When Tristan Radtke was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, he was 13 years old. He is now 21. Asperger’s is a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum which is named after Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger. Individuals (sometimes shortened to “aspies”) have severely impaired communication and social skills. They also engage in repetitive behaviors and have a narrow band of interests.
It took years for Radtke’s parents to get an accurate diagnosis for their son. Doctors, psychologists and school personnel were just starting to recognize the symptoms of Asperger’s. Plus, he is a smart young man with a keen sense of humor. It was easy to dismiss is symptoms as too subtle for diagnosis. In the last few years, health professionals have stepped up their research on autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s. This has resulted in more effective diagnostic tools and improved approaches to teaching social skills.
For Radtke, whose diagnosis came on the cusp of this new research, it was too little too late. He had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in school which laid out learning goals and objectives to improve his social skills, but the school did not provide the direct instruction needed to help him achieve those goals. He was told to learn classmates’ names, but without support from his classroom teachers—who thought all students knew how to learn each other’s names—he generally failed at this basic task. Since his diagnosis, there has been a surge of new resources and programs to teach social skills to aspies. However, most of those resources are targeted to young children—not to young adults who are graduating from high school and trying to go to college or find a job.
This has been an endlessly frustrating experience for the Radtke family. They keep meeting many young adults on the spectrum, all facing the same problems and with just as few places to turn. Instead of throwing in the towel, Tristan Radtke –a film student at Minneapolis Community and Technical college—and his parents started a new company to help fill some of those gaps and eventually put some aspies to work. The company is called 9th Planet. It produces short social skills videos to teach the subtle social cues which many with an Autism spectrum disorder are not attuned to see.
9th Planet videos create a theme which is familiar to those with Autism spectrum disorder who often say they feel like they were born on the wrong planet. Subtitled “The Adventures of Tad Shy Among the Typicals,” they follow the social learning adventures of interplanetary traveler Tad Shy as he learns the social habits of the native “neurotypicals.” The videos combine live action with 3D animation in the form of Tad’s robot Bob, who coaches Tad through social interaction. Many members of the cast and crew are young adults on the autism spectrum.
The videos will be downloadable on portable players. The Radtkes plan to produce a first season package of 20 two-minute social skills training videos and a user’s guide with lesson ideas.
9th Planet uses a teaching strategy called video behavior modeling which is a documented best practice approach to teaching social skills. The Radtkes have also been working closely with mental health professionals with years of experience working with autistic individuals.
So far, the family and their supporters have produced an introductory video and four two-minute social skills training videos. The videos were produced entirely with donated labor and borrowed equipment. Now they are launching an online equipment drive to raise funds for professional equipment to complete a first season of twenty videos and the user’s guide. The drive is posted on the crowd source funding site called Indie GoGo.
They aim to raise $6,000 for the equipment on IndieGoGo.com, which is an online platform for posting and publicizing fundraising campaigns. The site is used by teachers, artists, filmmakers and history buffs to solicit seed funds for new projects. The 9th Planet campaign is posted at: http://www.indiegogo.com/9th-Planet-1
The Radtkes report that special education teachers who have seen the videos already ask where they can get them. Individuals on the spectrum say they can relate to the central character in the videos. They also say they would watch the videos many times and they believe the videos would help them improve their social skills. Other viewers praise the production quality and attention to detail in the videos.
The Radtkes believe their fundraising goal is achievable. They are in the early weeks of the sevenweek campaign and contributions are coming in. They report that effective online fundraising is no small task. They’re pulling out all the stops—writing e-mails, making phone calls, posting flyers and scouring for old contacts—to get the word out about their project.
More importantly, they know from firsthand experience that this type of tool is sorely needed by the scores of young aspies with few places to turn after they graduate from high school.