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

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.

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