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Rising Through Resilience: Jayson Pistritto of Anderson Center for Autism On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times

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Savio Clemente

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July 19,2022

Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jayson Pistritto, M.Ed, SBL, School Principal at Anderson Center for Autism.

Jayson Pistritto, M.Ed, SBL, is the school principal at Anderson Center for Autism, where he brings his infectious optimism, strong leadership and people skills, and genuine desire to inspire others to his work each day, ever devoted to carrying out Anderson’s mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism. Jay holds a BA in Sociology from the University at Albany (2016) and MA degree in Childhood Education (B-6) and Students with Disabilities from Mercy College (2018). In 2020, he obtained dual advanced certification in School Building and School District Leadership from the University at New Paltz. His love for learning is insatiable; Jay is now enrolled in the advanced certificate program in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) through Manhattanville College; upon completion, he will have earned designation as a NYS Certified BCBA/LBA. When he is not working at Anderson or completing an assignment for one of his classes, you can find him visiting his beloved family in South Carolina or lounging at home in Historic Rhinebeck, New York watching Netflix with his pitbull Blu.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I was born in the Bronx, New York, but as a child, our family moved north to the Hudson Valley and I grew up in Red Hook, New York before relocating to Albany. After five years in the Capital District, I returned home to Northern Dutchess County where I have since settled in Historic Rhinebeck to build my adult life. Right now, I’m excited about the fact that I recently got engaged; we are planning our wedding for April 1, 2023. We love this area; I am a huge fan of the Farmer’s Market, where I enjoy getting fresh fish and produce, and because my family retired to Myrtle Beach, we have a nice place to enjoy vacations when we are looking for some beach time.

As far as my career path, like most young adults I had very little direction when I graduated with a BA in Sociology from SUNY Albany. I started exploring opportunities and discovered Anderson Center for Autism, a nonprofit based in Staatsburg, New York whose mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism”. I took a job as a Teacher Assistant, and it was the best move I could have made. I fell in love with this population, and worked with many kids who were completely nonverbal. Very quickly, I learned that although they had communication deficits, they were in most cases incredibly capable intellectually. Realizing that changed everything; I began to understand that any behavioral issues were simply a manifestation of their frustration when they couldn’t communicate their needs. They may have disabilities, but they have so much to share. I wanted to do all I could to unlock that potential, and knew I needed to be in that field and advance my career there.

Ironically, during my orientation at Anderson they had asked what my future goals were, and I had actually said that I wanted to become an administrator at a school like this one. I had no idea that things would play out as they did, but after being a Teacher’s Assistant, I moved into a case manager role, and then became a house manager before deciding to enroll in a Master’s of Special Education degree program at Mercy College. I knew I wanted to get back into the classroom, and that degree was exactly what I needed. I got dual certification in regular ed and special ed, and took over a high school classroom at Anderson. I loved it. My staff, my students — I felt very fulfilled. During that time, the principal at Anderson Education Center announced retirement plans, and I expressed interest in helping out while they found another principal. Kathleen Marshall, the Director at that time, came up with a plan that included my serving as interim principal while participating in a leadership program at New Paltz that could further hone my skills. From there, I obtained my School Building Leadership (SBL) and School District Leadership (SDL) certifications, and eventually when the timing was right (just a couple of years later), I landed exactly where I had envisioned myself — in the role of principal for Anderson Center for Autism. My story demonstrates Anderson’s commitment to ensuring that team members who want to build careers with the organization have all of the resources they need to do so. They have been so supportive of my personal and professional development and I feel so grateful to be part of it.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’ve worked with a lot of individuals with autism, and one of the things that turned me on to this agency and made me want to stay is the progress I’ve seen in those we have served — there are so many interesting stories which capture those improvements, and every one of them is exciting and gives our entire team a sense of purpose.

I have learned so much about autism itself; coming into this field I had very little knowledge of the neurological disorder previously, and as noted in the first response I had some misconceptions about intellectual capacity. I also had no idea that through evidence based practices like Applied Behavior Analysis, you can really help optimize quality of life for individuals with autism and also their families.

One student in particular had a pattern of self-injurious behavior. He often injured his own face and head, and we were all worried about our ability to support his needs. I was with him for 4 years, and over that time period, with persistence on his part and on ours, we decreased those behaviors down to about an eighth of what they had been. Eventually he was able to go without a helmet and enjoy time out in the community. The lesson is to stay focused and really get to the root problem. In his case and for most of our students, that root cause of the problematic behavior is lack of communication skills. So you have to look closely at that and communicate in unconventional ways and you learn this through practice. You learn what works for each person by spending time working directly with that individual and finding out what reinforcements are needed. You can have all the booksmarts in the world; I am going on my third Master’s degree now myself — but none of that matters without spending the time needed to make real connections with each individual if you want to really open doors and make a real impact, as we did in this case.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Anderson Center for Autism is a nonprofit, not a company, but just like any organization, it’s all about the people. I started here in my early 20s and I’m now 38 years old, so I have really “grown up” here at Anderson. We have an incredible team who are all very committed to our cause and serve as a real support system for one another. The departments all collaborate effectively, and I’m part of a wellness program where we bring our colleagues together for sports like volleyball, basketball, and bowling. People really enjoy that kind of environment, where we are always looking for ways to build a spirit of teamwork and have fun and socialize. It makes work so much more enjoyable when you feel connected to the people around you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Definitely my family. They have always been a huge support system for me. They helped focus me when I graduated and felt so lost about what to do with my life, and they have beamed every step of the way as I’ve shared achievements. My parents are always cheering me on, and anytime I would call them with news of a promotion at Anderson to say “I got the job”, they would say, “we knew you would!” It means everything to have people really believe in you. I come from a blue-collar background, and I’m the first in my family to get a Master’s degree. This career path is one that I’m so proud of, and I know that they are too.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

When I think of the term resilience, I think of flexibility, being open, being able to adapt to any situation, being prepared, and being strong through challenges — emotionally, intellectually. That emotional piece of preparation became extra-important during the pandemic. You can have everything “together” in terms of physical things that need to be put in place, but if you aren’t coming from an emotionally healthy space, it is hard to stay strong through the tough times.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?

