When you meet one person with special needs, you’ve just met one. There are a lot of different others. -Gerard Joseph Atienza, Autism Self-Advocate
Today, I had the honor of meeting a passionate self-advocate of autism, a teacher, and a blogger, the “autistic big bro” himself, sir Gerard. He spoke for my former organization, the Ateneo Special Education Society, and afterwards I got to sit with him and talk. I’ve been following his blog for a while now, and I have to say, I’m a fan. He’s really quite inspiring.
I became an even bigger fan when I got to talk to him. The quote above is just one of the beautiful things that he said in his speech. Our talk after his speech had a more personal vibe, and it was amazing how easy it was to talk to him, considering I don’t do well with talking to strangers, let alone people I idolize. He told me a lot of stuff about himself, and I felt that I could do the same, so I told him about my plans for studying Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy as a masters degree. He gave me some advice about it, told me that a background on special education would be helpful, seeing as it goes hand-in-hand with intervention anyway.
I had a similar conversation just this week with a neuropsychologist. She told me that maybe I should get a stronger foundation first on something more general, because ABA is a specialized field already. Long story short, I didn’t really take her advice. But now, to hear a similar suggestion from a person with autism AND a SpEd teacher himself, I am definitely reconsidering.
I’ve only met a couple of autism self-advocates in my twenty-one short years, but they have never ceased to amaze and inspire me. Sure, the neuropsychologist I talked to was very nice and had a lot of credentials, but there’s one thing she didn’t give off that the self-advocates did: passion. I’m not talking about the dramatic story-telling tear-jerking kind of passion, but simply the easy conversation wherein you can feel that, “this is something worth listening to.” I’ve had the same experience with a father of a person with autism, who was the first one to inspire me to pursue this career. He was simply talking about his son, and just quickly mentioned the need for more therapists in the Philippines, and he got me.
Autism advocates are amazing that way. They inspire without even trying. I asked sir Gerard what steps a self-advocate can take to show people that persons with autism are different, not less. He said, “well, this; by simply being me.” I don’t think I’ll ever get to cover how inspiring they are by writing about it. I’ve had a year-long thesis about that and it didn’t turn out so inspiring. I guess you just have to hear from them yourself, to get the feeling. This much I can say though, considering what they’ve been through as persons with autism, it would take a lot of strength, courage, and faith to keep fighting their fight. It’s not easy, but they do it, and they don’t just survive it, they shine in it, going beyond expectations and showing “ability over disability”; showing that they’re as human as you, me, and everyone else, that their condition does not define them.
Thank you, sir Gerard, and all the other autism advocates out there, for continuously showing the wonderful side of humanity, and for simply being.