This guest story is by Rachel Hawkins, a young woman on the Autism spectrum. She has many years of experience as an Occupational Therapist. Today, she strives to demonstrate and promote about neurodiversity, inclusion, and consulting as an Autism self-advocate. She was interviewed by Ms. Jessica Leichtweisz in Jessica’s YouTube series, “Bridge The Gap”.
As someone living with autism, it has been a long and winding road to celebrate me. The biggest lesson I have learned is to accept myself for who I am and appreciate the talents I have that stem in part come from being on the autism spectrum.
In my journey as an Occupational Therapist, I have come to learn a great deal about myself. When working with individuals with autism and other “disabilities” the fact that I am a self-advocate serves as an advantage. Most of my experience has been working with pediatrics, ages preschool to 22 in the school setting as well as outpatient clinics. I’ve needed to not only build relationships with the child but with the family.
One of the most important skills in a therapeutic relationship is engagement. Throughout my life, this has been one of my major challenges. I have worked on various skills like eye contact, initiating conversations, and being expressive both verbally and non-verbally. As I have learned, being open about this allows me to build intimacy with people almost immediately. I can instantly connect with the client and the parents in a special way.
When I was growing up, there was almost nothing known of autism. I was different, and my parents tried desperately to figure out why. I didn’t fit in at school and a large public-school setting was extremely hard socially, although I always did very well academically. My parents took me to many different professionals-a psychiatrist and psychologist, as well as speech therapy and occupational therapy to work on articulation, expression, and social conversation. In addition, my parents explored a variety of activities for me including aikido, dance classes, theater, summer camps, music, soccer, softball and more. The one thing that really stuck with me to this day is music.
The most important thing I got from music, especially jazz, was an equal playing field. When you’re playing in a jazz ensemble, you have to rely on nonverbal methods of communication such as eye contact with the other members or a head nod, to indicate that it’s your turn to solo or vice versa. Because no one was having a verbal conversation, and I was skilled in music, I was able to participate just as well as the others. Performances were always fun and something I looked forward to because I have always excelled being on stage.
I’ve outgrown a lot of my sensory challenges that I had when I was younger. I was extremely sensitive to loud noises such as the vacuum cleaner or toilet flushing (especially in public restrooms, or my bathroom at home), fireworks and thunderstorms. Kids talking during class was very distracting and annoying. I received a listening therapy, Auditory Integration Training, which helped equalize my hearing and resolved a lot of my auditory sensitivities. I still have sensitive skin, and as a child I would complain about tags in my shirts. My mom cut out all the tags in my clothes. To this day, I get bothered by some small tags or materials (cannot wear wool), but I have learned to cope with it.
Everyone has challenges and gifts. I now see my autism as a unique gift because without it, I may not have, among others: the musical skill, creativity and strong drive to succeed. When we can be truly appreciative of ourselves, we can show the world what our distinctive talents are and make a difference. Above all, in the words of Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”