Haley Moss

@haley-moss | contributor
Haley Moss was diagnosed with autism at age 3. She recently graduated from the University of Miami School of Law and received her B.A. and B.S. from the University of Florida. She is a renowned visual pop artist and the author of “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About” and “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About.” Haley has been featured on many television programs such as CNN as well as international publications. Haley has been appointed to the Constituency Board of UM-NSU CARD, and has won numerous honors and awards for her writing and advocacy efforts locally and nationally.
Haley Moss

My Autistic Opinion of Netflix's 'Atypical'

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Netflix’s new show “Atypical,” which revolves around how one fictional family experiences autism. Being “atypical” myself, I was waiting patiently to watch and review “Atypical.” Before the show even aired, there was controversy in the autism community about how Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays an autistic high school senior named Sam, is not autistic himself. Autistic actors such as Mickey Rowe, who plays an autistic character on Broadway, commented on the controversy when he reviewed the first episode. Further, no autistic people were consulted for the show. How could I not want to watch it? Naturally, I binge-watched “Atypical.” I couldn’t wait to see how mainstream television was going to talk about autism. I’m sure I’ll be thinking similarly when ABC premiers its new show, “The Good Doctor.” The last time I saw autism talked about on television was with NBC’s “Parenthood,” where we saw Max Braverman grow up from his initial diagnosis of Asperger syndrome at age 7 up until his high school years. Since “Parenthood” ended after a critically appraised run, it was about time for a refreshing take from an autistic perspective, and there is where “Atypical” swoops in. “Atypical” focuses on Sam Gardner, an autistic high school senior who is extremely passionate about penguins and really wants a relationship with a girl; and the rest the Gardner family: his autism warrior mom Elsa, ashamed paramedic father Doug, and his track star younger sister Casey. All of them have varying storylines of their own: Elsa’s infidelity, Doug’s acceptance of his son’s autism, and Casey’s promising athletic future and her first boyfriend (who also is a little bit of a troublemaker). Here are the the things I absolutely loved about “Atypical:” Sam is successfully employed at a computer electronics store. Oftentimes, autistic people are discriminated against in the workplace or do not have the opportunity to work any job. This detail of Sam’s character eases my fears about integrating autistic adults into the community. To the contrary, Sam is a high school senior and has an after-school/weekend job. His boss seems understanding of his autism. Sam is even best friends with one of his co-workers and fellow high school students, Zahid. Sam’s relationship with Zahid is positive – Zahid is concerned with Sam’s sex life and tries to help however he can, from unsuccessfully taking Sam to a strip club, to interrupting customer interactions to assure Sam, to using his own girlfriend’s employee discount at Claire’s to help Sam give a girl a gift. Sam’s mother Elsa, sister Casey, and classmate-turned-girlfriend Paige, are all fierce advocates for Sam. I consider this a double-edged sword since Sam is not an advocate for himself, except when he stands up to Elsa when he says he is capable of picking out his own clothes and going to the mall without his noise-canceling headphones even though the lights, sounds, and the waterfall at the mall are enough to make him overwhelmed and have a meltdown. Sam is willing to better himself, even if it’s only with the goal of finding a girlfriend of getting to lose his virginity, or to please his therapist (who he has a crush on). But before even going to the mall, his mom calls the manager and demands accommodations for her son. I respect and admire Elsa’s determination, but she also really just needs to believe in Sam and give him a chance to try before having to attempt to save the day. Casey stands up to other kids at their high school, makes sure he haslunch money, and tries to protect him from getting hurt by Paige. I also respected when Paige went to the PTA meeting to make the winter formal more accessible overall by successfully proposing a silent disco instead of the flashing strobe lights, loud music experience most of us are familiar with at school dances – and at said PTA meeting, we see a lot of parents lash out at Sam’s mom, thinking she put Paige up to this (she didn’t). I did empathize when Elsa talked about how there are bigger concerns than hairdos for Sam and that there are different concerns for children with disabilities. I also have to give a nod to Sam’s father, Doug. There were a lot of touching interactions between father and son, as Doug aims to better understand his 18-year-old son. Doug is frustrated with his son’s diagnosis. He initially left the family shortly after Sam’s diagnosis, came back, and after hiding Sam’s diagnosis from a work colleague for years, Doug realizes his internalized shame about Sam. He aims to become the expert – he attends Elsa’s autism parent support group (where he immediately corrected about everything), talks to Sam’s therapist, apologizes to Elsa, and works on building a better relationship with Sam. So many parents are in denial that something is different about their