I was the cover of the Jul-Aug 2003 edition; a 10-year-old girl with slightly disheveled hair, wearing a t-shirt that read “Cutie” and a big smile. I am still smiling, but I am now 21 years old, a college graduate, and working full time. I still have autism of course, but with years filled with numerous therapies I have recovered in many ways.
My parents tell me my achievements are in large part due to my own hard work and desire to achieve. I always knew I had autism, but I wanted to be normal; which I now know is largely undefined, but let’s just say more normal than I was.
My therapies included typical ones such as occupational, physical, equine, music, and social coaching. I worked hard, but in pondering my journey I think there are a few atypical experiences that helped me immensely. I hope by sharing them others might benefit.
First, I have to credit my family. I grew up in a safe haven and a judgment-free home. After I was diagnosed, my parents realized that I had deep sensory integration problems and made sure our home was a sensory-friendly environment. I wasn’t forced to eat food I didn’t want to eat, to wear denim jeans or anything else that felt scratchy to my sensitive skin, or to watch suspenseful media that frightened me.
While I am lucky that I was always verbal and had high cognitive abilities, I was totally without organizational skills. I could not be employed now without years of learning organizational skills, and I credit my mother and one habilitation worker for helping me learn these skills.
As far back as elementary school my mother developed a one page fill-in-the-blank form that I took to school every day. I took this form to the teacher at the end of every class, and the teacher had to write my homework down or initial that I didn’t have any homework. This practice was written into my Individual Education Plan (IEP) and followed me into high school. This organizational sheet, along with a second set of textbooks at home, is what kept me current on homework assignments.
When I was about 16 years old, a young habilitation worker taught me how to use a calendar to organize my life. She taught me to write down future school assignments, doctor appointments, therapy appointments, and anything else important to my life (i.e. family birthdays). She also taught me to use different colored highlighters to match different categories. Now I buy a large yearly calendar with plenty of space to track daily activities; it is a lifesaver to me.
Early testing put my gross motor skills at 7 percentile, my fine motor skills at 3 percentile, and my combined motor skills at 1 percentile. I was an off-balance, clumsy child who was always getting in the way of thrown balls or running kids and often going to the emergency room with one hurt or another. Three therapists have helped me the most in this regard: A tennis coach, a physical therapist, and a classroom teacher.
For several years my parents hired a tennis coach to work with me one-on-one. He was a natural teacher who had no experience working with a child with autism. He just sensed that his goal was not to teach me to play competitive tennis, but to use the fundamentals of tennis, like moving, tracking, and responding, to improve my abilities. I spent hours returning balls he would lob to me, throwing balls to hit a spot he had marked somewhere on the court, and learning to move my feet front to back and side to side. After a few years, I could serve a ball across the net and return some balls in a regular game; but more importantly, I had gained huge ground in my personal balance and tracking.
In late elementary school, a physical therapist taught me the importance of “finding my inner core” and focusing on it to achieve and maintain good posture. I spent hours walking around the school campus with her while she gave me tips and elevated my confidence. To this day, people still compliment my good posture.
Throughout high school, I struggled with penmanship. After years of therapy, I still relied on a keyboard for any writing; though I knew I needed to at least be able to fill out forms and address a letter by hand. A high school teacher dedicated some time with me at the end of the day to go over the basics of penmanship, especially printing. She made me use elementary-level lined paper and encouraged me to focus while I practiced repetitive penmanship for months. Today, my main writing tool remains a keyboard but I can do small amounts of legible printing when needed.
While I have overcome some obstacles, I still face daily challenges. For instance, I will never drive because I can’t process moving traffic fast enough to stay safe and I continue to struggle with peer relationships. I am trying to catch up socially, but I do have a growing social circle. I am proud to say I finished college with a 3.9 GPA and have a wonderful job working in a beautiful and sensory-friendly museum. I continue to be optimistic about my future and I hope sharing my story allows fellow members of the autism community to be encouraged about their own.