Being thankful

A few weeks ago, my apartment caught fire, and not because of anything that I had done. In a few short minutes, I had grabbed my dog called the maintenance men and the fire department. I have never vacated a room so quickly. At the bequest of the dispatcher, I frantically knocked on my neighbors’ doors, yelling that there was a fire and that they needed to get out. Fortunately, I caught the fire quickly enough that I lost little in terms of possessions.

I had some difficulty getting out of my lease, but a few weeks after the fire, I moved into a new home. One with great amenities (and where all the appliances actually worked, including the fire alarm which never went off at my old place). It is a beautiful place and I am fortunate to have found such a nice place so quickly.

This experience really made me think about what I consider to be important in life, and what I am constantly thankful for. I am thankful for my family, thankful to have great friends who offered to take me in at the blink of an eye, and thankful for colleagues who helped me find a new place to live. These people have reminded me that there are good people in the world.

I am also thankful for my disability. I have noticed on some groups on Facebook that people talk a lot about how hard life with Asperger’s is. For many people, it is difficult to deal with having Asperger’s. Much like the situation with the fire in my apartment, it is easy to see how one might get the short end of the stick with Asperger’s. It’s a disorder that comes with many weaknesses. It’s also important to remember that there are many strengths that come with it. For example, I might not be able to write very quickly but I am a very fast typist. Second, I am thankful for having Asperger’s because, in many ways, it has made me the person I am today. I can understand what people like me are going through, and point them in directions that could help them. Without Asperger’s, I might not be able to do that.

So, in spite of your situation, ALWAYS be thankful for the things that you have and not the things that you do not have.

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August 13

I will probably never forget August 13th, 2010. It holds a special place in my heart. It was the day that I left my job as a preschool teacher’s aide to pursue life as an elementary special education teacher (I found out not much later that God had other plans). I said goodbye to co-workers, telling them that I would one day visit them again.

On August 18th, 2010, I was in my cooperating teacher’s classroom and she had gotten called into the principal’s office to talk about something. She was gone for quite some time, and when she came back, she told me that someone from my university had arrived and wanted to talk with me. I sat down with this individual, and found out that I was being pulled from my placement because my teacher did not know how to teach an adult with a disability. (How much different is it really than teaching someone without a disability?)

Through a series of other not-so-unfortunate events, I decided I was not going to teach, but pursue my Master’s in Special Education. I had found out that I could pursue a job in higher education by simply having a master’s degree. After several months of depression and confusion about what to do with my life (I had spent six years building a resume to be a teacher and nothing else), I decided that it would be appropriate for me to pursue a career in disability services. I rebuilt my resume to be that of a competitive disability services provider by accepting paid and unpaid internships, emailing around and asking if people had any work for me. I became successful again.

At that point, I started doing research on helping others build their resumes and completed a master’s project which helped a few individuals find postsecondary employment. At that point I had no desire to sit back and watch others fail as I had (I am also no longer afraid to say that I had failed). It was this project that prompted me to do some rather unusual things (such as calling Temple Grandin and asking for advice. We had a lovely chat).

Eventually, it came time for me to apply for jobs. I completed a phone interview from Texas A&M University in March of 2012. As I did pre-interview research, I came across a call for doctoral student applications. Researchers at Texas A&M University had begun lifespan research on individuals with autism spectrum disorders. All tuition would be paid, and a stipend for living provided. At the urgent bequest of my father to continue my research, I applied to become a graduate student.

As the next few months passed, I watched my application go through the hiring process on the Internet, traveling from one department area to the next. Eventually, an email was written to me, asking me if I wanted to participate in an interview for this doctoral position. I accepted and the interview date was set for August 13, 2012 (my two-year anniversary of the day that I left to student teach). I completed the interview and was accepted the same day. It was a Monday. That Tuesday, I received a tuition and stipend for my schooling and I left for Texas A&M that Thursday.

The reason why I am writing about this is because if the events of August 13, 2012, had not happened, the events of August 13, 2012, would also not have happened. So, when people ask me if I am upset that I didn’t get to student teach, I am honest. I tell them that I was, but that it led to so many other wonderful new adventures and things, so how could I bring myself to regret it?

