Thomas is 62 years old and has spent the past few decades involved in autism-related social/support groups among other organizations and has become a well-known self-advocate throughout Pennsylvania. For the past 15 years, he’s led a group called “Spectrum Friends” that helps people with autism come together, listen to guest speakers, make new friends, and go on fun field trips. He’s also won and been nominated for multiple disability/autism advocacy awards for his work within the community. Thomas continues to strive for greatness every day and is looking forward to sharing his life story and amazing experiences through ASDNext blogs!View all posts
My name is Thomas Hassell and I live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, also in Cumberland County. I am 62 years old, on the autism spectrum, and a well know self-advocate in PA. I was originally diagnosed in my late teen years with a learning disability. I attended College Misericordia (now Misericordia University), and I entered the school in the Alternative Learners Program for 4 1\2 years and received my Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. I went to many job interviews, but I could only get low paying jobs. Now many years later around my 44th birthday, I was taken to see a psychologist in Maryland who tested me because my family felt like I had strange and odd mannerisms. The psychologist diagnosed me with an autism spectrum disorder. I always felt like I was the black sheep in the family because of my strange behaviors. However, once I got the ASD diagnosis things began to make more sense to me which explained my odd and strange behavior.
Later the real shocker came as I was having health problems. I had to have a double hernia operation. During the operation they had to insert a breathing apparatus in my throat during the surgery and they also found out I had very low oxygen in my blood, so they gave me a diagnosis of Pulmonary Hypertension. It has been over 15 years since I have been living with this condition which has no known cure. I am under a doctor’s care and currently taking several medications to keep the medical condition from getting any worse.
Now in 2009, my sister-in-law found a new adult support group for adults with an ASD diagnosis. The group originally started with only 3 members but over the next several years the group would begin to grow. The leader of this group wanted to find a way to get our voices heard so I volunteered to find guest speakers to come to our meetings and help with this. Did I know what I was about to embark on? Not in the least! I sent out email invites to important people who worked in the autism field. Did I think I was going to succeed in doing this? No, I had no idea whether this was going to work but low and behold, I got a positive response to the meeting invite. Now 15 years later, I have page after page of guest speaker contacts, and I am always looking for new people to be guest speakers. About seven years ago, the leadership of this group, known as “Spectrum Friends,” changed hands a couple of times until the Autism Society of Harrisburg, PA asked me to take over the reins of the group. I was also a liaison from the adult group to become a full-fledged board member of another group called Autism Society Greater Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I am now in my 12th year as a board member of this autism society affiliate.
To this day, I am still the leader of this adult ASD support group, “Spectrum Friends.” It started in 2009 as a need by the Greater Harrisburg Autism Society affiliate. The age group requirement for its members is 18 years old and up and as the leader, I’m the oldest, surviving member of the original three members. Our group numbers fluctuate each month, but we have about 10-15 active members. We meet once a month at a local Giant Food Store in Camp Hill, PA in their Community Center. We hold our meetings in one of the rooms at 6:30pm on 4th Wednesdays of each month. We still have guest speakers come throughout the year and also have game nights at our meetings. Every month we even have an outing for our members for a day fun and friendship! Over the years, we have been to so many.
places it is hard to keep track. Our group is funded by the Greater Harrisburg Autism society but day to day things are strictly done by me.
Here is when my life would change for the better. In 2017, I received word from a Dennis O’Brien who had been Speaker of the Pennsylvania legislature and Nina Wall, the director of the Bureau of Autism Services (now called the Bureau of Autism Resources and Special Populations). They had both come to one of the group meetings. It was after this first meeting, when they both saw something special in me. When I received this Autism Advocacy Award from Dennis O’Brien, I found out I had to write a thank you speech. I had no clue how to do it but I somehow managed to write it! In mid-April 2017, one of my sisters and I traveled to Philadelphia, PA for the ceremony. There I received the most wonderful award. To this day, both Nina and Dennis are very good friends of mine and have been guest speakers or Spectrum Friends a couple of times in the past few years.
After receiving this award many new doors opened for me. I have since been on a few more autism committees and participated in a few speaking engagements. I am currently a cohost of a group called PA Gathering with my friend Mike, where we discuss critical topics in autism forums on zoom. I also do a Podcafe (a type of podcast) for those with disabilities and/or autism. This Wednesday Night Mics is done with a project called “All Abilities Media” through the Press and Center of Media Innovations in Point Park, Pittsburg, PA. These podcafes are under the direction of Jennifer Jordan, where I work alongside several other self-advocates. In 2021, a member of Spectrum Friends nominated me to receive a Disabilities Advocacy award from the Disabilities Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Lastly, I became friends with someone who works as the head of an employment work group, which they invited me to join, and I now have been part of for the last few years.
I found out about ASDNext blogs through the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council. The Director of the council is now a friend of mine because in November of 2022 I did a spotlight presentation on self-advocates. She encouraged me to reach out to ASDNext and apply for a blogging position. I figured why not try my hands at writing a blog and received even more encouragement from other friends that I’ve made over the years through my various projects and committees.
I want to thank you for reading my first blog and I look forward to writing more!