High School Years

Freshman year (top left), Sophomore year (bottom left), Junior year (bottom right), and Senior year (top right)

High school can go one way or another for people living with disabilities: they end up doing really well that they achieve success in their regular high school, or switch to somewhere different or private. As for me, my high school years did not start out great at first, but than it completely turned around for me in amazing ways!

Before I mention about my high school years, let me tell you though about what made me end up in the high school that I attended. I was in my last year of middle school when I had to make my first, big decision. I had a choice for choosing what high school to attend, since I was able to get into one of them through a sibling-cause waiver. This meant that if you have an sibling in a high school that are are attending, you could attend the same school as them. I had to choose between my home-zoned high school, Marlboro High School, and the high school my older sister was attending, Colts Neck High School. I decided I wanted to be with my sister. I knew how much she helped me through everything, so I knew her help would make it easier for me into high school. On the other hand, my freshman year in Colts Neck High School was not as easy as I thought, even with my sister’s help.

I attended my high school’s freshman day orientation, which was the day before the rest of the grade levels came in. This was technically my first day of high school. My bus never showed up to my bus stop, so my grandpa on my mom’s side had to drive me to school, so I would make it on time. I knew to meet in the auditorium first, which I was able to find my best friends, Justina and Shelby. I was glad to know they were attending Colts Neck with me, despite I gave up being with most of my group of best friends. After the meeting in the auditorium, I followed my schedule that I would follow for the school year. My first class period was Math. This was my first class of the day and was my homeroom classroom too. By the way, I was mainstream at this point, which meant I was in general education classrooms, receiving in-class support from the special education teacher (teacher assistant of the class). I did not do so terrible with finding my classrooms. Although, I faced the same challenge as I did in my middle school years: combination-lock locker!

I was struggling once again with using a locker with a combination lock. Teachers noticed as passing through the hallway I struggled and was crying my eyes out because I couldn’t get the combination lock to open my locker. Unlike in my middle school years, I did not give up though using a combination-lock with my locker. My older sister helped me sometimes after school to practice opening my locker with the combination lock. Within a couple of months, I was becoming a pro with the combination lock! Not once in high school that I use a key for my locker anymore.

Not only that, the first month of high school was brutal for me overall. I remember this one specific class because I would come home with meltdowns. In my first period/homeroom class, my Math class, I was taking quizzes and a test within my first month of high school. Everytime I approached the teacher and the special education teacher (in-class support teacher assistant) to question about having more time to work on my assessments, they denied me that I receive extra time to take any assessments. So because I couldn’t finish up any of my assessments, I was doing really bad in the class. My grade in that class was really bad that I wasn’t passing the class. My parents noticed how sad and frustrated I was coming back home as. What my parents and I decided to do was contact my high school. Within the second month of high school, I had a appointment with my guidance counselor, who referred than to the school’s Child Study Team psychologist/case manager. After my parents and I met with the school’s Child Study Team psychologist/case manager, it turned out that nothing of my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) were transferred from my middle school, at all. In my mind, I was like, “That is why no teacher was able to understand I needed more time on any assignments and assessments.” I really am thankful to had an amazing Child Study Team’s psychologist/case manager throughout all of my high school years.

After this case was solved, I had other bumps in the road my freshman year. For instance, I had classmates/friends who spread rumors about me that were not even true. I had times that a former classmate who I attended middle school with say threats to me. Unfortunately, they were in a few classes with me, so I was stuck with them hurting my feelings and everything. I use to come home upset about this. I told my parents about all of my situations that were happening to me my freshman year, in which made me question about staying in my high school. I didn’t give up though. Once again, I went to speak with my school’s psychologist/case manager, and they helped me out a lot! Freshman year had a lot of challenges, but the rest of my years turned around completely.

After my freshman year, the rest of my years in high school completely turned around for me. I grew with making my own friends and acquaintances. Gym and lunch were my favorite periods because of all my friends were in them with me and from various grade levels. I made friends in clubs I were involved in within the school community. You can see that through my pictures below. No matter what though, I made time to spend time with my group of best friends since middle school, despite us attending Colts Neck High School or Marlboro High School.

In my last couple years of high school, I peer mentored for students with disabilities in a after school program called “Cougar Connections”, which I was inspired by my older sister’s reason for doing so when she was in high school; My older sister was inspired to help students like me because of how much I make an impact on her. This motivated me to become not only as a peer mentor back then, but today now as an motivational/keynote speaker & paraprofessional. It was amazing being a peer mentor in the program back then because I was a mentor and a friend to students like me!

