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How My Experiences as a Student on the Autism Spectrum Shaped My Career Path

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Imagine not being able to communicate with the people you care about the most about your basic needs growing up. This used to be my story.

When I was diagnosed with autism at 4, I was just starting pre-K. It was one of the most difficult transitions of my life. Ever since my diagnosis, I knew I was special, although it wasn’t until I was 11 that I learned I had an autism spectrum disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

During my academic career, I’ve dealt with many challenges in the school systems. One of those first challenges had to do with speech. I was completely nonverbal until I was 2 and a half and didn’t start saying my first few words until I was 3. I wouldn’t start speaking in complete sentences until I was 5. Along the way, I’d also have challenges with expressive and receptive language disorder, sensory integration dysfunction, auditory processing disorder, twirling, dysgraphia (a handwriting disorder), motor challenges, anxiety and emotional issues due to my lack of speech.

Added to this laundry list of challenges was being a victim of bullying. When I was in public school until fourth grade, I was in a special needs setting of students ranging in ages of 6 to 14. Along with being extremely shy due to my lack of speech, I was bullied by my classmates because I was one of the youngest kids in our classes. My peers who weren’t in special education used to call us the “retarded class.” When I was mainstreamed in mathematics in fourth grade, I was given the name “Captain retarded” because I was one of the only students with a disability to be mainstreamed. For so long I wanted to quit school because I thought no one would ever understand me or want to be my friend due to my autism diagnosis. When I transitioned to private school and found out about having autism for the first time, I researched about how I could use my autism as strength.

One of those strengths involved honing in on my key interests. This led me to thinking about one of my first key interests I ever had in basketball. I could tell you all 30 NBA basketball teams and most of the players on those teams. I turned that key interest into finding friends in school while also losing over 60 pounds to play basketball for my school team.

I turned learning about my key interests in school to finding ways to motivate myself to do well in my academics. This started with self-reflection exercises and later into reward systems (for example, one hour of homework would lead to 15 minutes of playing NBA 2K on PlayStation). This has been of the biggest triggers for me today being able to graduate from high school, graduating with my undergraduate degree, receiving my masters and getting accepted into a doctoral program to become a teacher.

Now after being able to say that I’ve overcome many of my obstacles, for the past six years I’ve traveled the country speaking at almost 700 events about autism, disabilities, story-telling, innovation and bullying prevention. One of my favorite talks I give today though is to educators called “Teach the way our students learn.” Autism is a spectrum disorder, and if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve truly met just that — one person with autism. I educate our educators today that when we establish a rapport with our students, and find what they love to do and help them harness that passion, we can help them succeed.

Along the route of public speaking I’ve been able to hold a full-time job for the past three and a half years; write two best-selling books; consult on several disability-related films to bring a realistic portrayal of disabilities to our entertainment industry; start a nonprofit organization that’s given more than 30 scholarships to students with autism for college; and accept a job as a local talk show host highlighting stories of people with disability, disease and overcoming obstacles. I also recently moved into my first apartment post-college and have been able to thrive through many vocational skills I once found challenging growing up.

In my spare time, as someone who grew up not knowing anyone who was on the spectrum to look up to, I now mentor high school students on the spectrum to help them transition to adulthood, whether it be housing, employment and/or postsecondary education.

The final words I say when I finish any talk are something I wanted to share here, too. Growing up in school, I said that autism had hindered my education. Now today in school, I say that autism is just one of the many parts of making me who I am. I now say, “Autism can’t define me. I define autism.” Now one day after graduating with my doctorate degree, I hope I can teach and help our educators and students even more.

A version of this post originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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Thinkstock image by CreativaImages

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AutonomyWorks Hires People With Autism for Their Unique Skills

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AutonomyWorks is a tech company with a goal to build a global network of over 10,000 employees with autism.

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This tech company hires people with autism for their unique skills.

AutonomyWorks creates jobs for people with autism that utilize their unique talents and abilities.

Based in Chicago, they provide technology services to different organizations such as Autism Speaks.

AutonomyWorks employees test software, update websites, process financial transactions and more.

Each associate receives a custom-tailored working environment.

Associates also receive occupational support, job coaching and social and life skills training.

AutonomyWorks hopes to change the way the world views people with autism,

As well as create a profitable, global business employing 10,000 adults with autism.

To learn more, visit autonomy.works.

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Mikaela Sheldt Paints Facial Expressions as an Artist on the Autism Spectrum

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When Mikaela Sheldt was 17 years old, her parents bought her painting supplies – opening the door to a world Sheldt’s mathematically-inclined brain never knew existed.

“Honestly, I wasn’t very interested in art,” Sheldt told The Mighty. “But one day I came home and started painting on my bedroom walls. I think I was 17 or something. It just seemed like a good idea and I went with it.”

Drawing in ink of a man with long hair and a beard.

