“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
At three years old I adamantly declared that I wanted to be a "singer-girl", "basketball-girl", and “doctor-girl” - an ambitious statement for me to make as I pranced around semi-nude in the backyard with dinosaur stickers all over my body. I held onto those ideals, until I quickly realized I didn’t possess any of those talents, and thoroughly hated germs/blood/etc. So while I continued to conquer the “girl” part of those statements, my dreams twisted, turned and evolved into something else over the years.
After high school, I knew that business school was calling my name and would hopefully lead me in the right direction for a career path. As my fun-filled freshman year came to a close, my GPA let me know it was time to attend class and choose a major. Through the semesters, I begun to unwillingly think about life after graduation; Adults and mentors would ask, “What are you good at,” “What do you enjoy doing?” “Play to your strengths!” I yearned a creative outlet, I enjoyed public speaking, and dubbed myself a marketing enthusiast early on - so I had a starting point.
Graduation loomed treacherously on the horizon, and I began my emotional roller coaster ride on the job hunt, as I sent out my resume during the height of the economic downturn. Dozens and dozens of applications went unanswered, my requests to work for free ignored, and my confidence in my collegiate education and skill set began to slip.
When I did begin to go through the interview process, I quickly became accustomed to the same familiar questions, "What are your strengths," “Why do you like marketing,” “How can you contribute to the growth of our company?”
I knew that once I got the actual interview, I'd be able to sell myself; I had the communication skills, and quite frankly a little inflated sense of my skill set, which ultimately eliminated any fear. But in retrospect, what I had most was a support system. My friends, family, and strong educational background left no doubt in my mind that I'd get a job. My grades, advisors, and parents pointed out my strengths, which guided me in the right direction during that tumultuous start of post-grad adulthood.
Did anyone ask my brother that question? Did his peers, loved ones, and community look to see his strengths or were they immediately blinded by his limitations?
So often we’re focused on the challenges of people with autism and special needs, and not their unique skills and abilities; yet with the mainstream population, our immediate approach is to discover what an individual is good at and try to find a path for him or her to succeed.
There is very little chance that I would have been able to maintain a positive outlook and steady self-confidence if I was constantly reminded of my weaknesses. I think it’s safe to say that none of us would be happy if people chose to only focus on our challenges, so why should it be any different for people with autism or developmental disabilities?
My brother, Derek, and I have both been incredibly fortunate to grow up in an environment where we are deeply loved, and endlessly supported in our quests to achieve our goals. My parents and I knew that Derek could greatly contribute to the world in more ways than one, and that it was within our power to not only be a support system, but help advocate on his behalf.
When Derek and our family decided he was ready to transition to independendent living, he joined local programs with organizations like The Arc and Friendship Home; from a career standpoint, he was able to practice interview skills, and pursue extra classes within his interests, like cooking. When he was ready, we hired a job coach to identify opportunities for him within a food prep role. Having a knowledgeable, independent resource to accompany him on interviews and address the mutual benefit for both him and the company, strengthened the process.
Ultimately, Derek was offered a job at a high-end grocery retailer within the gourmet Prepared Foods department. In his case, it was not a role designed for someone autistic (which is there for those who need it), but for a general position. Through hard work, determination, and the same belief and support system we all deserve, he was able to find his own career path. And let me tell you, the smile that accompanies that first independent paycheck and the pride that represents, will have the whole family wiping away tears of joy.
This Autism Awareness Month, I want to encourage people to stop defining others by their perceived "limitations" and start empowering them to reach their full potential. It may be a longer journey to get there, but the effort shouldn’t be abandoned at the starting line. We all have strengths, goals, and dreams, and quite simply, we all deserve an opportunity to achieve them.