In my senior year of high school, these successful events occurred: I became an peer leader living with Autism in my high school’s peer leadership program, I was given an opportunity by a couple of my special education teachers to attend a student-disability leadership conference called “Dare to Dream”, in which I got to be a keynote speaker for and share my life living with Autism. This was the first time I ever shared my life through a speech, in-front of hundreds of people. I was featured on my high school’s website a couple of weeks later for this conference. Plus, I received a couple of awards from awards night. I was involved in various clubs/organizations: American Sign Language Club, Book Club, and National Honor Society. I even attended prom, which I had a blast! Through hardwork and perseverance, I graduated from Colts Neck High School in 2016 with principal honor rolls, and I was Student of the Month for the high school that June!

May 2016: “Dare to Dream” student-disability leadership conference keynote speaker representing Colts Neck High School!!

High school turned out to be my best time out of any of my education, well before college. Getting involved in the community in my ways is what helped me develop my leadership and self-advocacy skills even more than before. I highly recommend parents, educators, friends, and etc to help people with disabilities get involved in the community, and develop various skills and their self-awareness.

Middle School Years

When I was in 5th grade and still attending Robertsville Elementary School, I found out from my teacher one day that we were going on a field trip to Marlboro Middle School, the original middle school in my town’s school district. When the day of the trip to the middle school came, I was excited and nervous.

The moment I entered the premises of the middle school, I noticed how big the middle school was. It is a three-story, level school building. I got to explore inside the school building. It was awesome getting a private tour of the middle school with my class! I got to see where everything is: from the locker areas, to the cafeterias, and to the classrooms on all three floors. The school building is divided into three wings with its own three-story level floors, but I learned it was divided by colors: Red, White, and Blue. In all, a private tour of the middle school with my class helped me out a lot because I learned what was expected for me in middle school.

I knew my expectations for middle school, and I will say though I still faced challenges when I started 6th grade there. On my first day, I was excited and happy to be with my older sister, attending the same school as her. When our bus came, I couldn’t believe how big it was, filled with a lot of other people from our community. I sat near my older sister, but I was shy to talk to the other students. My older sister helped me out though throughout the school year when it came to being on the big bus, such as talking with the other kids from our community. My older sister helped me out with getting through 6th grade in general, which I will still always thank her about.

On my first day, when I learned in my homeroom classroom that I was getting to use a locker, I tried to open mine, but I never was able to open it. Teachers who passed in the hallways would notice I was struggling, and crying because I couldn’t open my locker. I always had a challenge with using combination locks with my lockers every year. I had to learn I needed to reach out to my school’s Child Study Team, and my parents were trying to teach me this, so I can get my issue fixed. Through the help my school’s Child Study Team, they accommodated me with using a key locker the rest of my time in middle school. So, instead of using a combination lock when it came to using a locker, I used a key instead. It made me feel a lot better! I always gotten confused and frustrated of using a combination lock at school, even though I practiced every year with using one at home before school started.

On the other hand, I made tremendous progress in my middle school years. Academically, I received honor rolls in every marking period in 7th grade, and almost all of them in 6th and 8th grade. Plus, I was moving towards mainstream classrooms, which meant I was moving into general education classrooms with in-class support (special education teacher working with general education teacher); My in-class support teacher was like my teacher assistant in the classroom with the general education teacher. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was almost mainstream except for Science, which I stayed in a resource classroom for. Socially, thanks to my speech therapist for her creation of the social skills program in my middle school, I made my own first group of friends, who are my best friends and still are today! I even made more friends on my own throughout years after too.

I believe for all students with disabilities that middle school years are the time for the them to learn to develop self-advocacy skills, or even earlier the better. The important fact is that collaborate work between with the school district, school, and family are vital for a child’s success. Fast forward, I graduated from Marlboro Middle School in 2012, and would be attending Colts Neck High School as my high school in the fall that year.

Marlboro Middle School graduation 2012

Being a new kid

A brand new school year has begun for many states this week in September, and some even back in August! I know that going back to school can be a hard transition for those living on the Autism spectrum for various reasons. In this blog story, I will share experiences of being a new kid with Autism during my elementary school years.

I attended Children’s Center of Monmouth County, a specialized school for students with Autism and multiple disabilities until 2nd grade. Before leaving Children’s Center of Monmouth County, I got to visit my first, public, elementary school that I would be attending in my town’s school district in 3rd grade: Frank J. Dugan Elementary School. I visited the elementary school one day during 2nd grade, in June of 2006. I enjoyed everything about my visit: from the moment I stepped into the building, to the classroom I was part of. The teacher assistant, Mrs.Russo, showed me to the classroom. As soon as I came to my desk, I saw a blue notebook with my name on it. The class felt very nice and welcoming to me, despite I was shy and smiley. It turned out that the teacher and her class I visited was going to be my future class in the upcoming school year. That made me very excited about being a student in the school!