children, and it was touching to see Doug come around and accept that autism is a large part of who Sam is. My favorite performance of the show was Casey’s. Casey is a complex character with varying emotions and a lot of teenage angst. She is frustrated by feeling empty or invisible in comparison to Sam. Her relationship with both of her parents is strained. She realizes her father left when Sam was diagnosed and resents that her mother doesn’t seem to give her the attention and affection she desperately needs. Casey’s boyfriend has to stand up for her and shout at the dinner table for her parents to even acknowledge that Casey is being recruited by a top private school to run track because it paled in comparison to Sam making a pro-con list to determine whether or not he liked Paige and Paige sharing with everybody that she found Sam’s list. Her experiences are valid, complicated, and give “Atypical” a heart. I was really looking forward to all of Casey’s scenes, and again, admired her for standing up for Sam when she has enough to grapple with on her own besides feeling protective of her older brother. Here are the things I absolutely disliked about “Atypical:” Other than giving into television stereotypes of Sam initially wanting an intimate relationship with his therapist, coming of age stories, Elsa’s steamy affair with the bartender, and good-girl athlete Casey falling for a bad boy, I had genuine concerns about the show and its portrayal of autism. Sam is totally the stereotypical “higher functioning” autistic character, except he isn’t obsessed with trains.  Otherwise, he’s a perfect stereotype. Nobody is a perfect stereotype in real life. Sam simply misses every social cue, finds every excuse possible to talk about penguins and Antarctica, and appears inherently selfish and inconsiderate. He becomes the joke. He knows he’s weird, and he doesn’t really care, except when it comes to his quest to have a girlfriend and have sex. He ignores people’s feelings, and every line of dialogue he has somehow involves a social misstep. With autism, it isn’t always this obvious, and at least for me, the awkward moments and miscues are more nuanced. These stereotypes are damaging to autistic people, their families, and their friends. Instead of helping us, the show hurts us by falsely portraying us as creepy, insensitive, and just really awkward. I was particularly disturbed by Sam’s relationship with Paige. There was a scene where he locked her in a closet because he was upset that she was touching all of the stuff in his room and ultimately touched his pet turtle. Obviously, his parents tell him to stop and know this isn’t OK. But Sam’s behavior absolutely is not typical of autistic people. It is consistent with abusive relationships, and people with disabilities and autistic people are far more likely to be the abused than the abusers. “Atypical” flips that fact straight on its head when Sam locks Paige in a closet, and not only is Paige OK with it, she takes one of Sam’s sweatshirts as a souvenir. Paige also tries to defend her winter formal silent disco success to the student body after the PTA meeting. She explains how silent discos were ways to have raves and then makes some off-color joke about something that meth addicts and autistic people have in common. I know Paige’s heart is in the right place, but something about Paige makes me think she sees Sam as a zoo exhibit (after all, they did bond over biology class) or a case study. I don’t see how Sam makes her happy, nor did I see how she made Sam happy until he realized he was focusing too much on her being annoying, like when she touched all his stuff. I do agree with Sam on one thing though: Paige is kind of annoying, in a do-gooder “I totally understand autism and am now the autism expert” way, but Sam likely is the only autistic person she’s ever known. Sam is the expert, not Paige, and not his family, and “Atypical” fails to capitalize on Sam’s potential to be the audience’s voice of reason about autism and the autistic experience. Building on Doug attending the autism parent support group, I cringed a little bit when the parents immediately corrected and shamed Doug for saying the word “autistic” and absolutely insisted he used person-first language and show disgust when he uses autism “cure” rhetoric. Saying “autistic” is not a bad thing. Some people do want a cure for autism, and others do not. The support group rules are naturally a confusing dichotomy – autistic communities are against a cure and prefer identity-first language. Doug redeems himself from this patronizing support group when he declares he frankly doesn’t care about whatever the proper language is; his son is still on the autism spectrum regardless of the words used. In the words of Sam’s mom Elsa, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” Elsa says this to Casey after her friends turned on her when she applied to the private school for track, but Casey feared leaving Sam to his own devices and putting a strain on the family financially. Elsa encouraged her with the line, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” It’s OK to be a little selfish for my autistic friends and supportive autism allies to skip “Atypical,” fearing that the show further stigmatizes autism. And my message to the autistic community: like Sam’s penguins, we need to just keep swimming because we have a lot of work to do to be accurately represented on television and to be heard by everybody else. This review originally appeared on HuffPost. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Haley Moss

