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Hello readers, my name is Rachel, and I’m thrilled to be writing my first blog post for ASDNext! I already know at least one of my fellow bloggers here, Khylil, and now it’s exciting to be joining the team alongside him.
So, now’s your chance to get to know me! I’m a 26-year-old Jewish bisexual autistic woman (she/her) with ADHD. I live in Harleysville with my wonderfully supportive parents and our two cats. I graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor’s in psychology, and I’m hoping to go to graduate school for a Psy. D. in clinical psychology. I’m just taking some time right now to figure out the right program for me and what I really want the future to hold, especially after experiencing the upheaval that I’m sure 2020 was to almost everyone’s lives.
Around middle school/high school age (I admit I can’t remember anymore), I began to develop an interest in psychology. Admittedly most of the books I read were more along the lines of “pop psychology”, made easily digestible to the masses but often presenting overly simplistic or even wrong conclusions. Still, I can credit them with drawing me in. In truth I saw psychology as a way for me to finally understand people better, to figure out what it was about others I kept not getting. And in some ways, I think it did help. I learned how to connect with people a little better than I had before.
I was lucky, as a child, to have received the amount of support I did. Even before I was diagnosed with autism (aspergers at the time), my parents did their best to make sure I had the support I needed for my ADHD. Then, once I was diagnosed, I was fortunate that my school system happened to have special educational supports in place for students who were for the most part still able to take general education classes. In high school is when my memories of these social skills classes really shine. It wasn’t about the classes themselves, not really, it was about the teachers and their approach. They saw themselves as advocates for us, first and foremost, and their most important mission was teaching us how to advocate for ourselves when they weren’t around. Still, it was powerful to have staff you knew were in your corner, who would do their best to support you even when you were in the middle of a meltdown. Who understood making you “normal” was impossible, and instead focused on teaching you how to navigate a world that expected you to be. It’s because of them I have had the confidence to always advocate for my needs, and for the needs of others if I must.
While I found plenty of helpful disability support in college, as a psychology major I faced an infuriating amount of ableism from both students and professors. Most of this was casual, without an understanding of just how harmful it was. Without an understanding that the people they were talking about could be in their class with them. An assumption that all of us were abled, neurotypical. An assumption even that not being so made you too biased to properly do research on the very subjects most relevant to you. It was a difficult, frustrating environment. One that almost turned me away from psychology entirely. Instead, though, I became even more determined to stay and keep at it. I knew that if I was seeing these problems, I couldn’t hope to see them change just by turning away. As it is written in Pirkei Avot; “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Currently I’ve been working independently as a self-advocate, doing everything from being a panel speaker to consulting on autism research. I’ve enjoyed an especially productive relationship with the Philadelphia Autism Project and sit on their board of advisors. For me, my interest in clinical psychology and my self-advocacy work are deeply linked. I see a gap in communication between the autistic community and providers, and I want to help bridge it. There is always a place at the table for lived experiences alongside academic and scientific knowledge. I have great faith that the field of psychology is starting to see that. The fact I’ve been asked to consult on preposed autism research shows it, but there is still a great amount of distrust from an autistic community that often feels as if they have rarely been listened to. In my self-advocacy work, I am always trying to challenge those in either space to see things from a new perspective. Talking about my experiences as a self-advocate, and the way I think things could still change or improve, is a big goal I have when writing for this blog.
Another important thing I want you all to know about me is my love for writing. Growing up, I always had my nose in a good book (even when I shouldn’t have, to the point I was banned from reading my own personal books in school!) but it took a little longer for my love of writing to properly develop. It wasn’t until more around high school that I fully took up creative writing as a hobby, but it’s been a big part of my life ever since. Over the past two years I’ve finally managed to concentrate my efforts towards writing a full-length novel, and I’m now a substantial way through my first draft. It’s hard for me to say in what ways my autism affects my writing. I’ve heard at least one autistic hobby writer say they think their viewpoint characters will always read as autistic simply because they are written by them and filtered through the way they view the world. But I don’t think it’s that way for me. In truth I think I avoid writing autistic characters, but not because I don’t want to see myself in fiction. It’s just that my experience of autism is so personal to me that to write an autistic character would be revealing in a way I’m not sure I would be comfortable with. Maybe I will still try it one day, maybe I won’t. Of course, I am sure there may still be traits of my autism that slip into my writing that are not so obvious to me. It’s always hardest to see these things from such a close-up view. More importantly, I love the way writing lets me explore new worlds and new points of view. It’s like my love of reading in that way, except I am more in control of where the story goes.
Going forward for me, a big hope I have is to spend the end of this year and most of next year teaching English in another country. If everything works out that, that is (fingers crossed). I love travel, and after the rut I found myself in because of the pandemic, I’m hoping to “shake myself loose” and get a better sense of the way forward for my career. And once I return home from that? I’m still hopeful that grad school is on the horizon for me. Either way, I’ll be sharing my thoughts and my words with you along the way. I hope we both learn some new things together!