When my first day of school in my town’s school district came, it was a big milestone for me! The mini-bus picked me up from my house, since my bus stop was my driveway. I was smiling the whole time on the bus because I was excited to be somewhere new, and I was nervous because of how everything would go for my first day. As soon as I arrived to the school, my teacher assistant, Mrs. Russo took me to our classroom. As soon as I was with my 3rd grade teacher, Miss. DeWynGeart (now Mrs. Hemschoot) and her class, it made me excited now as officially one of her students. In the beginning of the day, she introduced me to the class more of than when I visited, and I shared about myself. When we had snack time, I remember a couple of classmates came up to my desk: Gabby, George, and Toni. I knew for Gabby and Toni that they were excited to have another girl student in the class because it was just the two of them, and they were not close friends. The three of them spent lunch and recess time with me. I was fortunate to had classmates that cared about me on my first day. The rest of my school year in that school and my first in my town’s school district was amazing overall. Everyone helped me out so much, and I cannot be more thankful!

My 3rd grade class in Frank J. Dugan Elementary School

Due to classroom space issues in Frank J. Dugan Elementary School, my teacher had to move to teach in Robertsville Elementary School. My parents and I decided to move me to that elementary school when I was entering 4th grade, so I could stay with my teacher and the rest of my classmates. Although, I had to adjust to being in a new school again. I only got to see the school around during new student orientation, which was the end of summer of 2007. I did get lost getting to my classroom on the first day in the school, since I did not get a private visit like I did for Dugan. I needed more time to get a sense of my school environment to adjust well, so a private tour of the school would have been better for me at that time.

On the other hand, I was happy to been with my teacher again! My teacher made it easier for me to adapt in the school. She had a visual schedule up in the classroom of our class routine, and reminded me and a couple of classmates when we had to go to our general education class for Science & Social Studies, since I was attending general education classes for Science & Social Studies. I did have an teacher assistant in the classroom for my general education classes to support me; I do want to point out in general that during my elementary school years in my town’s school district, I was in general education classrooms for Science & Social Studies. No matter the classrooms I were in, I had nice classmates who wanted to spend time with me, like at recess, and even help me in class. Fast forward, I graduated from Robertsville Elementary School in 2009. I knew that when graduation came, I was going to miss my teacher so much! She inspired me to do a lot of what I do today, which is working in the education field.

Being a new kid can be hard, but having good people by your side can help you can make it easier to adapt. A good school district that is willing to work with your family is important for a success school year, as well as a good classroom community filled with teachers and classmates who care and support you. I highly recommend schools to allow families to visit the school and their classrooms, to determine if the child will enjoy being in a new learning environment or not. Schools and families need to collaborate together to increase success for the child, even if its as simple as having a private visit to the school and their classrooms.

Tolosa-Hunt Syndrome

*WARNING: the pictures you will be exposed to may make you feel scared or worried, so I wanted to make sure everyone is aware. Thank you!*

People who live with Autism are more likely to live with another mental or physical condition/illness/disability than any other kind of disability that people live with. If you thought I was only living with Autism, wait until you read about this part of me.

Not only do I live with Autism, I live as well with a rare, migraine condition known as Tolosa-Hunt Syndrome. Ever since I was 7 years old, which in coincidence was the year after I became verbal, I started to have migraines a lot. Except, I was having migraines in my left eye. Only in my left eye! I remember it started when I was 7 years old because it was when I was still attending my specialized school, Children’s Center of Monmouth County. I recall not feeling well on the bus rides with my migraines that I use to feel nausea and actually vomit. I had times I had to be brought back home cause I could not make it through. My migraines get so bad that they even make me feel nausea, no matter where I was. Plus, I always feel so out of it and very weak that I cannot get up from bed because the pain intensity of my migraine can get insane.

I have a neurologist that I have been seeing since I was 3 years old, so when my parents called him one late night to let him know what was happening to me with my migraine condition, he told my parents to immediately take me to the hospital. At 7 years old, I encountered my first hospital visit. My migraine condition was getting in control of me that my left eye was feeling stabbing pain all the time and the pain intensified, due to any migraine medication not working for me. As a result from my first-full experience with my migraine condition, my left eye was left in paralysis and turned outward. Plus, I had no control of my left eye lid, nor even my left eye at all. I was stuck like that until the end of 6th grade. It was not easy living with one straight eye for many years. I faced annoyance on its own, even when I was not having a migraine. Despite of performing everything with one straight eye, I did not let it get in the way of my life; I still was being an independent person. I even earned my black belt in taekwondo with one straight eye!

