This guest post is by Nicole “AJ” Richard, a young woman on the autism spectrum who was accepted into University of Northern Iowa. Nicole is applying for the Spring 2018 Making a Difference Autism Scholarship via the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference. You can read more about the organization and how to apply for our scholarship here. You can help our scholarship program continue to help these students by making a donation here (the majority of our scholarship program is ran through donors from our community such as yourself so no matter if you could donate anything, whether it be $5 anywhere up to $5,000 it would be making a difference!).
I always felt different from other kids. I felt little need to “fit in”. I was called a “tomboy” because I preferred boys’ clothes to girls’ clothes. The boys’ clothes were more comfortable. I found the tighter, frilly girls’ clothes restricting. loved baseball so I wanted to wear baseball jerseys and hats. I was happiest wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. My mom had wanted a girl to dress up in frilly dresses. At age 2 I began running away from her when she tried to put me in a dress. In family photos where I am dressed in an appropriately “feminine” manner and uncomfortable shoes I am invariably scowling.
Making friends has never come naturally. Small talk still drives me crazy. I want to know what motivates a person, their passions, how they became the person they are now. I enjoyed one-on-one time with a few friends. I did not like birthday parties or large sleepovers. The pressure to do large group activities was strong. In those situations, I would always find one person who I would “hang out with” because the larger group was overwhelming. When I felt strong emotions, I was overwhelmed.
One time I was helping my mom carry groceries into the house. My mom’s hand was badly cut by a glass bottle that broke. Blood was everywhere. Inside I felt fear. She told me to get into the car because she needed to go to the emergency room. I expressed anger not sympathy. I did not know how to express my fear. As a result, my mom felt like I didn’t care about her. Too often people with autism are characterized as lacking empathy. I think many of us actually feel empathy much deeper than many neurotypicals. However, we do not necessarily demonstrate empathy in typical ways.
My mom struggled to understand me. Adolescence was an especially difficult time. I saw girls at recess chasing the boys. I did not understand the point. I preferred to play by myself. My single mom had too much on her plate. Too often her non-typical daughter was too much. She often asked me, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be like other kids?” I periodically stayed with my Grandma including my senior year in high school. It was a needed break for us both. I was not able to explain sensory overload. My mom labeled me “too sensitive.”
Sensory overload can be all-encompassing. When my brother became a teen he liked to play music when I was trying to sleep. This led to many screaming, angry fights. Sometimes objects were broken in frustration. I felt like no one understood how I felt. This led to serious sleep issues which have plagued me my whole life. I loved sleeping at my Grandma’s house. It was peaceful. It was quiet. The only sound was my Grandpa snoring and a clock.
My Grandma was immensely important. She loved me unconditionally. She listened to me without judging me. She always made me feel loved and wanted. She often had a smile on her face when she listened to me which made me feel like she enjoyed listening to me. She always greeted me with a hug. I was not much of a hugger. However, her hugs felt reassuring. She frequently told me she was proud of me. My mom once told me, “I did show favoritism for your brother. Can I help it that one of my kids was more likeable than the other?” My Grandma explained “Your brother tells people what they want to hear. You tell people what you really think.” She accepted me and loved me the way I am. Every human being deserves to have someone like this in their life. I call my Grandma my life saver. I wanted to be like her and help people.
Perhaps the autistic trait which best characterizes me is concrete thinking or strong sense of justice. I knew some of my classmates came from families that struggled to buy clothes and food. This struck me as deeply unjust since other classmates got everything they asked for and more. I loved volunteering. I was quick to pick up trash on the way home from school and help stray animals. I also spoke up when I saw kids being bullied because of their race or socioeconomic status. It was the natural thing to do.
At a very early age I became interested in social justice issues. During the original airing of the miniseries Roots, I would sneak downstairs and peak from behind the couch to watch. I read countless books about the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. To this day, I can recite a ridiculous amount of information about each president including their human rights record. I believe my autistic brain saw social justice as a black and white issue of right vs. wrong. As a teenager I became involved with Amnesty International and wrote letters to apartheid South African government officials.
Many things have changed over the years. My strong sense of justice has not changed. If I see a co-worker being bullied I speak up. As an adult I have advocated for social justice in various ways. I’ve worked as a youth counselor, service coordinator for people with disabilities, and camp counselor. In these positions, my personal experience being autistic has given me a unique and creative perspective which has enabled me to better understand and find workable solutions for problems. My strong sense of justice and ability to find creative solutions is a direct result of having autism. It is my super power!
Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and best-selling author who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. Help us continue to help students with autism go to college by making a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit here. Also, consider having Kerry, one of the only professionally accredited speakers on the spectrum in the country, speak at your next event by sending him an inquiry here.
We’d also appreciate if you could start a Facebook Fundraiser to support our nonprofit’s scholarship fund! You can learn more about how you can do just that here.