Lamar Hardwick

@lamar-hardwick | contributor
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a husband, father of three boys, best-selling author, and a pastor of a church located in Lagrange, Georgia. After decades of struggling with socia
Lamar Hardwick

My Question About 'Autism Uncensored' as an Autistic Dad

I don’t have a lot of fond memories of my childhood. It’s not because my childhood was awful. I imagine I had a very privileged childhood. My parents were great. My siblings were awesome, yet I don’t remember much about my childhood because it wasn’t all that exciting, at least to me. I wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until 2014. I was 36 years old at the time. I lived my entire life completely unaware of why I had so many challenges. I hated crowds. I hated loud noises. I loved to stay indoors away from both as much as possible, and yet I had to eventually learn to choose to overcome fear. I often say that what is most important is most obvious. When reading the excerpt from the upcoming book “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain,” the author doesn’t make it ambiguous as to what’s most important to her. She writes, “…I believe nothing is moreimportant than getting your autistic children out into the world.” For the mother of this autistic child, getting him out into the world was her mission. I am also a parent. I understand she wanted something for her child she did not think was possible. She recalls vividly how she forced him to face his fear so she could “save him from a life entrapped by autistic phobias.” In this moment I ask myself if there is a difference between fighting for our children and fighting our children. I’ll admit I cringed while reading the lengths to which she was willing to go to prove to her son there was nothing to fear. The idea that this specific encounter was premeditated also caused me a significant amount of anxiety, especially when reading her use of force lasted 36 minutes and 45 seconds. The article states that her intention was to help other parents in pain to “cast off shame,” and while that is a noble intention, I’m wondering how we help cast off the shame of being forced into a fearful situation. The question I am unable to answer by reading this article is the question I believe is the most important one to ask ourselves: “What does her son remember about that day?” I don’t remember much about my childhood. I don’t remember birthday parties and prom. I don’t remember my favorite teachers or the names of the schools I attended. I don’t remember going to see live shows or having sleepovers with friends. I admit there is much about my childhood I don’t remember, and much of those memory gaps are due to the fact that I often did not want to attend the types of events that are generally thought of as memory-making moments. There is also something about my childhood I do not remember. I cannot ever recall being intentionally traumatized as a means for helping me learn how to be more courageous. One of the most puzzling aspects of the author’s account of this incident is the repeated admittance of the intentional ignoring of the voices of those around her. She admits to ignoring the counsel of doctors. She admits to ignoring the needed training and certification for child restraint. She admits to ignoring the recommendation for taking a slower approach to addressing this obviously sensitive issue. She admits to ignoring the voice of patience. She admits to ignoring the patrons and staff at the venue who expressed concern for how she was handling the situation. Most importantly she appears, at least to me, to ignore the voice of her own child. Is that what he will remember about that day? Will he remember that his sense of agency over his own body was overridden? Will he remember he was perhaps taught a painful lesson, that the path to courage is to use force to override fear? It took 36 minutes of force to address his fear. When I was diagnosed with ASD at age 36 the first thing I did was to reflect on my life and the memories of my childhood, and I had 36 years of moments to draw from. When he is 36 years old, what will he remember about facing his fears? What will he remember about facing people who may fear him? What will he remember about the things his parent(s) did that shaped his life and his understanding of courage? As a parent I want so desperately to identify. As parents we love our children. We want them to live well. We want them to live free from fear and anxiety. But what if the best way to teach our children how to overcome fear is to demonstrate to them the type of grace and patience it takes to overcome our fears for them? If anything I hope parents of autistic children will read this story and others like it and understand the story as descriptive and not prescriptive. The short-term result was that he eventually got to see what has behind the curtain. He may have enjoyed the show that day. He may have even appeared to have increased self-esteem, as the author suggests. He may have learned to be less fearful of indoor spaces, as his mom claims, as the result of the day she used force to help pull the curtain back on his fear. Yet, while it may seem like a “win” for good parenting, I’m afraid there is still another curtain that has yet to be pulled back. What will he remember about the day he was physically forced to overcome his fear? As an adult with autism who still struggles with social anxiety, sensory processing challenges and fear of public spaces, what if the real question behind the curtain is not, “How do we force autistic people to overcome their fears and fit into our world?” but rather, “How do we challenge the world to pull back the curtain on their fear of how autism fits into the world?” Perhaps instead of pulling our children kicking and screaming into the world, let’s pull the world kicking and screaming into the future by helping them overcome their fear of our children. Maybe that’s the memory we should be striving to leave them with. Maybe that’s the way to not just make our children better for the world but to make the world better for them.