Sometimes gifts like August 13, 2010, come in strange packages.

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Live your life

As a result of my scholar-loan, I am required to become a board-certified behavior analyst. 1500 hours of work using applied behavior analysis, and one test later, one can become a behavior analyst.

The BCBA exam is a standardized test. Standardized tests are often difficult for people with disabilities like mine to take because scantrons are difficult to write on, as well as processing issues which make it difficult to take exams in the same amount of time as everyone else.

The thing about having a learning disability is this: no one ever thinks it’s a permanent thing. So, naturally, the certifying company requires that all individuals with non-apparent disability thinks that re-evaluation is necessary in order to determine proper accommodations for their exam.

Since I had been diagnosed with a learning disability, I had to get re-evaluated.

I met with a psychologist to begin the testing (for the eighth time since I have been born. Do they really need more validity?) and, after our first meeting, she said that she wasn’t going to test me for a learning disability. She was going to perform tests for Asperger Syndrome. I said that was fine-whatever she needed to do to get me a  DSM diagnosis that would allow me to have accommodations on my exam.

It was an emotionally painful process, which involved my revealing a lot of painful details about my life which I no longer talk about. Usually the shock of reliving some of these events would wear off in a day or so. The numbness which I had when speaking with this psychologist wore off, and the experiences that I had to relive cut through me like a knife.

I started to wonder about my future. I want to have a husband and kids someday. I want to watch my children grow up and be productive, loving adults (and maybe have some kids of their own). Should I do that if I have this disorder? These were questions that I asked myself as this re-evaluation process wore on. (I also found out later that my disability was the result of a birth defect, not heredity. I had a tough birth).

I was eventually diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Oddly enough, my learning disability did not come up in any of the tests that were run. In one area, I scored in the genius range on seven different counts, but scored abysmally in three other areas. I kept wondering about the future in much the same way that I had before. My thoughts made me sad. I wanted to crawl underneath a rock.

I spoke with my family about my sadness. They asked me one very important, specific question: Does it really change anything for you?

The answer: not really. I am still the same funny, caring, sweet person that I was before the diagnosis. I still do my homework and go to work and take my dog for walks and runs every day.

In the end, this is the lesson that I learned from this process: You can’t let a diagnosis take control of your life. So, once you run into an issue like this, deal with it, get up, and move on. Life is too short to get stuck on a diagnosis.

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Silver Linings

Sorry it’s taken me forever to post again. Graduate school picked up and I haven’t had a lot of time to write.

I got a sweet dog last month-her name is Gracie and I love her to death. She is a 3-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix. I adopted her from a local rescue. She was picked up last year off of the side of a local highway, very pregnant, by two kind souls who would become her foster mothers.  She soon had her puppies, and all were put up for adoption through a no-kill shelter. Although Gracie had several offers for people to take her home, her foster mother did not think that these homes were the right place for her. So she waited.

I came to pick Gracie up on Saturday, August 24th, 2013. I had had a few communications with her foster mother, and all had been seemingly positive. I walked into the house and her foster mother went out to get Gracie. Gracie came running in, her tail wagging and a smile on her face. We were instant playmates, and were soon rolling on the floor, playing with one of Gracie’s favorite toys. I was told Gracie had never reacted so positively to someone.

As I signed the adoption papers, Gracie’s mother told me how sad she was that someone had left a dog pregnant on the side of a highway like that. I told her that I thought it was sad, but to look on the bright side. She had exposed a side of humanity that few people do. She and her mother had been willing to foster a strange dog for an entire year just to find it a home. Not only that, but she was patient enough to wait to find a good “forever home” for her.

Thinking on this over the past month has led to a constant reminder that there is always something good that comes out of a bad situation. If I hadn’t lost my student teaching position, I would not be pursuing a PhD. I would never have spoken at a major conference. I am not even sure this blog would ever have been written. There are a lot of people that might not be benefitting from the things that have happened to me, no matter how hard they were.

