A few years ago I wrote about an Irvine-based Toastmasters group for people with autism spectrum disorder.
Founded by retired marketing executive Judi Uttal, whose son is autistic, the Spectrum Speakers Gavel Club has had a profound impact on the lives of its members by helping to strengthen their communication skills and self-confidence in a supportive, collaborative setting.
Now this ingenious idea might be on the verge of going big, thanks to the interest of a couple of academics who are conducting a two-year study of the program. Their ultimate goal is to create a model that can be used to start similar clubs in other communities.
Sasha Zeedyk, an assistant professor in Child Adolescent Studies at Cal State Fullerton, and Yasamin Bolourian, a postdoctoral research fellow at UC Riverside, launched the study with a grant from the Organization for Autism Research.
The pair are currently in the observational phase of the study, attending meetings — held via Zoom for the past two years, although Uttal hopes to return to in-person gatherings at some point — and taking detailed notes.
The next phase will involve interviews with participants and family members to learn more about what works well and how the program might be improved. Then they’ll develop a model, complete with protocols and recruitment methods, and run a pilot program to test it out.
Though they still have a long way to go with their research, Zeedyk and Bolourian are practically bubbly with excitement. Both spoke of their passion for studying and improving the lives of people with autism, a spark which started for Zeedyk in an earlier career as a teacher when she bonded with an autistic student and for Bolourian when she was a graduate student and participated in a renowned autism program at UCLA.
They believe Uttal’s brainchild has great potential to have a positive impact on a broader scale, a conviction that’s been reinforced by the impressive skills they’ve seen on display.
“Some of the speeches are so well thought-out and organized,” Zeedyk said. “As an autism researcher I’ve been blown away by the quality of speeches.”
The club is part of the vast worldwide network of speaking groups affiliated with Toastmasters International, the popular nonprofit organization founded about a century ago to promote public speaking.
Uttal said that 38 people have participated to date, and there are currently 20 active members. Although a formal diagnosis is not required for participation, all the members identify as being on the Autism spectrum.
On a recent weekend morning I had the privilege of listening to some impressive speeches.
The monthly meetings follow the standard Toastmasters format, with prepared speeches, an impromptu speaking segment, and peer evaluations. Members perform various roles, such as timekeeper and grammarian, and have learned how to give each other feedback in a constructive and supportive fashion.
The benefits of the program extend beyond learning how to speak in public. The members I’ve spoken with told me that they have often felt isolated or misunderstood, and that the club provides the kinship that those in the autistic community often find elusive in the broader world.
“It gets me out of my usual comfort zone,” said member Zachary Pocher, a research assistant at the Santa Ana Zoo.
Participation in the club also helps boost members’ resiliency and flexibility.
For example, at one recent meeting when a member had difficulties with the video feed, others jumped in to help solve the problem. Instead of withdrawing — autistic people sometimes react to stress by shutting down — the member remained composed and presented a very good speech, Uttal recalled.
Liam Whitney, a special education teacher who joined about a year ago, said this specialized club presents a “wonderful opportunity.”
“I feel like it gives people sort of, if not a script, per se, but some guidance about what is expected in social situations. That is really helpful for people in our community. It’s not that we don’t want to participate. It’s that we don’t know what to do or say, so we freeze up. In that way, this club has been very beneficial to me.”
Fellow member Kenneth Woodward said that his experiences in Toastmasters have helped him improve his interviewing skills for jobs he has sought in the accounting field. He now considers it “an honor” to participate in a study that might help others.
At this month’s meeting the speeches covered a diverse assortment of topics and styles. A speech on the economic impact of sanctions on Russia was well-researched, loaded with facts and clearly explained.
Another speaker delivered a witty and entertaining take on his quest to score autographs. Yet another, who spoke about a family trip to Taiwan, made me want to book a vacation to the Asian island.
The theme for the meeting’s impromptu speaking segment was Mother’s Day, and members spoke movingly about the gifts they gave their moms. One young woman recalled writing a letter to her mother that prompted tears of happiness.
Like Zeedyk and Bolourian, I was blown away by the presentations.
Uttal and the intrepid members of this unique and wonderful group plan to commemorate the club’s 10-year anniversary later this year. Certainly they’ll have much to celebrate, not only because of what they’ve achieved so far but also because they’re helping pave the way for others in the autistic community to find their voices.
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Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and is coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.
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