Q & A with Jonathan Chase

When Jonathan Chase was 14 years old, few people had high expectations for his future. He wasn’t succeeding in school, he’d recently been diagnosed with autism, and he was told he’d never be able to drive a car. Fast forward two decades, and he’s passionate about performing music. He’s also speaking, writing, and helping others discover how to expand expectations and reach their goals.

Chase was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Breaking Barriers Conference scheduled for this April. The Breaking Barriers Conference is an annual highlight for students, parents, educators, and professionals from all over Oregon. It’s a chance to connect and learn from each other. Like most gatherings this spring, the conference was cancelled, to help stop the spread of COVID-19 infections.  We can’t gather in person, but through our Q & A session below, he shared a few key points for transition students.


Q. First, how are you handling the the changes this spring has brought to your speaking and performing schedule?

Like everyone else, I miss face-to-face connections and opportunities to both teach and learn from others, but it’s the right choice to keep everyone safe and healthy.  This will pass, and when it does I think we’ll see people come together in powerful ways, with a greater value on our shared humanity.  I can’t wait for my first gig whenever the clubs open back up, because people want to get on the dance floor and cut loose.  A year from now I think we’ll all attend the 2021 conference with great awareness and appreciation.  I’m already looking forward to it.


Q. What are some ideas for people with autism to stay connected during this time of social distancing?

People often think that introverts are socially-challenged, or that autistic people don’t really want social connection.  Some people joke about this on social media.  In reality, all people crave some level of connection, whether it’s a hug or just background noise from other people in your space. Just because someone doesn’t regularly initiate social contact doesn’t mean they don’t value it. It’s a good time to check in with each other.

A person with autism may need more structure. One idea is to make a list of the people they know, and schedule a daily time to contact one person on the list. Even just a text to ask how they are doing, and if everything is okay. Checking in and listening can make a big difference in people’s lives.

For me, I’m trying to map out a daily routine and do something productive each day.  It’s tough when the routine and schedule have gone out the window, and it’s easy to feel lost or lose motivation.  I write out chores, projects, and things I want to learn or practice.  This week I’ve been studying some advanced jazz theory and practicing on my upright bass. We get to set our own expectations right now, so if I learn or work on a new skill then I call the day a success.


Q. Can you tell us about your own transition years?

My transition years were pretty different. I got my GED as I was working as a musician in bars. I learned social skills there, with other musicians, and found my path.

I learned to drive when I was 27 years old. My neurotypical friends thought that was weird, and sort of a failure.  But my friends in the autism community thought it was fantastic – a big success! The point is that everyone has their own timeline for growth, and that is a good thing. Never say never, because goals that seem impossible today may be attainable tomorrow.


Q. What advice do you have for transition students ready to graduate?

Learning doesn’t end when we leave school. We keep learning new things at any age, each of us at our own pace. Instead of accepting limitations, we continue to work on growing and learning. Just because a person struggles with a skill now doesn’t mean they’ll never be able to do it. When I speak with young adults, I always share that there is no one single way to reach your goals. Especially for people on the autism spectrum, sometimes our journey ends up being different from our peers.

I found my way through music. In my 20s, I went to Nashville to study jazz. I met some incredible musicians, and they were the first people I opened up to about my autism and what it meant for me. That experience inspired me to focus on work in this area. I moved back to Portland and began working with a non-profit organization, and eventually started my own business helping families and students. I’m still learning and growing, working on my music and on writing, and helping others to build their community.

View Jonathan Chase’s TEDx talk, or learn more about his work.