In 2010, and in the summer after 6th grade finished, I received laser eye surgery to correct my left eye. It was a 50/50 chance that my left eye would recover from paralysis and from being turned outward. I will say that it was a miracle! My left eye was back to normal, such as gaining some control of my eye itself and my eye lid. The only exception is that it is stuck dilated forever, as a result from the surgery. After my surgery, and as orders from my eye doctor, I had to perform eye exercises, such as focusing on a pencil coming towards me, to gain muscle in the nerve of my left eye. I did my eye exercises for many years after my surgery, but now no longer need to.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I was hospitalized, year after year, until I was 18 years old. My parents always stayed with me during my hospital days, no matter what was happening with them or with my family. It was not easy for me in my life because I missed out a lot, due to being in the hospital. I have gone through MRI tests, CAT scans, and etc, to make sure everything is good in my head; I always received no changes, as a result from my tests, and that my head is good.

There is so much I have learned about living with my migraine condition. For instance, I’ve learned I cannot take regular migraine medications, like Tylenol nor Excedrin, because my body has built an intolerance to them that it no longer helps me. Currently, I have to take medication that is only prescribed by my neurologist to control my migraines. Plus, my migraines occur in any season and happen the most in the middle of the night; I try my best to go to sleep early, due to them occurring at that time. I will say it has been a lot better with my migraine condition than it used to in the past. I think its because I understand the signs and symptoms of my condition more of now that I know take medication right away. I even keep a spreadsheet for every time my migraines occur in my left eye. My mom helped me change the foods I eat, as well as got me into being active on my own for my health. It is important to educate yourself about what you live with because it can help improve your life towards a healthy lifestyle.

My Dog: Snowy

My dog, Snowy, turned 10 years old back on Saturday. My family and I first got Snowy when I was in 6th grade, which was back in 2009. My brother always wanted to have a pet, so he wrote a letter to my parents about having a pet. My parents were convinced, and we decided to get a dog as our family pet. My siblings and I knew from the beginning though that having a pet, like a dog, would be a lot of responsibility.

I will never even forget the day when Snowy came home with my family. As soon as we brought him inside my house from the pet store, I was scared about him jumping on me, since I noticed he was jumping on everyone else. I’ve grown up being sensitive by touch, such as something that touches against my skin. I was so sensitive by touch from my dog that every time he ran towards me to come jump on me, I would get scared and run away from him. I have felt bad for not loving my dog at first, but I was still overcoming my own obstacles of sensitivity at that time.

Over the years, I have grown to love my dog so much! Snowy has became a really good companion to me, no matter what went on for me in and out of home. I enjoy having him right next to me on the couch when I watch TV and petting him, no matter what room I would be in the house. I love to take him on walks in the mornings and evenings, because its the time I get to be alone with him and enjoy the fresh air outside; Mainly, I am the one who takes Snowy on walks around the community. My parents and my siblings do help out with taking care of Snowy too in other ways: bathing him, feeding him, taking him for his vet check-ups, and giving him haircuts. If it wasn’t for Snowy, he would not have helped me overcome my sensitive to touch and taught me about being a responsible person.

I will be completely honest with all of you, I did not really want to have a pet dog at first. My experiences with animals in general were not great, since being more sensitive by touch back then. For example, I was at a birthday sleepover party for a classmate of mine back when I was in 5th grade, and when I woke up in my sleeping bag, her large, black dog got so alerted that it jumped on top of my head to get to the her house’s front door. And this happened while I was still awaking up within my sleeping bag! I got so scared myself that I jumped right out of my sleeping bag. My classmate’s mom felt bad that this happened, and learned I was scared of their pet dog. My point is that if an animal got close to my skin, like people’s pets, I use to get scared. Anyone that I knew that I were going to their house to hangout with would make sure to have their pet(s), like their dog, in their room, so their pet would not scare me. Today, I am much better about pets in peoples’ houses because I am not as sensitive by touch as I used to be.

For anyone that is working or taking care of a person/student with Autism and is figuring out if owning a pet is good for them, I feel and believe that having a pet is a great way to help them learn to overcome personal obstacles and develop a sense of responsibility. For example, I would not have developed good, time management if it weren’t for Snowy; I had to learn to make time in my routine to walk Snowy in the mornings and evenings. Plus, I learned to help out in general because I want to, not for rewards or anything. In all, I am so happy to have Snowy in my life!