Lamar Hardwick

Tips for Adulting With Autism

In December of 2014, almost three years ago I was given a gift, not for Christmas but equally as important to me. I was given the gift of self-awareness. At the end of 2014 I was officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) and for the most part my diagnosis has been a relief and a reward. Don’t get me wrong, autism can be challenging. Most of my challenges are invisible to the untrained eye. Until I was diagnosed I felt out of touch and out of sync with the world around me. Social communication challenges and sensory processing issues made things pretty difficult for me especially as I entered into adulthood. Simple things like making friends and finding and keeping a job were difficult for me because of the way the world works. Now with three years under my belt and a diagnosis and more determination, I’ve learned as I am nearing 40 how to manage my life in a way that helps highlight my strengths. Adulting and autism is a grind. If you’re on the spectrum or have a child on the spectrum and are nearing adulthood, here are a few things I’m learning to manage that have helped me become more successful and stable. 1. Manage your time. When it comes to time, we really don’t manage it because we can’t manipulate it. Time moves on with or without us. Time can be a challenge for me as with many people on the spectrum, because I can become laser focused on finishing a task and get totally lost in it. Although I have an incredible sense of chronological time, my sense of timing can become distorted. I can miss important windows of time which makes it difficult for me to instinctively know when to take a break. Right now I am on sabbatical for this very reason. Because I love what I do, I find it difficult to know when I’ve done too much. My advice is to assign trusted people to point you toward the need for rest. Have them help you create margin. Managing time is about margin. Create space between your load and your limit and have people stand in the gap and warn you when you’re in danger of crossing the line. 2. Manage your energy. Energy management is essential. Honestly, I am still very much a work in progress when it comes to this critical issue. The spoon theory is a wonderful example of what energy management is all about. Simply put, I’ve had to learn what types of activities require certain types of energy and as a result learn to ration out my energy for tasks that are important for this season and stage in my life and career. Sensory overload has a tremendous impact on how I am learning to ration out my energy to be more effective. I’ll write more about that later, but the fact that I live in a world that my brain isn’t built for requires me to be very frugal with my energy. I turn down good opportunities if they infringe upon my ability to be great at something else. In the last three years I’ve learned how to manage this through trial and error, journaling, and failing at tasks because I gave my energy away to something less important. Energy management is about learning a pace and rhythm that works best for you in your pursuit of reaching your goals. Give yourself permission to only give yourself away to things that will make a contribution to your journey and support your core convictions. 3. Manage expectations. Admittedly this one is hard to do. Managing expectations means trying to manage your own expectations as well as the expectations of others. Prior to my diagnosis, I thought I was simply not enough to meet the expectations I placed on myself, and that translated to how I perceived others when thinking of whether or not I was meeting their expectations. Truthfully, most of what I thought people wanted was probably the result of my own insecurities. Then there is also a small percentage of people who simply have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of others. This is true in both relationships and employment, and it makes it extremely tough to transition into adulthood having trouble with meeting the demands you place on yourself and having demands placed on you. I have learned that most expectations go unmet simply because they go unexpressed. When it comes to managing expectations, don’t allow anything to remain ambiguous or undefined. Try to understand exactly what is expected from you by others upfront, so you can decide if you feel you are capable of meeting those demands. It also allows the other party to hear if their requests are actually reasonable. Most times people have ideas in their minds about what is feasible, and it’s not until those ideas come out of their heads and onto paper that you can both assess what is realistic. I want to honor my commitments, but honoring requires honesty. I’m learning to be honest with myself and with others about what I can do. You can’t do what you can’t do, and having limits doesn’t make you weak it makes you honest and human. 4. Manage your sensory resources. In the past I’ve written about the impact my sensory processing has on my energy levels. This has been a learning curve for me. Certain sights, sounds and smells can send my brain into overload. My brain doesn’t always manage the environment very well, and as a result it can become overwhelmed and shut down. Think of your computer when it has been asked to process too many tasks. When you get what I call the “wheel of death” you know the machine is overwhelmed. In order to help the computer you have to open the task manager by hitting control, alt, delete and shut it down. This is what is known in the autism community as a meltdown or in my case as I have grown older, a shut down. My brain needs a break, so it takes one and in the process it takes me with it. When I’m scheduled to attend an event or outing, I like to do as much research as possible. I try to find out what the environment might sound like and smell like. How long will I be there? Is there a schedule or program I can view so I can understand what will be taking place? When I arrive I try to sit close to an exit or with easy access to the restroom. I often need to take scheduled breaks so I don’t get overwhelmed, so having access to the door or restroom helps me remove myself for a few minutes. Sitting in the corner of the room often helps “cut off the room” so I can place all of the action in front of my line of sight. Having chewing gum and/or mints also helps focus my sensory input. I often count in patterns when I chew, or when using mints I try to have something hard and crunchy I can bite into to give me some sensory relief. Ultimately, I can’t change my brain but I can periodically train it to manage certain situations if I am prepared to take on the challenge in advance. 5. Manage your social calendar. In the past, social anxiety has been a huge hindrance to my professional career. I discovered I needed a wingman. I am not an initiator, so I needed to coordinate with people who can help create a calendar filled with important opportunities to connect with people I may otherwise not have engaged with because of my social anxiety. This has worked well for me. I am able to interact with more regularity and more confidence because I have reduced the pressure of having to be the initiator. I have recruited trusted people to help get me in the door, to make critical introductions and initiate relationships that may benefit me as well as other parties involved. With each successful relational connection comes more self-awareness, and more importantly more self-confidence. With the help of trusted friends and professional colleagues, I have slowly learned to step out from the shadows and be more confident in connecting with others by learning how to be in the action without feeling the pressure to be the center of attention. I have something to offer the world, and in order to live my best life I have decided I could use a little help connecting with the people who need to know who I am. In conclusion, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about who I am and what makes me special. With proper planing and adequate support, I find that I continue to get better and more productive at living life well. It is my hope that my journey can inspire and empower autistic teens and young adults entering adulthood and seeking independence, to know and be confident in their ability to make a successful and fulfilling life for themselves. A version of this post originally appeared on autismpastor.com. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Lamar Hardwick

