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My Journey to Accepting Myself as an Extraordinary Aspie

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This is a story of a man who knew he was inherently different than his peers, a man who despite his many accolades and achievements had failed in one aspect of his life. That accomplishment? Self-acceptance of himself! This man was diagnosed in the beginning of the “autism epidemic” of the 2000s and for 18 of his 32 years of life in this world he didn’t accept himself, regarded himself as lower than low and a nobody.

Who is this man? This person who wouldn’t embrace himself when countless others view him as an inspiration, a courageous man and a fearless advocate? This man is me! My name is Tsukasa Richard Nakai or simply Richard, and this is my journey into self-acceptance of who I am as a person with autism.

It started when my preschool teacher, who had a background in special education, suspected something was off with me and suggested to my mom that I be tested. They found I have sensory integration dysfunction, which was severe at that time. I went to occupational therapy as I had to learn how to regulate my senses. As I progressed in school, nearly all my teachers said, “He’s exceptionally bright, but something isn’t right!” It wasn’t until the fall of my freshman year of high school that my occupational therapist suggested to my mom that she read Dr. Tony Attwood’s book Asperger’s Syndrome.” My mom thought “A-ha!”

That October I was evaluated at the UCLA Help Group for two days, and the results showed I was autistic. My mom was relieved! She had an answer and sought out solutions to help me. Me? I blamed myself for this diagnosis and like Ivan the Terrible, I lashed out at myself both verbally and emotionally. I did not accept myself and any of my accomplishments. Did I tell myself “Great job!” Nope! I said to myself rather derisively “You got lucky!” “They felt sorry for you!” or “Who cares!” Until this year, I didn’t embrace myself and it showed in my disposition.

In January of this year I reached out to my program manager in Best Buddies, an organization that has three key pillars: Friendship, Employment and Leadership opportunities. I was nearing my first full year as a member of the UCLA chapter, which pairs college students with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I am an Ambassador for them, which is where I go into the community to share my story and motivate people. I’m also the Buddy Director; I make sure all the Buddies (adults with IDD) participate in the chapter events and relay their concerns to our Board of Directors on which I serve. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask her if there were any spots open for the Ambassador track at the Leadership Conference, which takes place annually in July at the Indiana University Bloomington campus. She replied that there weren’t, so I thought “OK, I can start saving up for next year’s conference!” Turns out I didn’t have to wait that long!

In March, we had our Board of Director elections and I won reelection for Buddy Director. Our outgoing President then asked me to go the Leadership Conference — this year! Then when I went to work in our state office as an intern, the program manager got me into the Ambassador track. Weeks went by, and as I did the conference calls on what to expect I grew very scared and anxious. This was my first trip with a group of people, and my first trip without my mom around. I was afraid of what would happen if I got stopped by the TSA and had to get a pat down. Would I have a full-blown meltdown?

The day of the trip finally arrived, and I was up early because I was too nervous to sleep. I thought I was going to ask my program manager if I could skip some of the activities due to being exhausted, but I made it! The next day of the Leadership Conference went smoothly and according to plan. As we were walking back to the dorms, my program manager said to me, “Oh by the way, I nominated you to do a photo shoot tomorrow and you were selected!”

Now here was a surprise! I had to rush to the photo shoot instead of taking my time and eating a leisurely breakfast. So, I did the photo shoot and I thought “OK, this is going to be the last of the interruption in my schedule. I am going to do my speech presentation and then go to the closing ceremonies and the dance tonight!”

As the day progressed, we did our speech presentations and by chance I met the Deputy Director and the Head of the Ambassador Program and we talked briefly. After the other Ambassadors gave their speeches, in the past I would have told myself, “What a lousy speech you wrote! Didn’t even get selected to present it!” But instead, I said to myself “Ah well! You did great and it was your first year. Maybe it will happen another year.” This was unexpected! Here I was praising myself! I thought to myself, “Is the humidity getting to me?”

I went to the dining hall to get my meal. As I was about to sit down, I found out I got selected to speak at the closing ceremonies that night! I had to rush to eat my meal and prepare to speak to 3000 people — plus the ceremony was being live streamed on the internet. I was nervous all over again! I told myself, “You got this! Now come on! Let’s get ready! I am super proud of you!”

I figured I would be the second or the last person up. Nope — I was the first one up! As I went up on the stage our state delegation yelled the loudest, and after I finished, I got a standing ovation! I started to cry and after the closing ceremonies were over, our entire state delegation mobbed me. Everywhere I went I got asked to take pictures with people and network with them. I wasn’t used to all this attention!

Later I found out the top four speeches and Ambassadors are chosen from all 150 Ambassadors there. I also made state history, as I was the first Californian in six years chosen to speak, and the very first one from UCLA and Southern California. I apologized to myself for my ill treatment of myself. Half-expecting to hold a grudge against myself, I said, “It’s water under the bridge. I forgive you!”

This past weekend, I went on my first ever solo trip — to Portland, Oregon. I found out that I love traveling alone and in general. Finally, after 18 years of self-hatred, I have come full circle and accepted myself for who I am, not what I am supposed to be.

Originally published: January 1, 2019
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