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Opinion

Column: On the spectrum and speaking up

This 1937 photo shows Amelia Earhart before takeoff in Miami for an attempted round-the-world flight
Amelia Earhart, pictured in 1937, was one of the topics of a talk given by Jordan Ortiz at a monthly meeting of the Orange County Autism Support Group’s Spectrum Gaveliers Club.
(Associated Press)

On a recent weekend morning I had the privilege of listening to some impressive speeches.

Entertaining and informative, the speeches were delivered by young men and women in their 20s and early 30s, and they covered a wide range of topics, including a backpacking trip, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, an unscrupulous band manager, even Pokémon.

The occasion was the monthly meeting of the Orange County Autism Support Group’s Spectrum Gaveliers Club. It’s a mouthful of a name, but its purpose is straightforward.

The Irvine-based club, part of the vast network of speaking groups affiliated with Toastmasters International, provides a supportive environment to help people with autism spectrum disorder develop communication skills and self-confidence.

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The brainchild of retired marketing executive Judi Uttal, whose son is autistic, this club is a genius idea that has helped empower and improve the lives of its members.

“I happened to have started a Toastmasters club at my employment,” Uttal explained. “It occurred to me that it was perfect for these kids.”

So she set about winning the support of OCASG, a nonprofit organization dedicated to individuals with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism and pervasive developmental disorder. It agreed, and the club was formed about eight years ago.

Toastmasters was founded on the idea that everyone could use some help with public speaking. The popular nonprofit’s origins date to 1905, when a young YMCA worker named Ralph Smedley organized a series of speaking clubs, but its official birth date is recorded as 1924, when the first Toastmasters International club began at a newly built YMCA building in Santa Ana.

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The concept caught on; today the organization has more than 358,000 members in more than 16,800 clubs in 143 countries. For decades this network was run from its worldwide headquarters in Santa Ana, not far from the YMCA where Smedley started it all, until its relocation to Colorado last year.

The OCASG Spectrum Gaveliers Club is categorized as a “gavel club,” a designation reserved for Toastmasters groups that don’t fit the official criteria but are nonetheless allowed to participate in the organization.

Initially intended to bring the Toastmasters experience to youth groups, gavel clubs can now be found at universities and in prisons. Some are affiliated with the Special Olympics and others have been formed for individuals with Down syndrome and hearing impairments.

“One of the principles of Toastmasters is to enact change and promote growth for individuals,” said Michael Barr, club and member support lead for Toastmasters International. “It is a self-paced and self-driven learning program.”

Although the Spectrum Gaveliers Club attracts members considered to be “high-functioning” — an informal term for those with autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write and handle basic life skills — some members told me that they were initially reluctant to participate because they find normal social interactions difficult. Many spoke of being bullied, isolated, harshly judged and feeling stress from trying to conform in a world that doesn’t understand them.

“Initially I was, ‘OK, wow, this is a lot,’ ” recalled George Zhao.

But now he is the club’s president, and he appeared composed and self-assured during his address. Indeed, his speech about a Pokémon-themed adventure was more like short, engaging one-man play in which he acted out characters and feigned exhaustion from his fictional quest around Orange County.

He and others said that the club has given them a comfortable, welcoming community, a place where they have found kinship and acceptance, as well as a means of improving their communication skills.

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“It’s a way to find people that have things in common with you,” said member Kelly Cole.

Following the Toastmasters’ format, all the speakers received evaluations, which were generally positive, with the evaluators offering encouragement and suggestions for improvement. The day’s top winner was Jordan Ortiz, whose lively speech about famed aviator Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, was filled with vivid description and details.

Later, other members participated in a “Table Topics” segment, which allowed them to practice impromptu speaking.

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Club member Anthony Cappel-West spoke of wanting to visit the remains of the Berlin Wall.
(John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images)

Anthony Cappel-West, the club’s grammarian, won that round by answering the question of which European country he’d like to visit. His response, that he wanted to go to Germany to explore the culture, see the remnants of the Berlin Wall, and possibly try his first beer, was both charming and funny.

“To this day I have issues with eye contact,” Anthony told me, although due to his friendly demeanor this discomfort wasn’t obvious. He explained that participation in the club has helped him learn to be more effective at masking symptoms of the disorder.

“I have seen improvement for almost every individual who participated,” Uttal said. “One young lady could not utter a complete thought (when she joined) and is now giving excellent speeches. Almost all the members have overcome their fear of public speaking. I also see development in empathy and caring.”

Club members consider each other friends. They’ve swapped phone numbers and sometimes go out to the movies together. On the day I visited they planned to meet for lunch. They were also in the midst of planning a Christmas celebration.

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Despite their challenges, they certainly have reason to celebrate thanks to Uttal’s inspired idea to start this amazing club.

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