A Paraprofessional living with Autism

Throughout my school years, I had lots of support from Paraprofessionals/Teacher Assistants. If it wasn’t for their direct impact on me as a learner and individual, I would not have done as successful with my education. I never thought in my mind that I would get to make a direct impact on lives of students now myself. This student has become a a professional, a Paraprofessional!

There is a lot that comes into the role as a Paraprofessional, even though people may think it is not a hardworking job. A Paraprofessional’s workload is just as much as a Teacher’s workload, especially in our education system nowadays. Here are some of my responsibilities as a Paraprofessional in the education field: I assist and support the teacher’s teaching methods and techniques in the classroom. For example, I would implement their lesson plans with a small group of students or one to one, like by modifying the assignments or communication of teacher’s instructions for more attention. Plus, I work directly with students, especially based on their needs; I get to learn and support students on their lifelong journey as individuals. For instance, if a student has social-emotional skill goals to accomplish from their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I would make sure to help the student grow and accomplish their goals through social situations that occur within the school and classroom, and provide reinforcements and consequences. Part of this comes through data collection as well; I record and reflect on progress of the student’s individual goals. In addition, I communicate progress about students with the classroom teacher, the school’s child study team (CST), special education supervisor, and principal. I communicate with the rest of the school community as well: the students’ parents, related services staff (Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapists, Guidance Counselors, School Psychologists, and etc.). Ongoing communication is key in this role because no one will grow without letting others know what is happening to the students in the classroom. It takes a community to impact one individual!

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in this role so far is that my mind has to be in the students’ shoes to understand where they are coming from. For example, I observe how they are able to learn n the classroom, and take in knowledge of their behaviors in the classroom because it could come from the home environment. I have to observe and experiment to understand the students’ learning style and what they are capable of learning. This demonstrates that I am always willing to be a life-longer learner, and this is the best part of being an Paraprofessional; Paraprofessionals, just like teachers, are always questioning and reflecting on classroom experiences to support and help students grow as citizens. Once I know about the students more, I automatically click with them, and it becomes more interesting to help and watch the students grow.

I will now share specifically about the job I did this summer because it was my first job in an actual classroom, coming right out from college. I worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional Aide for an extended school year program in the town next from my town. I was assigned to work in a self-contain classroom that used the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program, and there were five students in the class in total. In examples of my experiences, I will say student number one, two, three, and etc, to demonstrate about each kind of student I worked with in the classroom. It was very interesting to know and learn that all of the students I worked with, live with various forms of Autism. This was very interesting to me because since living with Autism myself, I can understand from all parts of the Autism Spectrum: delayed language development and lack of skills (social-emotional, cognitive, etc.), to fully developed language and increased growth of skills (independent life skills, increased self-control of behaviors and emotions, etc.). I will say that there are lots of benefits from knowing what it is like living from one side of the spectrum to the other, because I saw how much it helped and supported the students’ needs in the classroom this summer.

Although, I’ve had to remind myself constantly that it is about the students’ needs, because they may not react to the same teaching techniques as were used on me as a child. I will say that this was so true! Based on living with Autism myself, and through gained knowledge of an ABA program, I quickly learned teaching methods to help my students and support their needs. For example, the first student was only able to say the words “Yes” and “No”; This student always pointed as their way of communicating what they wanted or needed. When I was 6 years old, I said my first word, which was the word, “No”. At that age, I knew that if I didn’t want something, I said the word, “No”. I continued to point at pictures and objects to communicate what I wanted or needed too. My point is that I understood where the student was coming from, so for this student, I worked with them on saying the name of the object or thing that they pointed to. For instance, if the student pointed to their water bottle when it was snack time, I told them to say “open”, since I knew they wanted to drink water.

Unlike the first student and during snack time, I learned the second student can communicate two-word sentences, so I work with this student on fully asking for help when opening their snacks. I tell them to tell me this sentence, but slowly, since slower process of information: “Open, Water, Please.” This would be the case for when this student said the word, “Water”, since I know they are thirsty. With the second student, I learned they knew what they wanted and needed, I just worked with them on fully communicating their sentences more. On the other hand, this student would go lay on the floor and kick whenever they refuse to communicate with me. I go back in my mind, knowing that they need some form of motivation to communicate more, such as playing with puzzles for this particular student. I always challenged the students to reach their full capabilities, and it takes time and practice for them to grow on their skills.