8 Things I Do When I Disappear Because of My Autism

“Where’s daddy?” This is probably one of the most common phrases used in our home. Actually if I were to be honest, it’s not just at home. It seems like someone is always looking for me. Although it feels good to be wanted, I realize the main reason I am in high demand is that I often disappear like a magician’s rabbit in a hat. My children aren’t always asking where I am because I am never home. In reality, I’m quite the homebody. I go to work. I go to the gym. I go to the movies. That’s about it. My family pretty much knows I don’t go to a lot of places, so asking where I am is less about me being hard to pin down and more about recognizing I move in and out of social settings like a CIA operative. Now you see me. Now you don’t. Then I’m back again. It doesn’t just happen at home. It also happens at work. It’s probably most noticeable immediately after I step off the stage from delivering a weekly sermon. My messages are aimed at giving my audience precision and passion and just when I get them all worked up and excited…. poof! “Where did he go?” “Where’s Lamar?” Most of the reason for this is that as a part of my ASD (autism spectrum disorder) I struggle with sensory processing issues. This means my brain doesn’t filter out unnecessary sights, sounds, and smells. I often say when it comes to my brain I don’t have an EQ. There is no such thing as white noise. Everything is the same volume and that volume is always at max capacity. It’s often the same experience when it comes to lighting and smells. My brain snatches sensory output out of the air and attempts to process all of it at one time at maximum capacity and at maximum speed, and eventually it is overwhelmed by it all. It is what I call the equivalent of taking a concussive blow to the head. It can be problematic and painful so I’ve learned over the last few years to bail before my brain is bombarded with too much input. So I disappear. The bigger and busier the environment the more of my magic act you might catch. Don’t be alarmed though.These behaviors are known as stimming, or self-stimulation. While self-stimulating is something that everyone does (i.e. nail biting and finger tapping) many people diagnosed with ASD stim in ways that help them regulate their sensory input as they respond to the stress of being overstimulated. I always come back, but in case you were wondering what I do when I disappear, here are eight things I do when I’m out of sight that sometimes help me to deal with my overwhelmed and overstimulated: 1. Pacing. Sometimes I’m just pacing. Walking to and fro or around in circles. Sometimes I count my steps. Other times I walk around and watch my watch. At home I pace in the bathroom. We have a pretty large facility at my church so this works well for me at work, but only during the week when it’s far less crowded than on the weekends. Pacing helps calm me down because I can control and anticipate my input. I know when my feet will hit the floor next and that gives me some relief. 2. Scratching. At times this can border on being unhealthy, especially if my nails are too long, but normally this doesn’t happen because I tend to bite my nails way more than I should. (This can also be a problem that I’ll discuss later in this post.) When it comes to scratching to relieve stress I  scratch my head. This also means I rub my head pretty vigorously. Sometimes I also rub my face as well. My staff has reported picking up on this stim so apparently I don’t just do it in private. The good thing is they know when I’m becoming overwhelmed so they able to help me by giving me some needed space. My wife is also very helpful in recognizing this stim and helping my find some relief. 3. Listening. At times when disappearing I head straight for my headphones. A few years ago my wife purchased me some really great wireless BOSE headphones. Music calms me, but I also think that feeding my brain with “organized” noise helps to reorient it. When I am in a room full of people and sounds everything can become disorganized and disabling. Words and sounds that don’t work together can easily become painful. Music works together and moves in the same direction. Harmony, melody, rhythm and lyrics all make sense and as a result, bring healing to my senses. I am actually listening to one of my favorite artists, Lecrae, in my headphones as I’m writing this blog because I had to step away from a Thanksgiving day gathering to get some relief. 4. Sleeping. There are times when the trauma of sensory overload is so bad I go to sleep. This one is fairly new for me. Until about two years ago I almost never napped. I think this was due mostly to my fear of being considered lazy, but as I am learning to be more submissive to my brain and body’s way of helping and healing itself, I have found I often need more sleep as a resource for sensory recovery. I also believe that as I am growing older (not old) just older, I don’t recover as quickly as I used to. Napping has become my body’s way of slowing me down so that I can have more intentional recovery time. 5. Crying. Yes. Crying. It does happen occasionally, especially if I am at the end of my sensory tank going into a high-octane social setting. Normally there is also an additional stress factor that works in conjunction with sensory overload, such as time. Several years ago I experienced a complete meltdown while driving because I was completely overwhelmed, as well as being late for an important meeting in downtown Atlanta I thought, at that time, would make or break my future. (*Side Note: I have an internal clock in my head and I hate being late). I was in an area of town I was unfamiliar with and I was overwhelmed by the noise of the big city and I was completely disoriented. Ironically I was literally across the street from where I was supposed to be and did not know it until over an hour later. Sometimes when I disappear it is to shed a few tears because my brain just can’t handle the input, and it is literally and physically painful and disorienting. 6. Talking. Normally when I disappear I am not going to talk to anyone. In fact, I am probably disappearing because I don’t want to talk to anyone. The environment is too much and I don’t have the capacity to converse, especially to answer questions. So when I disappear to talk, I disappear to talk to myself. This usually happens while I pace and I am normally doing something called scripting. Scripting is when I stim by carrying on a conversation with myself I anticipate I may have to have with another person. There are many times this is helpful because I am able to calm myself by using the time to prepare for possible social interactions. Over time I have developed this into a skill that has helped me to develop my public speaking skills. 7. Tapping. Most people do this and there are many times I don’t actually disappear to do this — I just do it where people can’t see it. Tapping my feet under the table, tapping my finger or a pen against my leg, or tapping my fingers together is also a way that I relieve sensory stress. If I do choose to actually leave the room it is probably when I am tapping something against my body that may seem strange, such as tapping my head with a pen or tapping or slapping the back of my neck or head with my hand or an object like a pen or pencil. 8. Chewing. As I stated earlier, I often bite my nails. It is really not a great habit. I must admit that it rarely stops with the finger nails. Sometimes it ends up being the sides of the nails and fingers. I have also chewed the insides of my mouth. My dentist has made me aware of how problematic that can be, so I have been working on using different textured food and snacks to help with this. Hard and crunchy candy and mints. Most times anything crunchy can help and I don’t always have to disappear to stim in this way. However, depending on the environment, I may slip away to chew something crunchy and/or some gum in order to direct my sensory input so I can settle my brain. In the end, sometimes I will disappear from social situations, but just remember stepping away and stimming is always an act of self-care, so don’t worry too much. I’ll reappear when I’m ready and when I’m rested. A version of this post originally appeared on The Autism Pastor. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Lamar Hardwick

My Advice When Asked, 'Should I Disclose My Autism Diagnosis?'