A physics and mathematics student, Sheldt’s decision to pursue art as a career didn’t come until years after college. “I still continued to study math and physics in college, but art slowly took over my world,” Sheldt said. “I started painting as a way to process all the things I was feeling inside myself. It made me feel better to paint. When I was painting, I felt connected in a way I never had before.”

Sheldt graduated from Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and took a job teaching mathematics at a nearby school for refugee boys. Two years later she left teaching to pursue art full-time.

Colorful painting of a woman's face.

Now, the 29-year-old artist focuses on a number of creative pursuits including painting, creative writing and photography. She’s painted large seascape commissions, spent time as the artist-in-residence at a Sonoma County winery and has had exhibits and galleries dedicated to her work.

Still, Sheldt insists she’s not a creative person. “I am not creative, I just see the world uniquely,” she said. “When I paint a portrait or a seascape I am doing so much more than rendering. I am painting they way a subject makes me feel. As a person on the autism spectrum, painting the way something feels has a very distinct meaning. The world is an incredibly loud place.”

Painting of an African American man

Of all the paintings in Sheldt’s portfolio, some of her most striking work are her portraitures – canvases that extend almost from floor to ceiling, featuring intimate gazes and candid expressions. Rather than live models, Sheldt uses photographs to create her artwork, referencing her experience of a person in addition to processing the visual information in front of her.

“A person’s face has in incredibly high concentration of information coming off of it. There are so many things to process all at once, often I can’t look at someone when I am tired because it is painful,” she said. “In my studio, I get lost exploring the depth of all of this information. I become obsessed with decoding and translating all of the stimulation that comes off a person’s face.”

Colorful painting of a woman's face

The whole process, Sheldt said, is exhausting. As a person on the autism spectrum, Sheldt experiences emotions, sounds, smells, weight and texture all at once. “During the day when I’m trying to engage with the world outside my bedroom, it is overwhelming,” she explained. “In my studio, when I’m painting, I get to focus and obsess on one thing at a time. I get to take as long as I want to experience and process.”

The process continues until the painting makes Sheldt feel the same way the paintings subject makes her feel. “I use an immense amount of energy trying to move through a world that isn’t designed for autistic people,” she said. “My painting process is exhausting, but it is also incredibly rewarding.”

Black and White up close painting of a face.

All images featured belong to Mikaela Sheldt, and are used with permission. 

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This Floral and Retail Shop Sells Gifts Made by People With Autism And Trains Them for Hire

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Autism Avenue is a floral and gift shop that trains and hires young adults with autism and sells items made by its employees.

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This floral and retail shop does more than just sell gifts made by people with autism.

Autism Avenue is a one of a kind floral and retail shop which hires young adults with autism.

The structured work environment provides job training and real world experience for its trainees.

Located in Wichita, Kansas, potential employees must master a pre-training program before they are considered for a position.

Working gives trainees the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve learned while building self-esteem, social connections and motivation.

Items sold in the shop are unique and personal because they are created by the employees.

The store also carries support resources as well as awareness items such as necklaces, bracelets and artwork.

To learn more about Autism Avenue, visit autismave.com.

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American Girl Resale Store, Girl AGain, Trains Women With Autism

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When Marjorie Madfis retired after 30 years in the marketing industry, she wanted to do something to help women succeed in the business world – women like her daughter, Izzy, who is on the autism spectrum. In February 2014, she opened Girl AGain, an American Girl resale store that teaches young women on the autism spectrum the ins and outs of running a small business.

“American Girl dolls are my daughter’s passion,” Madfis told The Mighty, explaining her choice to open a resale boutique. “She loves the product. Many people turn to her and ask ‘Izzy, do you know what year this is from?’” That passion, Madfis said, helps her interact with customers. Not all of Girl AGain’s trainees are as passionate about the product as Izzy is, though they all are passionate to learn.

Now in its third year, Girl AGain, part of Madfis’ nonprofit organization Yes She Can, Inc., works with nine trainees, ages 18 to 23. Each trainee comes in to the White Plains, New York store for a minimum of two hours per week, with the training program lasting between a year to 18 months. Trainees work with job coaches, volunteers who are trained psychologists and social workers to hone their skills at a pace and environment tailored to their needs.

“The resale business provides a lot of task-based opportunities,” Madfis said. Trainees learn how to collect donated dolls, determine if they are sellable, package the dolls, log products inventory management system as well as learn competitive pricing. “You can’t just make up your own prices,” she added.

The store, which is open from Wednesday to Sunday, also offers weekend workshops with doll-oriented crafts, creative writing programs and other activities. “It’s an opportunity for trainees to do something different and be leaders and help-givers to other children who look up to them,” Madfis said, 

So far, the program has trained 28 women, many of whom have gone on to college and other part-time positions. “There are only so many women that can fit into this tiny little place, that we can support in this program,” Madfis said. “We are working on documenting our process and curriculum. I think this model could be replicated across the country to enforce job skills.”

To learn more about Girl AGain, or donate a gently-used American Girl doll, visit Girl Again’s website

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