Autism awareness, what does this really mean? Logos, colors and symbols that represent autism awareness are prevalent during the month of April. People equate the symbols with the autism spectrum. However, being aware that autism exists and comprehending what the autism spectrum is composed of, the challenges faced by families, children and adults who live with autism 12 months out of the year is a totally different and pressing issue.
By Russell Lehmann
My name is Russell Lehmann, and I am a motivation speaker, author, poet and advocate who happens to have autism.
I have come a long, long way in life. At the age of 12, I was pretty much non-verbal. I was too afraid of the outside world to speak to anyone other than my parents. I stayed inside my house as much as possible, clinging to my parents’ sides, terrified of any external stimuli, such as the doorbell ringing, the TV being on, or the microwave going off. I was a prisoner inside my own body. I would have multiple meltdowns every day, curling into a ball in the corner of a room, just crying for hours. I was extremely low-functioning, and could barely take care of myself.
Now, however, I’m an internationally known author, poet and motivational speaker who travels the country spreading a message of hope, awareness, understanding and acceptance about autism and other disabilities. My words have been featured in the USA Today, LA Times, NPR, Yahoo! News, Autism Speaks and archived in the Library of Congress, reaching over 20 million people worldwide, from Argentina to Norway, Lebanon to Australia.
I happen to not only have autism, but anxiety, depression, OCD and a previous battle with anorexia.
I am a council member for the Autism Society of America, sit on the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, am a board member for the Autism Coalition of Nevada (and I also chair their statewide Youth Advisory Committee), am a committee member for the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders, a founding member of the Kulture City Speaker’s Bureau, an organization which spreads awareness and acceptance about autism, and am the Youth Ambassador for the mayor of Reno, Nevada, Hillary Schieve.
I have also written a book that earned an honorable mention at the NY Book Festival, with a second one out soon.
With regards to individuals on the spectrum, we can conquer our disability and turn it into an extraordinary ability. I like to say that autism is a gift, you just have to figure out how to open it first.
As I mentioned before, the amount of personal growth I have experienced has been astronomical. The catalyst behind this growth is not due to some pill or “cure”, but rather due to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis. Every single day I take every chance I can to push my mental abilities to the test, whether it be pushing myself to the limit at the gym, initiating a conversation with a stranger, placing myself in the middle of a loud crowd in order to expand my sensory processing capabilities, or just simply making full eye contact with an individual I’m talking to.
I do this not only to further grow and develop into the best person I can be, but to also conquer the remaining demons that I do still deal with. It is this drive that keeps my symptoms in check. If I were to stay inside my comfort zone, and not push myself out into the extremely frightening outside world, I would eventually regress back to where I was when I was 12: a low-functioning individual with autism who is pretty much non-verbal.
My progress in life may seem like a miracle on the surface, however everybody and anybody can attain this type of personal development. With regards to individuals on the spectrum, we can conquer our disability and turn it into an extraordinary ability. I like to say that autism is a gift, you just have to figure out how to open it first.
My advice? Run towards, and not away, from your fears. Fear, firstly and foremost, is nothing but opportunity disguised as risk. Behind every single fear in your life is a wondrous reward that you will only attain if you push through what frightens you. It is a fact that when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, your chance for personal growth increases exponentially.
Failure is another factor of life that we all need to embrace. If we were to never fail, we would never know what we need to improve upon, and we would never be aware of what we are truly capable of. When there is a chance you may fail at something, you either succeed or you learn. There is no losing when it comes to failure. I always say failure is like a trampoline: You are going to fall, but you will bounce back better because of it!
I chose to become a self-advocate and speaker in order to help others not have to go through the unnecessary pains and struggles I’ve been put through. I take pride in being a voice for the unheard, for I know how frustrating and challenging it is to go unnoticed. I’m honored and humbled to be able to give hope to families and parents who are concerned with their child’s future, just as my parents once were.
I have a raging fire within me to help others succeed no matter what obstacles or hardships they may be faced with. I sincerely hope this article aides in this all-important endeavor of mine.