Social Work PhD candidate Dena Gassner is building a career helping others with autism spectrum disorder.
From childhood, Dena Gassner knew she was different. People called her “precocious” and “unfiltered.” She said exactly what she thought, regardless of the consequences. As she got older and became a mother, she struggled to stay organized and felt she couldn’t keep track of important things.
It wasn’t until she was 38, a graduate student and a mother of two, including a young son with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that she was also diagnosed with ASD. She now had a framework for understanding who she is and what she and others with ASD, especially her son, need to be successful. She invested her energy in fighting for her son and developed a following as an autism advocate. But she yearned for more. Today, with her son in college, she is a PhD student in social work at Adelphi.
For Gassner, autism is more than a diagnosis. “It is our culture, our community, our identity,” she said. “It doesn’t define us. It explains us.” With help from friends and mentors in the autism community, Gassner has learned to understand, for example, why she is so outspoken and how she can both manage it and use it as a strength. Moving from Nashville to New York, where, she notes, people “get to the point quickly,” has been “fantastic.”
In raising her son, who has language processing delays and repetitive habits, she learned how few people understand autism. For years Gassner and her son encountered teachers who believed he couldn’t learn. She moved him from school to school and state to state—from his first home in Kentucky to North Carolina, then to Tennessee—in a quest to find a suitable environment.
He hit his stride in ninth grade, at a high school just south of Nashville. “I don’t know how many kids could have gone through that long in their school experience with people never believing in them,” she said. The Nashville school system accommodated him, and he graduated with a 3.1 GPA. He now lives on his own as a college student in West Virginia.
Dr. Shore’s student
Her son’s independence offered Gassner the opportunity to embark on her own academic journey. More than a decade ago she met and befriended Stephen Shore, EdD, clinical assistant professor in Adelphi’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education, at a conference and he encouraged her to come to Adelphi to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work.
Dr. Shore was “the person who helped me understand autism,” she said.
At Adelphi, Gassner said she is having the time of her life. “I feel like I’m 25,” she remarked. Although, at 57, she is the oldest student in her Ph.D. class, she brings a lifetime of experience to her studies and is taking full advantage of the opportunity. “I am really embracing the challenge of these academics,” she said. “I know how smart I am, and now I get to show it.” She has also found support from her professors, whom she describes as “completely embracing.”
In addition to sampling all that New York has to offer—from visiting the United Nations to hearing Sting play at Long Island’s Jones Beach—Gassner has continued as an activist. Earlier this year she was the keynote speaker at the Issues for Adolescents and Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum conference held at Adelphi and presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Francisco with Dr. Shore and other autism experts, including John Elder Robison, author of the best-seller Look Me in the Eye.
She’s traveled around the world too, speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, at Cambridge University, and in Scotland and Russia. She also serves as a board member for The Arc, a national nonprofit for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Gassner has learned that to live well with autism is not just about being normal or fitting in. “If you are indistinguishable from your peers, all you have done is learn to contain your autism,” she said. A more fulfilling path is to achieve one’s own personal best. “For my son, living independently and graduating from college is his personal best. For me, it’s a Ph.D. and research.”