Recently I celebrated my 39th birthday. I was born on June 5, 1978. Autism is classified as a developmental disability, which means I was born with what is known as Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), but I wasn’t diagnosed until almost three years ago at age 36. Celebrating birthdays are now a much more significant experience because I now have the opportunity to make more sense of my beginning as I continue to build a better life for myself and my family. Over the past two years, I’ve shared my story through blogs, radio and podcast interviews, and articles. I’ve also recently released my first book this year. Since being diagnosed with ASD in 2014, I’ve had the privilege of not only sharing my story with the world but also sharing my suggestions with those in the autism community, particularly the parents of teens, young adults and other adults recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum. In the last several weeks, I have been asked by several people a question about disclosing my autism diagnosis. While I believe that to be a personal decision that can be best made in the context of a great community of support and love, I will share three things I believe should be considered if you are thinking about disclosing your autism diagnosis. Go with your gut: Pursuing an autism diagnosis after early childhood can be a difficult decision. It can become even more difficult as you enter into adulthood. In my own experience, pursuing a diagnosis at age 36 was difficult because of a lack of resources available to adults. First, it was hard to find someone who could and would diagnose me with ASD. Second, it almost always becomes a matter of financial capability. Wanting to pursue a diagnosis didn’t mean I would be able to afford the assessments that can range in the thousands of dollars. This is why it becomes even more complicated when deciding whether to disclose your diagnosis to family, friends, employers and/or educational institutions. The time and financial resources you’ve invested in receiving a diagnosis will inform your position on whether or not to disclose. Pursuing a diagnosis as an adult is hard work, and I have found that when deciding to disclose my diagnosis publicly, I had to consider the investment I had made in getting the answers I was seeking. Disclosing your ASD diagnosis is extremely personal, and for some they may see the potential problem in making it public knowledge. There is still a large portion of our culture that either because of ignorance or intention, fail to be accepting or accommodating to those with neurological differences. My advice is to always go with your gut. Don’t underestimate the power of your ability to make the right choice for you. If you have made your way through the world without a diagnosis of ASD, then you know how to make the right choices for your own life. Trust yourself enough to decide if disclosing your diagnosis is good for you. After all, choosing to invest in getting a diagnosis is an investment in your own self-development and growth, so learn to trust yourself. Give consideration to your goals: If you have pursued an ASD diagnosis, then perhaps you have done so with a goal in mind. When I decided to pursue an official diagnosis, I had determined that one of my goals was to learn more about myself, but that wasn’t the only goal. As a husband, I have a goal of being the best partner I can for my wife. I wanted to know how and more importantly why I processed the world the way I did. Getting a diagnosis was important because I wanted to strengthen our relationship. As a father, my goal was similar. I wanted to learn how to maximize my time with my boys. I also had the goal of using my new-found knowledge of self as a way to teach them how to be more kind and compassionate. As a pastor, I have a goal of finding the intersection of my faith and service to others with my diagnosis. I wanted to discover how to share my life with others who may have little to no knowledge of how to allow their faith to inform their love for all of humanity and their ability to see the image of God reflected in every human life. In reality my goals, which are many, may not be your goals but I do think it is important to keep your goal(s) in mind when deciding to disclose. The overarching theme of my goals was to learn how to place myself in a position where I can reach my potential as a husband, father, and pastor. I suggest strongly considering how, with whom, and when (or if) disclosing will help you maximize your potential. In my humble opinion, disclosing your diagnosis shouldn’t be about others and their opinions of you as much as it being about an opportunity for you to be at your best in every possible situation. Go slow: If you’re an adult who has recently been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, chances are you’ll need some time to reflect. When I was diagnosed, it didn’t come as a surprise, but it did increase my sensitivity. I found myself becoming more sensitive about my innermost thoughts and feelings, dreams and hopes, struggles and suspicions. All in all, I discovered that a diagnosis at my age came with a liberating sense of freedom as well as an overwhelming flood of emotions. I needed time to sort it all out and to study more about ASD and how it might be impacting my personal and professional life. It was because of this flood of new facts and feelings that I decided to take it slowly. It was a few months before I starting to disclose my diagnosis, but my timeline might not be yours. If you’ve decided it is beneficial for you to disclose your diagnosis, just remember that you’re not obligated to tell everyone immediately or even at the same time. Consider exploring how to take your time with different groups of people. Remember you have the power not only to determine the purpose of disclosing your diagnosis but also the pace at which you decide to do it. With or without a diagnosis or with or without disclosing your diagnosis, know that your value isn’t tied to how others perceive you. Your journey is your own to both navigate and narrate, so however you decide to tell your story, tell it with confidence because your story matters. Stay strong. A version of this post originally appeared on The Autism Pastor. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock image by Wavebreakmedia

