At the age of 18, I found myself dreading the next major step in my life, my freshman year in college. While my feelings may have been similar to some of my peers, I had something unique about my experience that simply wasn’t a factor for most of them. This challenging but special part of me was my diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, now called Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I still remember vividly the day my mom and psychologist sat me down to explain to me what it was and how many of the challenges I had faced recently with my social, behavior, and emotional skills were most likely a result of this diagnosis. While most people would have been confused, angry, or in denial, I was, in fact, overjoyed to finally have a name for it and, with that name, a better opportunity to get the help I needed. I believe it was this embrace of my differences that helped pave the way for me to be successful later in life as an adult and a professional. Rather than being angry or resentful, my acceptance of my diagnosis became a beacon to light the way for me and my family to seek out help for any challenges I had and, eventually, lead me to speak publicly about how it’s affected me on a daily basis.
Although middle school was a challenge, high school, with a diagnosis in hand, was a much more positive experience in every way. Academics have never been an issue for me, but what high school did was reinforce the idea that parts of school could be fun, even if socially challenging. The best example of this is when I joined my first organization, the Minority Heritage Club, and I learned that there were many other people in my school that felt they were different, just like me, even if their differences were due to something other than disability, such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. Starting as a member, I quickly rose through the ranks and eventually became Vice-President of the organization. In this capacity, my beliefs and assumptions about what it meant to be different were shattered and rebuilt through the amazing
connections and friendships I made with the students and parents of the organization. In
particular, I watched as one of our most beloved parent volunteers, Denise Buckles, battled a
terrible disease known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This
amazing woman and her courageous battle against ALS put my relatively minor challenges
related to Autism into perspective and made me realize that, as hard as things seemed, nothing
was insurmountable and I had no right to complain about my struggles. In fact, I should do what
she did, fight and never give up. Unfortunately, Denise did ultimately lose her life to ALS, but
not before we raised $25,000 for ALS research and saw her personal battle change our
community for the better. I firmly believe that the day Denise passed, she did so on her terms,
when she was ready, and she never admitted defeat, something that I can’t say for many people
with and without disabilities. Its experiences like these that humbled me and led me to continue
to remind myself that, like Denise and ALS, Autism didn’t own me and, as long as I believed in
myself and asked for help, it never would.
As I continued my journey through high school, I made mistakes, but I also learned so
much from them. For example, how insulting a teacher, even if you’re right, doesn’t help you get
an A or how important it is to match the color of your shoes to the color of your belt. While these
may seem like common sense to most, I can promise you to me, they were not and I had to learn
each skill one at a time through trial and error. It is so easy for educators and other professionals
to forget that individuals with Autism are very capable of learning, but we must be directly
taught the skills needed to live independently and function in an increasingly social and
interdependent world.
Graduation day felt like it would never come and I was so happy to walk across the stage,
not as a Special Education student, but as a high school senior with his friends. Interestingly, on
my drive home from graduation, amid the rush of adrenaline, excitement, and relief, was an
impending sense of doom and fear for the uncertainty of the future. If high school was so
challenging, how could I leave my parents’ house, move an hour and a half away, and attend a
university of 15,000 students?
While the answer wasn’t apparent at first, ten years later I can look back and tell you
exactly how I got to where I am today and it really comes down to three things: self-motivation,
ambitious goals, and grit/resilience. With the support of my parents and mentors, I have always
been motivated to achieve my goals. Sometimes it was to prove to myself that I could and
sometimes it was to show other people that I could, but no matter the reason, I will never
underestimate the power of motivation to change the lives of my students or clients. Secondly,
ambitious goals have served as my roadmap throughout my college and career experiences to
remind me what I am working for. Sometimes they were written, sometimes they were not, but
they were always effective at helping me see the “why” in life. Lastly, the idea of grit/resilience
is something new that I have come to understand has been the key factor in my decision to
continue past any obstacles I’ve ran into and succeed, while others with my diagnosis have failed
and been unable to pick themselves up and continue. Some people may equate grit with being
physically tough, but it is so much more than that. To me, grit is facing obstacle after obstacle,
tripping, falling, and failing, yet picking yourself up over and over again and repeating, “I will let
nothing and no one stop me from reaching my potential and achieving my goals. As a
professional and an adult with Autism, I am very proud of what I and many other adults with
Autism have accomplished, but I am even more eager to witness how we will change our lives
and the world in the future.

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