In Julia Pozsgai's bedroom is a large purple chair. Though she made it herself out of heavy cardboard, its tall back, exaggerated zig-zag design on the back and feet, and royal purple hue make it look more like a whimsical throne than a large piece of cardboard. Pozsgai sits in it to demonstrate its sturdiness, like a proud queen.
What makes this queen even more impressive is, at 18 months old, Pozsgai was diagnosed as being at risk for autism.
"We got her in a program right away," said Karen Short, Pozsgai's mother. "We lived in San Francisco and I had a friend who worked for a program that worked with young kids. They started working with her on everything — language and the whole range of potential problems, all the things that could happen."
As Pozsgai got older, the San Francisco Unified School District recommended that the family move to Marin County so she could attend Marindale School in San Rafael, which had a teacher that worked with special needs children, for preschool. When Pozsgai moved on to kindergarten, teachers advocated for her that she remain in the regular classroom and not be segregated from her peers. From kindergarten to high school, Pozsgai was included with regular students until she graduated from Casa Grande High School.
"She was very fortunate with the school system," said Short. "We had our differences, but they were supportive. We worked with them."
Short also credits Pozsgai being integrated with regular kids while in school as a factor in her success thus far.
"The community has been great. I think a lot of the kids she went to high school with know her, and some of them definitely tried to include her as much as they were able," she added.
It was at Casa Grande that Pozsgai took a sculpture class, where she first learned how to make cardboard chairs.
"I liked that class," she said.
Today, Pozsgai, now 22, still makes cardboard chairs — an interesting process that, Short says, Pozsgai has refined.
After Pozsgai graduated high school, Short felt there was a lack of programs for adults with autism in the area. After a casual conversation with an employee from Cypress School in Petaluma, Short looked into Autistry Studios in San Rafael.
"I was pretty impressed with the program, pretty much because it was a group that was being challenged," she explained.
That constant challenge is the goal to help autistic adults, whose communication and social skills are not strong, succeed, according to executive director Janet Lawson.
"We've found that autistic individuals of all ages continue to grow when appropriately challenged," Laweson explained in an e-mail interview. "We believe it is important to have high expectations and then provide the tools, support and resources needed to be productive."
In her experience with Pozsgai, Short knows firsthand that autism can be isolating for young adults.
"When you have autism, you're literally trained to be socially appropriate," she said. "You don't learn from your peers in the same way; it has to be pointed out — &‘This is what's OK, this is what's not OK,' because you just don't pick it up."
According to Lawson, she first met Julia in March at a fund-raising event. She felt that, while Pozsgai was very excited and had a great time, it was difficult to tell if she would be a good candidate for Autistry.