Furthermore, I communicated with the related services staff and the classroom teacher about the students. The related services staff in the extended school year program I worked for were Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, and Speech Therapists. For example, I had one day in which the Occupational Therapist asked me what motivates this student they were taking for their session to learn. I will say this is student number three as an example, since I mentioned I worked with five students in the classroom. I shared with them about that they love play dough, because this particular student loves to play, smell, and lick play dough. I learned from the teacher that this student is not easy to motivate to learn, cause that is mostly just part of their personality, since she had this student during in the school year. In a ABA program, individuals with Autism are motivated to learn by reinforcements, such as I shared about play dough as an reward. Students one and five worked around with a timer to receive reinforcement (ex: rewards) and the rest of them not. I can understand because I use to receive ABA therapy myself, and was always rewarded with M&Ms. One of the biggest lessons I learned about working with students with Autism was that everyone of them is different, since living at different parts of the spectrum. Just like how all students are unique individuals, it takes time and observations to learn what they are able to learn and to grow in and out of the classroom.

In all, I will never forget the experiences and memories that I created with that class. This job experience has helped me develop professionally as someone living with Autism, and learned that being a Paraprofessional is rewarding all the time, since milestones are accomplished together with the students and the school community. To all of the Paraprofessionals/Teacher Assistants I’ve had throughout my education, thank you for inspiring me to become one myself!

Q and A on living with Autism

Hi everyone! I decided to switch things up this week by answering any questions that you may have about what it is like living with Autism. Here are my responses to anyone who asked me about living with Autism:

Samantha S: When did you learn that you have Autism? Did learning about living with Autism help you better understand why you reacted or did things differently from your classmates?

I learned about living with Autism when I was in 6th grade. I will be honest, I was not really aware how different I am until I was pointed out about it one day. It was one day during 6th grade, and I was at a family friend’s house. My family, my family friend, and I were all watching a documentary movie. The documentary movie was about a well- known person with Autism name Temple Grandin. As I watched the movie, I was fascinated to witness how much Temple progressed in her life. After watching the movie, my parents explained to me that there are some things Temple displayed that I demonstrate too. For example, Temple didn’t like hugs because she was sensitive by touch; My parents shared with me that I am the same way with hugs, due to being sensitive by touch. I was shocked and fascinated at the same time. I didn’t realize how much my life was different than from the rest of my family. Plus, I learned I am known to surprise people, especially when it comes to growth and progression in my life. Ever since, I read many of Temple Grandin’s books to learn more about Autism myself.

As you can see, learning about living with Autism has helped me understand myself more as a person. I learned I am unique in my own way in the world. Also, I learned that there are some things that people do not understand as to why I think or react differently to things. For example, I always had a hard time understanding jokes, so I do not laugh when everyone else laughs. I apologize to everyone I know if this has happened. In my mind, I think its literal, so I take it seriously, even though you may think it is funny or not true. I would laugh if I am able to relate to it though. Otherwise, I won’t laugh at your joke. Social situations in general, like this example that I provided, does not come naturally for me. For me, it takes applying into situations and learning from those experiences to know what is funny or not, good or bad, and etc. The more experiences and social situations I’ve gone through, the more it has helped me understand about people who are not like me and about myself.

These were some really great questions! If anyone else has any other questions, please reach out to me. I would love to provide some insight into the world of living with Autism. Let’s continue to educate about Autism and spread Autism awareness!

Active Woman

I call myself, “Mighty Michelle”, for many reasons. One of main reasons was that I was always active growing up, but it was not easy finding the right sports or exercises in the beginning. It took a lot of perseverance for my family and I to find my interests and passions for fitness, because they knew how much it can help me in my life.

When I was 6 years old, my mom signed me up for my town’s SCOPE soccer program. This program is meant for children with disabilities in my town to learn to play soccer, and every student had a buddy partner. My older sister, Samantha, was my buddy partner when I was participating. To be honest, I did not last long.. It was not even two months that I played, or even played honestly. My mom recalls that I was always just kicking dirt and wandering away while I was actually suppose to be the soccer team’s goalie. I knew that soccer did not interest me at that time.

Marlboro SCOPE Soccer Program

Although, my mom never gave up on finding me the right sport to enjoy. When I was 7 years old, my mom signed my brother, Jon, and I up for gymnastics at the YMCA. I lasted much longer with gymnastics than I did with soccer; I did gymnastics for a whole year. My brother and I enjoyed doing gymnastics together! I enjoyed learning to do cartwheels and walking on the balancing beam. I also enjoyed doing rolls on the mats. Gymnastics helped me improve with balance and awareness. If it wasn’t for gymnastics, I would not have done as well as I did with my favorite sport of all time, which was taekwondo.

