A community is defined as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic or interest in common.

For me, one of the biggest supporters in my life has always been the autism community.  When I was four I was diagnosed with autism. Growing up I wasn’t sure what the future had in store for me. Thanks to my family I was able to overcome many of my challenges. Back then though my family was the only members of my autism community.

As soon as I got to college I started attending the Northern New Jersey Walk Now for Autism Speaks in Cranford NJ and my autism community expanded from just several family members to over 400,000 walk volunteers nationwide. I started the walks because I needed community service hours and, after just an hour that Sunday at the walk I knew I was going to be a walker for life.

Everyone in our community needs a voice and that’s what the walks gave me. Being a kid who was diagnosed when the numbers of autism were one in 1000, I thought I was the lone wolf. No one in my classes had autism and, a lot of the time, I thought people didn’t really understand who I was and what struggles I went through.

Over 15 years later when I started college the numbers of those diagnosed with autism were now 1 in 150. Our community had expanded so much and I now realized that I wasn’t alone anymore. For so long I thought autism was a rare diagnosis that only a few had. Today the numbers are even higher with 1 in 45 being diagnosed in NJ and 1 in 68 in the country.

The walks also helped me gain perspective. They made me understand the importance of walking because of how vital the conversation on autism really is. After eight years of walking not only did I gain another family but during that time I landed a full time job with Autism Speaks. I’ve had some of the best moments of my life at these walks. One of the kickoff breakfasts for our Northern New Jersey walk was one of the first times I spoke in public. At the last walk I attended with a girl I’d been seeing I had asked her to be my girlfriend just right after the walk where she said yes.

The walks gave me the confidence to know I could become an advocate for our community who could help parents and individuals with autism. That confidence has helped me become a national speaker for the past four years giving talks at over 400 venues about autism throughout the country. It has given me the confidence to pursue consulting on motion pictures based on my background in theater. It’s also given me the confidence to write blogs like the one I’m writing today. Because of this confidence I was able to write a book last year called Defining Autism From The Heart that became an Amazon Best Seller for Special Need Parenting. This month I’ll be releasing my second book called Autism and Falling in Love.

I contribute so much of what I have today to the walks. If I didn’t take that chance in College I’m not sure where I would be right now in my life or even if I would really understand that there was an autism community around us.

This is why I walk and why I’ll be a walker every year for the rest of my life. Above all else though I could never be more grateful for the walks for one thing that have given me and continue to give me every year…

A second family…

This post originally appeared on Autismspeaks.org