hard work, determination and so much more!
After watching Edge Factor’s newest episode of The Journey, called Uniquely Abled- a story about Ethan who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in high school and now is working towards launching a rewarding career in the skilled trades. I felt proud.. proud to work for a company that is telling a story about an ASD student who has unique challenges, but also of community members working together to challenge the status quo. Pioneer a new approach to learning skills and processes because there is no one-size-fits-all, we’re all unique and we all have things we do well, and things we need to work hard to accomplish.
This story, this episode is why I became a teacher. To change a life, empower a student with knowledge, build their confidence, help them gain life skills, and then see them succeed. All the while being who they are and embracing what they do well and acknowledging their limitations.
Learn more about Uniquely Abled Academy and Milwaukee Area Technical College to discover how they are helping students and job seekers prepare for a successful future.
Log in to the Edge Factor to watch the full Journey: Uniquely Abled episode which is available to watch for free for a limited time as part of the Diversity in Skilled Trades Toolkit.
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