Jennifer (England ’85) Allen has worn many hats in the world of communication since she graduated from ACU, but her current job as executive director of Aspergers101 is closest to her heart.
She formed the nonprofit organization to provide resources related to high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome after learning her oldest son had the condition.
Jennifer uses her media skills to raise awareness of the condition, and her efforts have resulted in a documentary about high-functioning autism, as well as a statewide initiative to create safeguards for autistic drivers.
Jennifer has utilized the tools given to her at ACU with each experience, she says.
After graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism, Jennifer landed her first job shooting and editing TV commercials at a CBS affiliate in San Angelo, Texas, but quickly moved into the news department.
“I loved shooting and editing and writing the stories,” she said. “The experience of traveling to New York and doing stand-up stories from the top of the CBS building and covering other groundbreaking stories was so exciting.”
She became anchor on the morning show, but her interest remained with shooting and editing.
After marrying, she and her husband, Herb, moved to San Antonio where she began working for a TV station doing on-air television, online community affairs programs, and eventually directing marketing for the station. She also began producing programs for Time Warner Cable in San Antonio. But little did she know her “life was about to change.”
The day everything changed
“I had two children, and when my oldest son, Sam, started school, Herb and I noticed a broad gap between him and the other children,” Jennifer said. “We kept seeking what was different when one day the assistant principal called me into her office. She slid of piece of paper across the table and asked, ‘Have you ever heard of autism?’ ”
Bewildered by the name of a condition she knew little about, Jennifer read the bullet point descriptions of autism, specifically high-functioning autism.
“I started weeping because I immediately knew that was my son. That was Sam,” Jennifer said. “The realization was one of shock, but also relief because I finally understood the challenges that faced my son.”
After much prayer and guidance, Jennifer left the workforce to raise Sam and her younger son, Charlie.
“Once I started getting my arms around what autism was, I was able to help Sam as well as the broader education system,” Jennifer said. “So it wasn’t just training for me, but for everyone involved during that time.”
Children with low-functioning autism are often easier to diagnose. Symptoms are more apparent and involve signs such as non-verbal ability or rocking back and forth, Jennifer explained. With high-functioning autism or Asperger’s, those are not the typical signs.
While children with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s aren’t physically different from others, their brains are wired differently. Because no physical traits are seen, these children are often overlooked or viewed as behavioral problems.
“They typically have sensory issues, which causes them to act out,” Jennifer explained. “What’s really happening is they could be seeing fluorescent light hurting them like daggers to the brain, or be wearing polyester causing them to be uncomfortable, but they can’t put their finger on the problem.”
One of the signs is their inability to read social cues. Communication norms such as body language, facial expressions or sarcasm go right over their head, which “causes them to be at a loss socially,” Jennifer said.
After Sam’s diagnosis, “finding out all these things that people were unaware of would just keep me awake at night,” Jennifer said.
Becoming an advocate
Despite social difficulties, people will autism still connect on a personal level, Jennifer said. “I often hear the misconception that they don’t have feelings, but they really do,” she said.
Those misconceptions caused angst for the Allens. “Sam was never invited to parties, and the same for Charlie,” Jennifer said. “There were some boys that weren’t nice to Sam and would call him a retard, but Charlie would always stand up for him. Even as the little brother, he was left out of activities, but he stood by his brother.”
Those experiences led Jennifer and her sons to develop Ameriquest Kids, a 3-D animated mix of educational videos in which Sam and Charlie starred.
With the formation of Allen Productions and Sam and Charlie on her team, Ameriquest Kids became the first of many productions. Landmark Media picked up the children’s videos, but the need for autism awareness kept ringing in Jennifer’s mind, so she set her sights on a documentary.
“Before starting the documentary, I asked Sam what he thought,” Jennifer said. “He said he would love to be able to help people. The wonderful thing about Sam is that he sees his ‘disability’ as a strength – as God’s gift. He believes with all his heart that his autism isn’t a weight, but rather a pair of wings in which to fly.”
With Sam on board, the documentary was set in motion.
“Coping to Excelling: Solutions for School Aged Children Diagnosed with High Functioning Autism” presented basic facts and advice on getting children through their school-age years, touching on topics such as social development, importance of the family unit, bullying and the diagnosis itself.
The film aired on PBS and played in select theaters across Texas, and afterward, a panel was available for a Q&A. Along with doctors and educators, Jennifer and Sam were up front helping families who were on the same journey.
Jennifer began to look for other ways to help families dealing with autism find resources she and her husband lacked at the time of Sam’s diagnosis. In 2013, she founded Aspergers101. The website is free, and continually updated with blog posts from members within the medical community, the special education sector, and educators from kindergarten through college level.
‘Driving with Autism’
There are also need-based categories for visitors including social development, adulthood and employment, and, most recently, driving with autism. Working with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, she created a program called “Driving with Autism” that provides training for law enforcement officials. It also allows for a voluntary restriction code to be placed on Texas driver’s licenses informing law officers about potential interaction challenges.
“When it came time for Sam to drive, I researched and found that the Department of Public Safety did have a code for people with autism,” Jennifer said. “However, when we got up there, no one knew anything about it.”
She presented a marketing campaign, along with a brochure and poster with Sam’s face on it with the message, ‘The face of autism is not always obvious, but the challenges are.”
Jennifer and Sam went before the Texas Legislature to request that materials be available in DPS offices statewide. This January, a public service announcement about “Driving with Autism” began airing across the state featuring Sam as spokesman.
As part of the initiative, Jennifer and Sam filmed a traffic pullover situation to be shown throughout DPS, and Jennifer wrote a 42-page communication impediment booklet made available to the Texas DPS and the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, as well as Aspergers101.
Although her communication career took a non-traditional twist, Jennifer has used many of the skills she learned in the JMC department to become an advocate for a cause so close to her heart.
“ACU truly laid the foundation,” Jennifer said. “It was one of the best starts anyone could have, and it’s played a part in everything that has come thereafter.” And she’s quick to add: “To God Be the Glory!” for it all.