When I was 8 years old, I did taekwondo. I attended ATA Black Belt Academy. My mom knew I needed to learn self-defense, since I was entering into a whole, new school environment than I was in before. Also, she knew that it there was a lot of benefits for people with disabilities learning taekwondo, such as learning to maintain self-control. This sport did just that and beyond what my mom and I thought.

When I started out in taekwondo, it was rough. When it came to learning and practicing my belt forms, it took me more time to process each move than other students in my taekwondo class. Also, I used to cry whenever I got hit hard from other students during sparring and sat out a little while; I was facing my sensitivity to touch and learning about eye contact when it came to sparring. I overcame so much as the years went by! Whenever I got frustrated with not remembering the new few moves in my form, I would either raise my hand during class and have an instructor work with me on my forms in class, or my mom and I would let my instructors know that I need extra help after or before class time to work on my forms. Sometimes, during my extra help sessions, I worked on sparring too; I recall that it was easier for me to do sparring with an instructor than with other students. No matter what, in all of my years that I did taekwondo, I got back in my class, kept on learning when it came to forms, and fighting when it came to sparring. I improved on eye contact when it came to sparring, and I learned to reach out for help if I ever needed help learning a new move or routine in forms.

In addition, I had a couple of years that I was in the taekwondo school’s leadership program. This was an amazing experience for me because this was the first time I ever learned about being a leader. Each month, we had a theme that we focused on, and had to work on it in and out of the taekwondo school. Plus, we did leadership activities that promoted skills, such as teamwork and communication. When it came to competing in my taekwondo school’s tournaments, I competed in the ranks that were specifically designed for taekwondo students with disabilities. Eventually, I decided that by the time I earned my black belt, I wanted to compete with everyone else. Happily, I accomplished on being included with everyone else in tournaments, and I earned my black belt when I was 10 years old! The best part of all was that my mom and siblings did it together and all of us are black belts! I learned from this sport that hardwork pays off when you persevere.

Earned my first degree black belt at 10 years old!!!

As you can tell, I participated in many sports. Although, I had one point in my life that I was losing some motivation to be active, or even acknowledge the importance of fitness. This happened when I found out I was no longer able to continue attending my taekwondo classes, which was back when I was in 7th grade. I was devastated because it helped me a lot in my life, and it was my longest sport I ever done. Although, my family and I did not give up; By learning about fitness through my mom, I got my motivation back to stay active and learned to value fitness in my life.

In my early high school years, my mom signed me up for tennis lessons that were being provided in my town through a tennis company called “Cougar Youth Tennis Academy”. The tennis academy were providing tennis lessons for people living in my town. I attended tennis lessons every Sunday in the spring time. As time went by with this sport, I learned how naturally good I am at tennis and even with sports in general; Some people are naturally good at sports, and some are not, but it takes time to get to being good at a sport or exercise.

In addition, I always loved to move around, since it helps release the extra energy bundled within me. Not only I was doing tennis in my early high school years, I found passions for dancing and kickboxing. Dancing and Kickboxing remind me of my taekwondo days. Dancing reminds me to move around in my perimeter when it came to sparring, except now to move outside of my zone. When it comes to dancing, I eventually learned to connect with music to my body movement. The more I listen to music, the more I learned to relate to the music through dance. For example, I fell in love with Zumba music because it is upbeat and has routines to follow from in the beginning. With Kickboxing, it is filled of patterns and routines that allow me to continue training everything I learned from taekwondo, from side kicks to hooks. These two are still my favorite passions today.

Today, I have been doing a lot more when it comes to fitness, since been learning from my mom. I have been doing a mix of everything: walking, dancing, kickboxing, hiking, weight training, Yoga, any water-outdoor activities (Kayaking, Canoeing, Rafting), tennis, and etc. No matter what, exercising indoors or outdoors, I always put on music when I do my workouts because upbeat music drives me to do more. Over time, I learned fitness helps me release emotions and thoughts that are within me that need to be let out; I learned to deal with my emotions and thoughts better, thus developed a better self-control. What I enjoy the most in my workouts is that not only it is structured, but everything can be broken down into steps to perform well. I am committed to my life-long fitness journey!

July 2019: Rafting in PA

There are other great benefits about fitness for people living with Autism: greater attention, increases concentration of tasks, improvement of various skills (ex: organization skills), and reduces problem behaviors. In schools, I suggest about a time in the classroom schedule for fitness time; It will make sure students are working on their physical health, not just mental health (ex: academics and social skills). Not only does fitness help people improve physically, but it helps mental health too. Fitness is a lifelong journey for everyone, and it is worth the journey for a better and brighter future.