Why Creating Artwork Helps Me as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

Over the years, I would get stopped on campus (in high school, college and now law school) when I would sit down somewhere with my sketchbook, pencils or in some cases, colored pencils and other tools of the art trade. I wasn’t in art school, so why was I keeping busy with all of these tools while my peers weren’t? I was always a creative-type kid, and it certainly followed me to adulthood. Individuals on the autism spectrum are talented, beautiful people with so much to offer the world around us. We’re gifted in art, music, drama, writing and so much more or a mixture of these blessings. A lot of people think being gifted in art is something I was taught or forced to like somewhere down the line, but I truly know it’s one of the many gifts I’ve received from being on the autism spectrum. Art has been one of the biggest parts of my life for as long as I could remember — my mom used to do crafts and stuff with me when I was very small, and when I was kindly asked to leave my preschool, one of the main reasons was that I scribbled with the black crayons instead of coloring in the lines, which could show you where my creativity began! So why do I draw, paint and color? It relaxes me. It’s really that simple. It gives me the opportunity to leave the real world behind. For those of you who are in school, graduated from high school or college, or have a child in school, you should know that it’s stressful — and even more so when you have an autism spectrum disorder. I could go to anywhere quiet, put some music on that I like, sit down to draw and enter my own world, and try to make it a reality. I remember days when I was younger I’d get so absorbed in my artwork, I’d forget when it was time to eat or to respond to my mom calling for me from across the house. Holding a pencil and making something from scratch appealed to me much more than the drama of “girl world” and most of what kind of hidden social rules school had to offer, so I relaxed myself, felt good about myself and kept on making art, and in a sense, creating my own world as well. My own world has also invited others into it, whether it be through conversation, making friends and allowing me to discover my passions. I go out of my way to make my art, “my art.” My style is my own. It’s the perfect mixture of anime meets pop art. I’m influenced heavily by anime (but don’t watch it or read manga very much anymore), and I’m also influenced by visual pop art such as the work of Peter Max, Romero Britto and countless others. I love how anime and pop art share a big theme of happiness, and that’s what my art is — happy. When I began writing and showing my work to the world, I realized as much as I was creating for me, I was creating to make others happy. I use plenty of colors, and colors make me happy and I try to use as many as possible without a picture looking like a hot mess because I don’t want to leave any of them out. I’ve received feedback from people all over the world telling me how my work spoke to their kids on the spectrum, and I was shocked and glad how much of an impact I could have. Now I donate a lot of my work to charities such as the Dan Marino Foundation, MAAP Services, University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-CARD), the Unicorn Children’s Foundation and numerous others. The charities and organizations I work with do this really cool thing where they auction or sell my paintings or prints at their galas and other events, raise money for the cause, and someone gets to have a new piece of art in their home or business. It’s a win-win for everyone: I love creating, a foundation doing great things gets money and someone gets new décor. Let me make it clear that I have no formal training in the arts. The only training I ever had is a lot of encouragement from family to keep doing what I’m doing because I loved it. That’s one of the most important things I learned about the fabulous talents of kids on the spectrum — as a parent, it’s your job to encourage your kids to explore their interests and talents because you never know what you’ll uncover. Without the support I havereceived and the motivation from my family to keep going, I don’t know if I would still be drawing, painting and trying to learn more techniques and creative things. It’s so important to be positive, and expose your kids to the many things out there and know that your kid(s) probably have all sorts of amazing gifts and talents that are just waiting to be explored and encouraged! I hope you have a better understanding of why I personally love being a visual artist. Art has also taught me how at the end of the day, it’s for everyone, not just the artist and not just the viewer. Art creates a conversation, and my art creates a difference because someone feels happier than they were before, I feel less stressed while creating, and others throughout the nation are getting the services they need because I helped fundraise to make those things possible. It is a beautiful, positive thing to be able to do what you love and make a difference in the world around you. So go out there, explore your gifts, and if you have the ability to, use them to help make our world more awesome! I also hope you are feeling more inspired than before, and are doing what you love, having the courage to explore your talents. Haley creating art