Lamar Hardwick

What Autism Advocacy Means to Me: My ABCs of Autism Advocacy

April was Autism Awareness month and people all over the globe were communicating, campaigning, and in some cases criticizing, and complaining about autism, advocacy and activism. When it comes to autism and autism advocacy/activism, there is no shortage of opinions or passion. I enjoy sharing in the discussion, but if I were to be honest, April can be a little overwhelming for me for a few reasons, so I usually stay fairly quiet. I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) in December of 2014. While I have been a pastor and public speaker since 2002, I have only been a part of the autism community (officially) for the last two years. With nearly 15 years of public speaking under my belt, I have developed a level of comfort in communicating about topics I am passionate about. I was taught and trained by some of the best communicators and public speakers who taught me how to use a number of tools to communicate my passion and my position about many issues. The truth is, though, I don’t have nearly as much experience speaking and communicating about autism as I do about my faith. I am learning something new every day, and at this point the only thing I am certain about is my own narrative. I can share that with complete confidence and transparency because I own it. So that’s what I do. I share my story, my experiences, and occasionally my opinion. I talk about my life, my family, my faith, my frustrations, and my faults. I share my life because as I often say, I believe when it relates to autism and advocacy we need more than just stats — we need stories. Real stories from real people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.   My story is just one of many. When it comes to autism and advocacy, I am still very much evolving, learning and growing, but one thing that will always remain is that my core values and my training as a communicator heavily inform when I write, how I write and mostly importantly why I write. Over the last few months, I have been asked about my advocacy and my approach to sharing my passion for all things faith, family and autism. My personal approach is simple. I follow my own personal ABCs of advocacy. A = Accuracy and Authenticity I’ve spent approximately seven years pursuing post-graduate studies in theology and church ministry. Included in those courses of both my masters and doctorate, was a heavy focus on preaching. Without a doubt the most impactful lesson I learned was to appreciate the role of context. Ignoring context causes us to inevitably ignore accuracy. When I write or speak about autism advocacy, I try my best to find the appropriate context of the discussion as well as the appropriate context for the discussion. Over the last few years I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but one thing I strive to be is authentic. But to do so, I have to be as accurate as possible. B = Be balanced and not biased I have my own experiences and opinions about many things concerning autism. I have things I believe deeply and topics I am extremely passionate about, but sometimes putting my passion in the correct place requires me to have the courage to be willing to listen to opposing views. I believe one of the greatest personal and spiritual growth catalysts is the ability to absorb information from sources that have differing belief systems, opinions, values and practices from my own. I don’t have to agree or change my position, but I do think I owe it to myself and to the people my advocacy serves to know and appreciate other perspectives, especially if it helps me to grow. C = Compassion and Critical Thinking Believe it or not, the two ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As a trained scholar and public theologian, I have learned that critical thinking doesn’t necessarily have to lead to criticizing communication. My faith demands that I practice compassion and extend grace in every situation. Learning to balance my natural inclination to surgically deconstruct someone’s stance with the role of compassion is a delicate balancing act, but I have to constantly remind myself that when it comes to autism advocacy, behind every position is a person. Civility and humility go a long way in working with people by standing for inclusiveness without unintentionally alienating others in my community. *Bonus D = Don’t read the comments. Ever. Seriously. In the past year I have had someone imply I am a liar, a con artist pastor (although I’ve never actually asked for anything from anyone because I have a job), I’ve been accused of using my religion as a crutch (although I was a Christian before I was diagnosed), and my all-time favorite was a woman who felt sorry for my family and implied that living with me must be difficult because I am not always able to effectively manage my sensory resources. I used to read the comments in my articles and blogs with regularity until realized I have been insulted more than I care to have ever read. So my last piece of advice is don’t read the comments. Ever! Follow this journey on Autism Pastor. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock image by Ingram Publishing

Lamar Hardwick

Lamar Hardwick on the Need for Diversity in the Neurodiverse Community

Besides birthdays and anniversaries, there are two months out of the calendar year that have extraordinary significance for me. In 2014, at the age of 36, I was officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s), and since that time I have been on a journey of self-discovery and self-advocacy. Being diagnosed after decades of struggling with social anxiety, sensory processing issues, as well as being stereotyped and segregated from some sections of society, has caused me to have a greater appreciation for history, particularly a greater appreciation for my own history. April is National Autism Awareness Month, and my diagnosis and my newfound appreciation for history has ignited a passion for autism awareness, acceptance and advocacy. April is only one month, and there is far more work to do in our society in promoting autism acceptance than can ever be done in a month. But April has still become special to me. Then there is February. As we all know, February is Black History Month. Beginning every first day of February, we turn our attention to reflecting on the many contributions African-Americans have made throughout the history of this country. Black History Month initially began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Initiated by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African-American scholar, educator and publisher, the aim was to include into the annals of American history the significant names and notable accomplishments of its black citizens. Black history is American history, and in 1976, the week was expanded to an entire month in February to coincide with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Growing up as a young boy, Black History Month was important to me because it allowed me to identify with amazingly successful people who had a tremendous impact on the lives of others and that looked like me. The late Maya Angelou, a great African-American poet and civil rights activist, once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” For me, that is the beauty of celebrating both Black History Month and Autism Awareness Month. It points our society to the ever-growing awareness that diversity is needed, diversity is beautiful, and diversity is what will make our society stronger. We need a culture that is constructed through the collaboration of different voices — voices that have narratives that are important because they inspire. Of all that I have been able to accomplish in my life, one of the things I am most proud of is my role in helping inspire my community to become more diverse and more inclusive. As a pastor, I am proud to lead a church that is intentional about diversity as well as racial reconciliation, disability awareness and inclusion, among the many other ways we strive to experience the beauty and strength that is born out of diversity. Don’t get me wrong, we are by no stretch of the imagination perfect. We haven’t figured out all of the nuances of creating a space and a community that champions the cause of diversity, but we are devoted to the ideal that without diversity, as a community we are at best only at half strength. February and April are important parts of the diversity discussion in our country, but what I have found to be challenging is the meaningful and intentional pursuit of creating more beauty and more strength by becoming more diverse in our recognition and celebration of people of color within the autism community. Just two days ago, I searched for autism conferences being held in 2017. While the results of my Google search returned plenty of options all over the country and even abroad, one glaringly obvious observation brought me to the intersection of February and April. Many of the autism conferences had no keynote speakers that were people of color. As I spent over an hour combing through event after event and conference after conference, I discovered an overwhelming disparity in the lack of diversity within our neurodiverse community. To be fair, there are many great organizations that are focused on African-Americans and other people of color who are impacted by autism. These organizations are doing tremendous work; however, the majority of what many may consider to be the major autism conferences, with the large budgets and big-name self-advocates as keynote speakers, lacked diversity. Most of the presenters, parent advocates, experts, and those who make a living communicating about autism didn’t look like me. The little black boy in me frantically searched for faces that looked like mine. Where are the voices of self-advocates who look like me? Where were the keynote speakers and facilitators of workshops and webinars that I could identify with? Without much resolution to my search, it was then that the term invisible disability took on an entirely different meaning for me. It was in that moment I truly felt invisible. When current statistics show that African-American children are diagnosed with autism sometimes as late as two years later than white children, we need to discover more ways to intentionally include advocates who look like those little black boys and girls. When reports show that regressive autism may occur as much as 50 percent more often in black children than in white children, our community must do a better job at reflecting diversity by including the voices of black autistics into the mainstream so that parents and children have someone to identify with. One of the primary talking points about autism is that it is truly a spectrum. It is a mantra many in the autism community live by. While I wholeheartedly believe autism is a spectrum, I also believe the strength of our community will be increased when the spectrum ceases to be segregated. Dr. Christena Cleveland, an African-American social psychologist, writes: “Diverse teams are more creative teams because they can benefit from the wide range of opinions, ideas and resources that diversity offers and apply it to a more thorough discussion at hand.Organizational experts also believe that nondiverse groups find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less unique information to the table. Similar people share similar experiences and acquire similar knowledge, but diverse people differ in their experiences and acquire diverse knowledge. In the end, the diverse group with access to diverse knowledge wins.” As an African-American and as an autistic individual, I love both February and April. I love the ability to promote diversity. I love my heritage. I love including the contribution of African-Americans into American history. I love the autism community. I want us to win, but in order to be better, bigger and more beautiful, as a community we must commit to ensuring that diversity is a priority in educating the world about neurodiversity. Open the stage to more voices of color. Call on those in the community who can provide our community and our cause with new experiences, new insight and new learning opportunities. Create space for advocates who help build more beauty and strength into our movement by bringing ideas and resources to the discussion of autism. Help close the diagnostic gap between black children and white children by offering more faces of color to the conversation of early intervention and services. Let’s make neurodiversity a movement not just focused on diversity of cognition, but also diversity of color. Let’s build something that’s stronger. Let’s build something more beautiful. Let’s build something incredible. Image via Lamar Hardwick. A version of this post originally appeared on Autism Pastor. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Lamar Hardwick