So, whenever you think about how hard your life is right now, think about the silver lining. Think about the good things that have come from the hard things. Remember that your current trials will lead to future success, if you have a good attitude and a patient heart.

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On just doing things

I had wanted to go the safer route and get a job and have a family somewhere. Instead, I have been given the ride of my life because of this disability. And it’s been amazing.

A year ago, I applied for doctorate school. An impossible dream: You bet it was. A year ago this July, I found out I got an interview with a graduate school in Texas. Two weeks later, on the same day I left my job to pursue teaching two years earlier, I did an interview with that same graduate school. Three hours later found out that I got into that same PhD program that I had applied for. An impossible reality: for someone like me with a disability, it really was. Especially since my education here is paid for. Although my adviser offered me a deferral into spring semester, I moved down to Texas three days later, eager to learn.

Since then, I have had the honor of presenting at two major conferences. I’ve been nervous outside my mind for a good portion of the time. I’ve been learning how to fill these enormous shoes that were built for me by God’s design for my life. And the nerves and the learning and the friendships have all been a large part of the thrill that has been the past year of my life.

My point here is this-in spite of nerves, in spite of what everybody thinks of what you might or might not be, jump into what you think is the least likely path for your life. Like the Nike slogan says, Just Do It. I did. And I’ve loved not looking back.

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On not giving up

I was a division-1 athlete in rowing for my first two and a half years of college. I woke up most mornings at around 5:30 am and often didn’t go to bed until 9 or ten at night, if I was lucky. We had weights and practice at least once a day, and most of the time went home so sore we could barely sit. But, in spite of the hardship, I loved it. I developed camaraderie with teammates, friendships that haven’t really dissolved with time and distance.

Something that everyone that does rowing but few understand outside of rowing is that, when you are neck and neck in the heat of a race, it is one of the most painful, complicated sports one could ever play. In addition to focusing on form and rhythm, one’s body screams with fiery pain that rips through the legs because of the mind’s determination to win the race.
We traveled a lot for races. One such race was in Des Moines, Iowa. Had my coach not said something so profound, I would not have remembered the pep talk he gave that day. Amidst an overcast sky and rainy weather, me and my teammates huddled in our spandex unis. Standing in the middle of the huddle was my coach. He asked us, “When does the race start?” We all thought, well, at the starting line. “No,” he said. “It starts when you are tired and frustrated.” Why? Because, at the moment you are tired and frustrated, the mental game begins.

I’ve started to apply that a lot to semesters lately. The semester does not start in the beginning of January or even in August-it begins when you are writing that 50-page paper or pulling all-nighters to get the work done. It starts when you are tired and frustrated and want to give up. But, as in a race, you pick yourself up and keep going anyways-because it’s what you were built to do.

I think the same things can be said about life. There are moments in this life, whether we have a disability or not, that we are going to want to give up.

What should you do when that happens? Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Reaching the finish line, the ultimate goal of finishing the race, almost always feels better when you know you have conquered the obstacles it took to get there.

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At many points in life, there are things that will surprise you. Today, I had one such experience.

While enrolled in a doctoral program, I am working towards obtaining a behavior analyst certification. Individuals who are pursuing this goal are supposed to work under direct supervision for approximately 1500 hours.

Today, I was supervised by my adviser. At the end of my workday, we sat down and chatted about what was going well and what needed improvement in my work at the clinic. At the end, she said that she appreciated me being there and working at the clinic because she knew that is population was not my ideal population. I told her that the age of the children was not an issue-the issue was that I had forgotten that I was good at working with them!

My previous university was the reason why I forgot I was good at working with this younger population-I had no support. I realized today the difference between having good support and having terrible support, and can understand why individuals a less successful in places where they have no support.

That being said, when looking for employment , one needs to seek out not only a job that works for them, but an employer that understands that some people may need more help than others. Without that, individuals with autism spectrum disorders (and this has been said over and over again in the literature) will have difficult time maintaining employment. With supportive administration, I believe the sky could very well be the limit :).

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