Haley Moss

What I Learned as an Autistic College Student

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. Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Haley Moss

How Opening Up About My Autism Brought Me New Life

I’m coming out of the closet to every single one of you today. It might not be the “out of the closet” you expected, but it is my puzzling and unique autism closet, filled with memories, drawings, writings and deep miscommunications. I am bursting out, swinging open the door loud and proud, with all of the quirks, complexities and traits that make me the person I am today. Let me tell you, it wasn’t always this way. Disabilities like autism often are viewed in our world as things of which to be ashamed or to hide. Think about your previous interactions or experiences with people with disabilities. Maybe you pitied a kid in a special education class, bullied someone, felt uncomfortable during a conversation or thought it was the kind of thing your parents might see sensationalized on “Dr. Phil.” These all seem like valid reasons for someone to keep an autism diagnosis to him or herself, or to be shared and discussed in hushed tones on a discretionary basis. Most likely, this diagnosis is shared only with family members who have been there every step of the way since hearing the fateful words, “Your child has autism.” On the contrary, I feel it is my duty to hold my head up high and embrace my autistic identity. The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in 68 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. That’s a lot of future adults to be hiding in the same closet I’ve been in, whispering the A-word like it’s a death sentence. I did it for most of my life, and didn’t embrace autism enough to shout about it on social media or even to close friends. I wanted to pass as normal and not be judged. I didn’t want to be labeled autistic; it was easier to tell people I was just shy or quiet. In a culture that values norms and conformity, I wanted to be socially accepted without being too different. I was afraid of being judged, being ridiculed or treated differently. There came a point I realized I had no choice but to be honest about my journey as more people embark on similar ones. Without further ado: I am Haley and I am autistic. I actually came out of the autism closet back in high school at the tender age of 14, but only meekly after being put on the spot by my English teacher. At 20, I can tell you that being different is awesome. I love being me; I love being a self-identified introverted creative type with a misunderstood mind that misses out on valuable social cues and exotic foods. I love being one of the most socially awkward people you might ever meet, but I am also one of the most honest. I might hit developmental and societal milestones in a different order than my peers, but I am able to accomplish these small victories on my own time. Coming out of this closet has been liberating and thrilling. If I were not autistic, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would not be the author of two books, I would not be a guest lecturer, I would not have such authentic friendships built on honesty and trust and I would not know how great success truly feels without the level of challenge I have experienced. There is something extremely comforting in knowing I do not have to hide who I really am to the world and pretend to be an actress on the grand stage of life. This experience of coming out of the autism closet has not been perfect, however. There are lots of downfalls to it, too. I have been discriminated against, asked inappropriate questions, told I was jumping on the diversity bandwagon and called names. I don’t want to focus on these injustices today. I’m not here to tell you I’m awesome, but that I feel awesome to have this fierce self-acceptance thing going on. In turn, you shouldn’t feel bad for me because the word “autism” is branded on my identity. I am stronger than the negative perception of autism that is out there, and I am damn proud of that. This post originally appeared on Elite Daily.