Letter to Me as a Teenager Before My Autism Diagnosis as an Adult

Exactly two years ago, I walked into the office of my therapist. I sat down on her couch with my wife by my side. I took a long, deep breath and slowly exhaled, waiting for some answers to my 36 year-long question. After what seemed like a life time, she grabbed her clipboard. She glanced over the multiple assessments we had completed in weeks prior and looked me in the eye (well, at least she tried), uttering the three words I had both worried about and wanted to hear: “autism spectrum disorder.” While the diagnosis didn’t change who I was, it did change my understanding of who I had been. In many ways I have spent the last two years learning myself all over again. At times the journey into the past has been perplexing. Other times the journey has been painful. Ultimately the journey has ignited a passion for sharing my story, serving others, and speaking words of hope and encouragement for all those who also walk this path. One the most interesting and educational parts of my journey has been the time spent reflecting with my family. According to my mother, a teacher once told her, “Lamar is very smart, but there is something wrong with him and I can’t quite figure it out.” I never heard her say those words. In fact, I never heard most of what people said about me or around me, but I felt it. I felt it so strongly that the smart but somewhat difficult, awkward, and puzzling kid went away around middle school. What surfaced was a frightened child who created a phony image of myself because I desperately needed to survive a world that my brain wasn’t built for and a society that thought I was strange. My grades began to plummet because while I didn’t always know what to do, I learned what not to do to fit it in. Don’t be smart. Mask your intelligence. Pretend to be someone else. Nod and smile. Be “normal.” This was how I survived until high school when it stopped working. My freshman year of high school I was kicked out of school for not going to class. If you had asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to explain. I knew my strategy had to change. I had exhausted the energy needed to continue my façade of fitting in, and I was failing miserably. At age 14, I turned to drugs and alcohol as a response to pressure to behave like a “people person” and entertain the unreasonable expectations the world placed on me. It led me down a road that dead ends at the corner of lonely and lost. Thankfully, I survived and am doing well today, but decades later I find myself searching for more ways to use my story, my experiences, and my past to point other young autistic boys and girls in the right direction. I can’t change my past, but perhaps I can help change someone’s path. If I had a chance to write a letter to the undiagnosed, brilliant but bullied, burdened, and burnt-out young teenaged Lamar, this is what I would say. Perhaps if you’re young and on the spectrum, it may help you too. Dear Lamar, Let me cut to the chase. Everyone is right. You are different. It’s OK, embrace it. Different does not mean deficient . In fact, I’ve learned at age 38 that the only way to truly make a difference in the world is to be willing to be different. You were born to make a difference, so be different. Don’t aspire to be “normal.” Trust me, normal isn’t working anymore and it hasn’t been working for quite some time now. The reality is that “normal” in many ways has been defined by others. The world is filled with different types of minds, and maybe the problem isn’t being normal — perhaps the problem is with who has decided what “normal” means. I know you’re only 14 right now, and fitting in seems to be the primary purpose in life. But I have to tell you that the pursuit of pleasing everyone will leave an enormous void in your heart. It will also leave a void in the world. That void can only be filled with your unique voice, a voice that can bring change. So don’t aspire to be normal, aspire to be a leader. Your voice has the potential to be bigger and broader then you believe. Your voice matters, and because of it, you can break down walls and barriers with a blunt force brought on by your relentless pursuit of your dreams. I am challenging you to not just shatter the glass ceiling over your head, but to burn down the entire building and use the flames from the fallen stereotypes to blaze a trail that leaves your trials in ashes. Allow the curiosity that comes so naturally from your autistic brain to capture your imagination. Use that imagination and curiosity to challenge the status quo. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a reason; it is merely an observation from someone else. Always believe more in your potential than in the problems people say you have. Dare to go first. Lead with conviction and character, and be greater than their best excuse. Your mind is beautiful. Your voice is powerful. Your purpose is wonderful. Don’t settle for normal. Be great. Sincerely,You (2016) A version of the post originally appeared on autismpastor.com. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Lamar Hardwick

