Sunday, July 27, 2014

Recapping a Speaking Engagement

Earlier this month, I was in Philadelphia for a weekend trip. Hadn't been back in nearly six months. The reason was an autism awareness benefit put on by members of the city's hip hop community. Two of the event organizers have children who were diagnosed with ASD, both younger than 10. My brother was one of the performers that night, so he had requested my presence. It was an opportunity to speak to others while providing some hope for the organizers, that many of us can make it in the world.

The event was set up to give to a local group called The Big A Foundation, a camp for autistic children focused on sports and arts. The founders were in attendance, though I unfortunately did not get much time with them. Though if you're a Philadelphia area reader, check them out for yourself. While having not worked with them personally, the focus of the camps and discussion with one of the parents definitely provides enough of an endorsement.As all proceeds went to the group, they eliminated the guest list as they have at most music events, meaning everyone was to donate...a good plan if you ask me. Allowed for nearly $1500 to come in for the night.

My piece kicked off the show. Below is a loose transcript for my speech (I went off the cuff slightly):

Here I am standing in front of a crowd of hip hop heads for an autism awareness night event. If you asked me if I’d ever do public speaking, I probably wouldn’t think of this. Then again, I probably wouldn’t think to be my current life situation, having slowly left my comfort zone over the years.
You see, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at the age of four. I didn’t really talk much,  I lined up my toys by colors and sizes as much as I played with them the way they were intended…I loved building blocks for that reason. I ran around in circles aimlessly. Once I was diagnosed, my parents ran into a paradox. Their concern was taking care of me into adulthood, but at the same time psychologists were noting that I was gifted and could attend some of the best colleges.
I first went to a special education class in kindergarten and first grade, where my social and mental abilities could properly develop. It was essentially where I got to interact with other kids and not experience the initial pressures from hanging with peers. It was then determined that I had progressed enough to leave special education for the regular classroom. Along the way I exceeded the expectations of many, graduating high school sixth in my class, gaining a full scholarship to Shippensburg University, and then graduating with honors distinction and landing a nice IT job, eventually leaving the Philly area for Raleigh, North Carolina in 2011. I’m now enrolled in the MBA program at North Carolina State, and by the end of the year should be a Microsoft Certified Database Professional.
My timeline has been solid, and I’d like to believe that I’m one of the stories of someone who made the best of ASD. However, let’s be real…there is always doubt on how well a child on the spectrum will turn out. Some need longer time in life skills classes, or to go to vocational schools. Some may graduate from college but struggle in the job market, and realize that it’s similar to most other folks. It’s hard to say, but the key is learning now. This way when you see me today, I’m merely up on stage as an eccentric bozo, and not an alien life form.
What helped me in a big way was the network. Family. Teachers. Psychologists. Even my peers as I got older and more comfortable with my diagnosis. They didn’t see my autism as something to be cured, but rather to be embraced. My ability to work logical equations has led to a fine IT career. Hell, I make a great bar trivia partner with my random sports and entertainment knowledge from reading so many Box Office Mojo and Billboard charts. What the kids who are different need is a network to express themselves and not ridicule them when they do something different, but to understand why they do it, and help them improve.
This isn’t to say I became someone really hip. Never a word that can describe me. For instance, I love hip hop, but I cannot recall 90% of the words to any songs, because there is so much overload. I know bits and pieces. However, it’s an instance of wanting to fit in every time I fake it, before someone like Mike can tell me that I’m doing it wrong. We’re also mostly Literal Larry, trying to think we’re in on the joke, but that’s about it. Once I figured out sarcasm…I didn’t get better. However, time and patience allowed me to get a better idea, and being honest about this shortcoming. Most importantly, we’re not social. We’re a bit withdrawn, but that’s because sometimes there’s so much going on that we gotta get out before we explode. I love live music because of the distraction. I hate clubs because you’re fighting everyone else. I didn’t get into live music until I was a teenager who was less sensitive to the “loudness” of concerts.
You can see so much potential. I recall 2010, going to meet with some kids brought together from Philadelphia schools. Seeing other children on the spectrum gave me a greater perspective on how I could help them. Along with playing with the children in groups, we asked them about their dreams and goals. One kid, a ten year old named Alan asked me how to get along with others. I admitted that it was a bumpy road, and others in his school probably wouldn’t know any better, not at least until he got to college. I said that what matters is the end; it’s not easy, but what others think is not what matters. There will be awkward moments, but if you embrace them and work on them, without forgetting to stay true to yourself, you will gain the respect of others. I knew that even with all his mannerisms, he has the potential to be someone amazing.
As the great philosopher, the Sage, the non prophet Paul Francis once declared, “I am different, in a different way. The only thing that stays the same is change.” That’s essentially who we are, where our differences are not really everything you expect, and that we’re still all humans. Basically, we’ll have to work harder in some areas, but we also have the ability to succeed at anything we try. Our brains are merely wired differently. People call each other weird all the time, but not everyone fits the weird you think. The autism spectrum is something to care about, because these are people who can still do great things like everyone in this building has done tonight. Autism doesn’t make a person incapable of life; the person just needs to be embraced in society like anyone else. All we are is a little different, but we're all human.
Thanks for coming out to support the spectrum!
Speaker in action.

This engagement was. Props to The Fire (the host venue), Rec Raw, Reef the Lost Cauze, and my brother Mike for making everything possible, and for the conversations. My expectation is that I could give hope to the parents with young children and much uncertainty.