In many ways, I am a typical person with Autism. Which means, I am not typical. I have strengths and weaknesses; albeit they have been on the extremes (ranging from 2 to 99 percentile on early childhood tests). Though my challenges are different from most, I still have to I cope, learn from, and adapt. I was fortunate to have involved parents who handled advocacy challenges in my early life. School administrators wanted to keep me in “self-contained classrooms, but my parents saw much more potential and fought to have me moved to regular education classes. My parents believed in me.
Just after I started regular education classes in 1st grade, I acquired Type I diabetes as the result of a bad case of the flu. This brought on a new set of physical challenges to cope with. However, my classmates and a few great teachers saw strengths in me. They were tolerant of my weaknesses, giving me a supportive environment that I am very thankful for. Others began to believe in me. From there, I tried to do my best. I found great satisfaction in performing well on homework, quizzes and tests; though at times I would not be content with getting things “wrong”. I gained self-esteem and motivation.
Developing social abilities was and remains much more complicated. There are no tests or instructions to let me know how I am doing. There are only situations and opportunities. Between elementary school and high school I made a couple friends with whom I occasionally hung out, but in general I found it difficult to make friends. My classmates usually respected me for my academic ability, but in the 8th grade I took a fair amount of verbal chastisement for standing up for a girl with autism who was being bullied. However, the social situation seemed to improve after I began sitting with the hecklers in the cafeteria. Though generally a challenge, my unfamiliarity with social norms provided the advantage of being willing to cross group boundaries and challenge the us-versus-them mentality.
One of the main reasons I struggle to develop friendships is my tendency to be preoccupied with my own thoughts. I tend to worry about minor things and about thoughts stuck in my head. Some of my coping mechanisms for dealing with this stress, such as squeezing my face with my hands, are socially improper, but with the help of my family and a behavioral therapist I have been working on redirecting this type of behavior. Taking challenging classes such as Calculus and Geometry required focus and abstract thought. Continuing to practice this type of thinking and putting things in perspective helps me manage my thoughts. Practice and guidance over the years have resulted in great progress.
After spending 9th and 10th grade at one high school, I switched to a different school. While the teachers were pretty helpful, I had trouble adjusting to the cultural differences and lack of common interests between many of the other students and me. The following summer, I attended the Virginia Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) for students with disabilities. Though I was nervous about being away from my family for 5 days on my own for the first time, after I arrived, it became magical and life changing for me. I quickly bonded with the other YLF students in the training. The spirit, helpfulness, and general behavior felt great to be around. Over five days, I found students who had interests I care deeply about and overall common interests. Ultimately, the five-day YLF experience helped shape me into a more confident, determined, willing, and social person. The experience helped me to believe more in my abilities and appreciate more of the kindness in other people.
Overcoming the unique challenges in my life has required diligence, risk-taking, and no small amount of help, for which I am very grateful. Though I may not have had many close friends during my time in school, I think the reaction in this video shows I can help inspire people simply by having my share of challenges and seeing what can be accomplished.