Question That Led to My Autism Diagnosis Could Help the Country

Growing up there were two great influences on my life. These influences taught me how to live a life of faith, love and sacrifice. My father was a military man. He spent more than 20 years serving our country. As a child, I was privileged to travel the world. I am a better man for it. My father’s time serving the nation deeply influenced my love for multiculturalism . Living with and loving other races, ethnicities and cultures was a part of my early childhood development. My father wasn’t just a military man; he was also a minister. He was equally as serious about being a pastor as he was a soldier. He was committed to doing both with excellence, and, in many ways, his ability to give his life to something greater than himself influenced the way I serve others today. Although I had a fairly good childhood, I also had a particularly difficult childhood. I struggled to understand people and to make sense of the world around me. But when you move every few years and live in different countries, those challenges are to be expected. It always seemed as if the entire world was in on an inside joke that I just didn’t understand. Despite almost being kicked out of high school my freshman year, I survived. I made it through college. I got married. I became a father. I earned a doctorate degree. Despite all of these accomplishments, I still had an internal struggle I had yet to address. In 2013, I finally hit the proverbial wall. My self-taught coping strategies stopped working. I came face to face with the reality that the issues I had worked so hard to hide weren’t as hidden as I had once thought. Success didn’t strip me of my struggle. In fact, to some degree, my success seemed to place me at the center of finally having to deal with my internal struggle. When you grow up the way I did, you learn quickly how to defend yourself. As a child who was often the subject of bullying, I learned to defend myself. By the time I was 36, I had developed the perfect response to every question about me. When people observed what seemed to be a lack of social skills and social awareness, I did what we all do. I denied it. I defended it. I dismissed it. After decades of this battle and the burden it had become on my mental, emotional and spiritual health, I took a deep breath, looked myself in the mirror and uttered four simple words: “Everyone can’t be wrong.” Realizing there had to be a reason for these observations, I finally mustered up the courage to take a hard look at what I was experiencing and what people were observing. The result was that I was professionally diagnosed at age 36 with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I am in no way making light of autism spectrum disorder. As autism advocate myself, I take very seriously the need to provide resources and support to those in the autism community. It is a cause to which I have given my life since being diagnosed in 2014. With that being said, I believe that out of all the factors that may have led to my years of living with ASD undiagnosed, I think the biggest factor is my developmental history is a mystery. We didn’t know what to look for then, so as the years went on the struggles I had were attributed mainly to character flaws or behavioral issues. My diagnosis eventually helped to bring some closure to a period in my life that was very difficult, but it also helped to promote a series of conversations about both my past development and the future direction of my life. As a result, I understand the world around me in a much different way than before. In a time of social, civil and racial unrest in our country, I believe we have lived with the same silent struggle I had experienced until just two years ago. America has excelled despite her difficulties. She is indeed a great nation. She has grown up and had a lot of success, but she has still struggled and many of her self-taught coping strategies are no longer working. Perhaps our great nation also has a mysterious developmental history, and the result is a country that struggles to find herself and appreciate both the beauty and the burden of living up to its fullest potential by embracing its ideals and core values that all people are created equal. As I child, I learned to give my life to something greater than myself. As an adult, I learned it meant learning to listen to what everyone else seems to know about me except me. Eventually, it meant asking myself a tough question: “What do people experience when they experience me?” It’s the question that led me to the conclusion that everyone can’t be wrong. Yes, I am sure there were people who didn’t mean me well. I am not totally naïve, but I also believe there were enough incidents and enough verifiable evidence to suggest that I take some of their objective observations seriously. Our country is great, but she has been left to figure herself out for so long that she learned to deny, defend and, in many cases, dismiss the objective observations of those around her. When people of color, the LBGT community, the Native American community, the disability community and immigrants are all making objective observations about what they experience in our country, it has been my personal experience that everyone can’t be wrong. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do know the value of asking the right questions. My hope and prayer is that our nation, as great as she is, finds the courage to finally ask herself the question that I had to ask myself: “What do people experience when they experience me?” In the end, asking that question has allowed me to become a much better man, and I believe if you have the courage to do the same, you can become a better country, too. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Lamar Hardwick

