In May, I cried tears of joy when my diplomas came in the mail from the University of Florida. I cried not because I was relieved to leave undergrad behind, but because I won an important victory of not becoming a statistic. I made it, and the proof was in my hands and now hangs framed on my walls.
I have high-functioning autism. I was diagnosed at age 3. When my parents got my diagnosis in 1997, they were told I would be lucky if I had one friend, made it through high school and took the test for my driver’s license. Some people on the spectrum do not go to college, or are unemployed, or do go and may not succeed. I was one of the ones who thrived.
I stand tall and proud when I say I have a Bachelor’s of Arts and a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Florida, and I stand a little taller when I say I finished in three years opposed to the usual four.
It wasn’t easy, if I can tell you so. I did not follow the yellow brick road to get there; I was met with doubt every step of the way. I was told not to go to a larger university, I was told not to jump in head first into academics and get my feet wet first and I was told that it’s OK if it’s too overwhelming. Needless to say, I didn’t take no for an answer. I would not be held back because I am autistic, but rather, I would work harder and become more resilient to be afforded the same opportunities as anybody else.
For the three years I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I lived on campus for two of them, I had a roommate for one semester, I graduated with honors, I took on every academic challenge I could with two majors, and well, I wrote and had a book published. I also accommodated my own unique challenges as best as I could — I scheduled my life in the details. I knew if I couldn’t handle the squeaking of player’s shoes at a Gators basketball game. I knew what my social limits were, and I knew how to work my way around dining options as someone with limited food preferences. I learned how to make college a triumph with my own rules and expectations.
College taught me a lot about how the world doesn’t always accommodate differences, and sometimes, it’s up to me to fix that and alter the world just a little to make the people around me a bit more accepting or accommodating. In fact, during my undergrad years, I learned so much about survival, adaptation and being a student on the autism spectrum that I was able to pass on all of my advice to the next generation in my book, “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.”
It was in college, through a diversity retreat, that I learned precisely what it means to believe in social justice and to be an advocate beyond the autism and disability communities — to be an advocate to everyone outside of getting accommodations or inside the bubble of disability. I learned that one voice can truly make a difference. I learned that my voice was one my campus needed. I wrote op-eds for the student newspaper, I was a guest speaker to education and disability studies courses and I continued writing. I was letting my voice be heard all over the place. I graduated from the University of Florida and still get emails that the advocacy work I began is continuing without me, that the next crop of Gators is keeping the legacy alive. For a young woman who had the odds of graduation stacked against her, I was able to do more than survive — I made an impact.
I am in law school at the University of Miami now. I am watching myself do a lot of the same things that worked for me, in a new city, but closer to home. I am watching myself plan my schedules, find time to do what I would like, work around dining options and also be an adult with an apartment. Maybe the statistics are still not in my favor. However, the outside doubt and the internal doubt is much smaller than when I left for college. I’ve done it before; who is stopping me from thriving once again?
A version of this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
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