My Public Speaking Journey

I know public speaking can be scary for a lot of people, but to me, it is surprisingly not so bad as I have heard. Here is how it all began..

My public speaking skills started back in high school. I was part of a peer leadership program in my senior year of high school. The peer leadership program not only helped me develop leadership skills, but it helped me develop my public speaking skills too. Every time that it was a day to perform infront of the class, I always would raise my hand first, since I knew getting it done would make me feel better. When I stood infront of the class, I would take a deep breath before I began to perform. As soon as I began to share my speech, I would look at a wall towards the center audience but towards the back people, that way I can imagine I am performing in my bedroom. Then, for the rest of my speaking performance, I was able to imagine I am speaking in my bedroom, without realizing I am using eye contact towards the audience. I was able to incorporate hand gestures when necessary, and demonstrated good posture when speaking as well. My trick for public speaking was finding something I know that reminds me of my practice space, that way I can perform like a professional, public speaker.

May 2016: Dare to Dream Student Leadership Conference

This technique I used in the peer leadership program helped me a lot when it came to the day I was performing my first ever keynote speech, which was for a student-leadership conference called, “Dare to Dream”. I learned that my high school had their own group of student leaders with disabilities, and I was chosen to join the team. Through this team, I was chosen to represent my high school to share my life story at the Dare to Dream conference. For this conference, I spoke in front of an audience of over 500 people, including my family. My speech was about living with Autism, from beginning to present. I shared my obstacles of when I was younger to that present time, which included about my decision to attend college. A few weeks later from the conference day, I was featured on my high school’s website about my keynote speech. I was 18 years old when I spoke at that conference. Ever since that conference, I have been performing motivational, keynote speeches.

October 2017: Public Speaking Course at Brookdale Community College

In my college years, I was getting contacted to speak for more places. For example, about a year after my “Dare to Dream” student-leadership conference that I performed a keynote speech for, I was contacted by a lady name Karen, who is in charge of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), to perform a keynote speech for their two-day conference. I was 19 years old by then when I spoke for the two-day conference. I got to perform the first day in Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the second day in St. Matthews Church. After performing for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), I was already contacted to speak for a couple of Special Education Parent Advisory Groups, which were for in Old Bridge and Marlboro. I even got to perform at my college! I spoke for my college’s Public Speaking class and the Governance group. With each speech, I always updated about what I have been up to in that present time.

As you can tell, I’ve been fortunate to been sharing about living with Autism throughout the state of NJ. If you would like for me to share at your conference, Special Education organization, or Special Education group, please contact me through my page, “Exceptional Shell”. My account is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You may contact me through my email as well: michellevinokurov1@gmail.com

Learning about living with Autism

Throughout my life, people have been surprised to know and learn that I live with Autism. In this blog, I decided to feature stories about meeting and/or learning about someone living with Autism from my own life. I hope these stories will inspire and bring hope to those who are just learning about their own close ones living with Autism, thus not feeling alone when it comes to learning and understanding Autism. Here are different stories people have shared about me as their friend or classmate living with Autism:

Jenna G: “When I first learned Michelle had autism, I didn’t find her any different. I don’t think having autism makes you different than what you portray. I remember Michelle telling me and explaining to me how she was a child to now, and I can just say, she has grown. Although I only have known Michelle since the 8th grade, I can say that autism has made her a better person, inside and out. She has become so open about it, answering questions, and being so positive about it. Michelle has taught me to be courageous, to be open-minded, and to ALWAYS have a positive outlook on everything. When something doesn’t succeed the first time, don’t give up. Just try again. Thank you for being an amazing best friend, and person you have become.”

Hilary G: ” To me, having a friend with Autism is exactly the same as having a friend without Autism. I met Michelle in 7th grade and she has been one of my best friends ever since!!! When I met Michelle, I had no idea she had Autism until she told me she does and she shared her story. Michelle is the sweetest person ever and she is an amazing friend!!! I’m so glad that we have been best friends for almost 9 years. I don’t know what I would do without Michelle. She is a really important person in my life and is an inspiration to me!!!! I love you Michelle!!!!”

Bree O: “Your an actual angel and I am so glad that I have gotten to know you. I love how open you are about your story and everything. Never change.”

Gabby D: “You were a really great friend and are still a really great friend. You helped me out a lot of ways, especially when you became successful in life.”

Once you have met someone with Autism, then you learned to know someone with Autism. I understand how it can feel when it comes to meeting or learning about someone living with Autism, and these stories can be similar towards about anyone living with other disabilities. Remember though that it’s only part of who they are.

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