How You Can Tell I Have Autism by What You Don't See

On Friday, September 9, I woke up without peripheral vision. As I struggled to get our kids ready for school, I silently thought to myself “I can’t see.” I knew what that meant. It wasn’t a first-time experience. It was an impending migraine. I took my medication and went back to bed, but despite the fact that the medication rids me of my migraines pretty rapidly, I still only managed to leave my bed twice that day. You see, on Thursday I drove to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a one-day conference. It was exciting. It was inspiring. I learned a lot. I got a chance to spend time with an extraordinary young man I am mentoring. It was all worth it, but in the back of my mind I knew I would pay the price. This is the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) I live with. Social anxiety and sensory processing issues are a huge part of my experience. The way autism affects those who live with it is as vast as the personalities of the people themselves. My life with autism isn’t going to look like the life of the other person you know with autism. In fact if you’re secretly looking for anything that would indicate I am on the spectrum, I would say that you most likely won’t see anything at all. Sometimes understanding how autism affects me can only be found in what you don’t see. Let me explain. What you don’t see is me leaving my home much beyond work, church, and trips to the gym. You won’t see tons of pictures of me out with family and friends on social media. You won’t see me at the football game, or the concert that everyone is going to. You often won’t see me hanging out at the mall or at an amusement park. You won’t always see me at the Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Independence Day cook outs and fireworks shows. I love all of those events and environments, but the reality I live with is that I am often forced to choose very carefully how I spend my time and my sensory resources. Perhaps that’s why when you see me I appear to be fine. What you think you see is someone not affected by autism when in reality what you see is someone who has given up dozens of opportunities to leave home so I can be seen in the few places you always see me. What you don’t see is how much I prepare and how much I pray. Preparation and prayer for most people is something they do when they take an exam. Preparation and prayer for me is what I have to do just to exit my home. Every day I spend hours preparing to encounter a world that my brain isn’t built for, and I pray for the grace, courage, and strength to manage it successfully. When you see that I’m doing fine just know that fine is a short distance between not being able to get out of bed on a Friday and being able to speak in front of hundreds of people on Sunday morning. Fine is a short distance between failure and faith and fatigue and focus. Like a smartphone app stuck in refresh mode, my brain is constantly searching for data, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells using up all of my precious data, and the end result is always a drained battery that leaves me with just enough physical energy to climb out of bed to use the restroom. That’s what you don’t see, but let me tell you what you do see. What you see is a warrior. Despite my difficulties with sensory processing and social anxiety what you don’t see is someone who is weak. I am strong. I am a fighter. I am a gladiator. Like the athletes who grace the gridiron on Saturdays and Sundays playing the great sport of football, my life is the perfect blend between beauty and brutality and between grace and grit. What you see is a gift given to me by God. A gift to persevere. A gift to overcome. A gift to inspire. What you see is a talent for transforming life’s toughest moments into life’s most teachable moments. My life on the spectrum showcases the strength of the human spirit. My challenges haven’t defined me but rather I have publicly defied the odds that have been stacked against me. What you see is God using the stage of my struggles as a platform to showcase a divine strength. A strength that is so other worldly that it actually makes my life look easy. What you see is the grace to learn how to be less of a taker and more of a giver. Life on the spectrum may have taken parts of me but rather than responding by becoming a victim and a taker it has motivated me not to take things for granted but to take chances, take risks, take opportunities, take charge, and to take a stand, and by taking these things I have in return been given the grace to give the world the best of me. To all of my awesome autism warriors, keep fighting the good fight. We see you!

Lamar Hardwick

How You Can Tell I Have Autism by What You Don't See

On Friday, September 9, I woke up without peripheral vision. As I struggled to get our kids ready for school, I silently thought to myself “I can’t see.” I knew what that meant. It wasn’t a first-time experience. It was an impending migraine. I took my medication and went back to bed, but despite the fact that the medication rids me of my migraines pretty rapidly, I still only managed to leave my bed twice that day. You see, on Thursday I drove to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend a one-day conference. It was exciting. It was inspiring. I learned a lot. I got a chance to spend time with an extraordinary young man I am mentoring. It was all worth it, but in the back of my mind I knew I would pay the price. This is the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) I live with. Social anxiety and sensory processing issues are a huge part of my experience. The way autism affects those who live with it is as vast as the personalities of the people themselves. My life with autism isn’t going to look like the life of the other person you know with autism. In fact if you’re secretly looking for anything that would indicate I am on the spectrum, I would say that you most likely won’t see anything at all. Sometimes understanding how autism affects me can only be found in what you don’t see. Let me explain. What you don’t see is me leaving my home much beyond work, church, and trips to the gym. You won’t see tons of pictures of me out with family and friends on social media. You won’t see me at the football game, or the concert that everyone is going to. You often won’t see me hanging out at the mall or at an amusement park. You won’t always see me at the Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Independence Day cook outs and fireworks shows. I love all of those events and environments, but the reality I live with is that I am often forced to choose very carefully how I spend my time and my sensory resources. Perhaps that’s why when you see me I appear to be fine. What you think you see is someone not affected by autism when in reality what you see is someone who has given up dozens of opportunities to leave home so I can be seen in the few places you always see me. What you don’t see is how much I prepare and how much I pray. Preparation and prayer for most people is something they do when they take an exam. Preparation and prayer for me is what I have to do just to exit my home. Every day I spend hours preparing to encounter a world that my brain isn’t built for, and I pray for the grace, courage, and strength to manage it successfully. When you see that I’m doing fine just know that fine is a short distance between not being able to get out of bed on a Friday and being able to speak in front of hundreds of people on Sunday morning. Fine is a short distance between failure and faith and fatigue and focus. Like a smartphone app stuck in refresh mode, my brain is constantly searching for data, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells using up all of my precious data, and the end result is always a drained battery that leaves me with just enough physical energy to climb out of bed to use the restroom. That’s what you don’t see, but let me tell you what you do see. What you see is a warrior. Despite my difficulties with sensory processing and social anxiety what you don’t see is someone who is weak. I am strong. I am a fighter. I am a gladiator. Like the athletes who grace the gridiron on Saturdays and Sundays playing the great sport of football, my life is the perfect blend between beauty and brutality and between grace and grit. What you see is a gift given to me by God. A gift to persevere. A gift to overcome. A gift to inspire. What you see is a talent for transforming life’s toughest moments into life’s most teachable moments. My life on the spectrum showcases the strength of the human spirit. My challenges haven’t defined me but rather I have publicly defied the odds that have been stacked against me. What you see is God using the stage of my struggles as a platform to showcase a divine strength. A strength that is so other worldly that it actually makes my life look easy. What you see is the grace to learn how to be less of a taker and more of a giver. Life on the spectrum may have taken parts of me but rather than responding by becoming a victim and a taker it has motivated me not to take things for granted but to take chances, take risks, take opportunities, take charge, and to take a stand, and by taking these things I have in return been given the grace to give the world the best of me. To all of my awesome autism warriors, keep fighting the good fight. We see you!