I think courage is something that we need in order to be resilient, because it takes bravery to go into the unknown. So you need that courage first in order to take on a challenge, and then it is resilience that allows you to adapt, be flexible, and persevere no matter how tough things get.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I think about two groups — our team of teachers, teacher assistants, and therapists — and the other group would be our students. All of them faced the pandemic with total flexibility, adaptability, optimism, and a willingness to do whatever was needed to ensure that our work continued to be as impactful as it has always been. They were all steadfastly devoted to the learning and growth that ultimately make our program so successful, and they worked together to make it happen, keeping their hearts and minds open at all times. Each and every person demonstrated total resilience every step of the way, as they always do — and I am ever in awe of all of them.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

At Anderson Center for Autism, the mindset is always “everything is possible.” Naturally, the pandemic presented its share of challenges, but when those came up, we did what we always do — tapped into the culture of resiliency that allows us to navigate through any obstacles and rise above them. For example, at times when team members were out sick due to Covid-19, colleagues from other departments stepped in to sign up for shifts so that we would have ample coverage in our programs. That willingness to be helpful and the power of collaboration made everything we do continue to be possible. From our administrative and leadership teams to our Anderson Center International fellows (who obtain training from Anderson that is needed to set up similar programs in their home countries), people from throughout our organization did all they could to keep our students educated and our residents well cared-for, leading with a shared commitment to our mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism. It is not surprising that this was the overall response to the pandemic — we’ve always had an “all hands on deck” spirit here at Anderson — but it was of course deeply moving to see this come to life so beautifully at a time when struggles were so real for many other organizations.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I endured a really challenging medical situation that was further complicated by a medical mistake that took place during surgery. It led to poisoning in my system and over a year’s worth of repair surgeries, along with a leave of absence. But during that time I reflected on how our response to our experiences can make or break us. It’s all about shifting mindset and acknowledging that it is up to each of us to create our own happiness and success in life. We have the choice every day to look at things with optimism, courage, and to tap into our own motivation to push through and be better than ever. And that’s what I did. I knew that the medical issues were a major setback, but that I had the drive within me to make things as good as they could be. I returned stronger than ever from that, with a much better understanding of how important mindset is in every situation I will face in the years ahead.

How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

I have an addictive personality, and I have become totally addicted to learning about mindset, which has helped me develop stronger resilience. I love books and podcasts focused on self-improvement. I’ve also always felt the support of my family; I was surrounded by optimism growing up, so that really stayed with me and shaped my life too. I see from the positive people around me that anything is possible with the right mindset.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Learn from your mistakes! We will all have some missteps along the way, but it is important to use them to learn and grow so that you can feel and be stronger as you face future challenges in life.
  2. Always stay positive. Again, mindset is everything. In our field, this is especially important — we want to lead with the idea that with determination and by applying the most respected practices, we can really make a difference in the lives of people with autism and help them have a higher quality of life.
  3. Be proactive and prepared. By figuring out what we needed to do as we began to discover what was happening with the pandemic, we all felt a little more confident and ready to be strong in the face of uncertainty. I think the more prepared we are, the more resilient we can be whatever the circumstances are.
  4. Set goals (Daily, weekly, monthly yearly). Having goals for ourselves allows us to prepare — and gives us all the feeling that we are in control to a degree, which makes us more confident and able to handle stressful situations that will inevitably arise.
  5. Reflect on your goals and progress towards your goals regularly. Reflection gives us a chance to remember that we are always moving forward, and when we celebrate all of the steps we are taking, we gain stronger self-confidence, which of course will help us handle struggles
  6. Bonus: Care about yourself and stay healthy!! Resilience is definitely easier to come by if you are in a healthy space — mind, body, and spirit. That begins with self-care. To have a positive mindset we all need to feel whole and healthy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

“It’s all about your choices” would be my movement. We are living in a very challenging time, where people are divided by politics and controversies and dealing with difficult situations. Sometimes people want to blame others for their pain, and I would instead like to see people take charge of their own lives. Make the choice to see the good in situations, to see the potential, and to see what you can do to make yourself happier even on the toughest days. We all have a chance to make our lives what we want them to be, and to choose to see things from an optimistic point of view, to be open-minded, and to create some happiness for ourselves no matter what.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

Growing up and even now, Bruce Lee has been a hero. As a martial artist myself, he has always fascinated me. His commitment to healthy living and a positive mindset and all of the quotes that came from him — I’ve been inspired by his perspective for many years. And when it comes to resilience, he talked about life being like water and how we need to be resilient like water, allowing the ebb and flow, bending and twisting. If you can make your mind like water you can get through anything.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can learn more on our website: andersoncenterforautism.org, or follow us on social media.
Our Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/AndersonCenterforAutism; 
Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndersonAutism; 
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andersoncenterforautism/; 
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/AndersonCenterAutism/videos; 
and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/anderson-center-for-autism/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!