“Would you be willing to intern a young adult on the spectrum?” That was the question posed by my HR department. Milestones Autism Resources had some clients with an interest in art and as Director of the Federation’s Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, I was asked if I had an appropriate project for a six-month internship.
At the time, I didn’t know much about persons with autism, but I was willing to learn. Besides, I had a project on my wish list that I had never gotten around to. I thought it would be a good experience for me personally, and a mitzvah as well. Then I met Cory Irwin and the internship became so much more.
Cory presenting a piece at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland
As soon as I met Cory, any outdated and uninformed notion I had of a person with autism completely dissolved. Cory is a 24-year-old college graduate who earned a B.A. in museum studies from Walsh University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in humanities from John Carroll–an amazing accomplishment for any individual.
As I explained the project to Cory, cataloguing artworks in the Federation’s permanent collection, it became apparent that Cory had a vast, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of visual art and art history. He was able to interpret artworks in highly sophisticated ways. And research? I have never met anyone as resourceful as Cory. If he couldn’t find information online, he would call libraries. He asked intelligent questions and contacted artists directly for insight into their works.
The final catalog contains detailed essays of over 20 artworks. Each essay explores the background of the artist, artistic influences, and an interpretation of the work. Cory compiled information from numerous sources and authored each of the essays. I quickly ran out of superlatives when describing the quality of his work. Next month, Cory will present his catalog to Federation staff and offer a tour of selected works – works that we pass by every day will now have added meaning. The catalog will also be available to visitors to the Federation’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Building.
But even more than the final catalog, Cory’s presence in the office will have a lasting effect. He was a contributing staff member, attending staff meetings, group outings, and holiday celebrations. Many of my colleagues commented often on his friendliness, outgoing nature, and his passion for his family, faith, and comic books. Cory enjoyed learning from others and was a willing teacher, often sharing his expertise on a variety of topics.
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At Milestones Autism Resources, we are celebrating Autism Awareness Month by sharing the personal stories of real families and advocates in the local autism community. Join our #PowerofPersonal campaign by sharing your unique autism story on social media this month!
Lisa Danielpour, Milestones client and volunteer
“My husband and I gave alot of thought over the years about how and when to tell our son that he has high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s, because we wanted to make sure that it didn’t become a label that he felt would define him, that he would know he has all the potential to do what he wants to do, and that he should feel great about himself just as he did then.
So we ended up deciding that I would tell him when we were away on our annual family beach trip because it’s such a special time together and very relaxing. So my son and I took a wonderful walk along the beach and I talked to him about all the wonderful things about him and then I talked a little bit about some of the challenges that we both knew he had struggled with and was still struggling with. And then I gave him that bigger picture of “this is autism” and told him that I didn’t want it to be a label that would define him.
For all that worrying and stress, he was like, ‘This really helps me. Now I better understand who I am and why I have the struggles that I do. It’s like you put all the puzzle pieces together for me.’
Recently, as a young adult in perspective, he said, ‘It’s kind of funny that I really thought it felt like puzzle pieces since puzzle pieces are the actual symbol and icon for autism.'”
Phil Irvin, Milestones, Board Member, and 2018 Benefit Honoree
“We were always open and honest with our son about his autism. Since he was diagnosed before his 4th birthday, he’s heard the term for many years and understands it impacts people in various ways. We always explained the truth that everyone learns differently and everyone has their own personal strengths and challenges as well. So fortunately it didn’t need to be a one-time or major discussion. We also used the ‘benefits’ of autism like his incredible memory and attention to details that others miss as positive attributes.
A parent’s role to advocate for their children is not optional, it is essential. It absolutely makes the difference between enabling your child to live life to the fullest they are capable of, compared with never knowing how much they might accomplish if only they had better supports. Many schools, teachers and administrators have good hearts and the best intentions, but no one will ever care for your child like you do. Time is of the essence and those precious early years of school and development can’t be re-done. There is no time to waste. So in addition to all of the extra things ASD parents have to contend with, they must also be firm and forceful advocates for their children. This is not limited to school, but everywhere and all the time. Each day is a potential breakthrough, just waiting to happen, but if you don’t set them up for success, it won’t happen on its own.
The sad thing I sometimes see is that parents are either so overwhelmed or believe their child will grow out of it. Advocating can be THE difference in a child’s life so while it takes work, please embrace it, for your child’s sake.”
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Through this experience, both Cory and the Federation learned more than just the backgrounds of artists as Marc Chagall and Helen Frankenthaler. We learned how powerful opportunity can be – for an individual and for an organization.
Cory has autism. Through the support of The Bobby Fund of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Cory came to the Federation from Milestones Autism Resources of Warrensville Heights, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and coaching teens and young adults on the autism spectrum.
From the first day of his internship, Cory became part of the Federation family and our community. “I would say this was the right work and environment for the right person. With those two things, anyone with autism or on the spectrum can be an exemplary worker,” said Cory. “With that support here at Federation, I was an exemplary worker and I know more people can do the same thing. They just need an open door.”
“It was so awesome to watch Cory grow through this experience and see how successful he was through the end,” said Haley Dunn, Milestones Teen and Adult Coordinator. “It’s really a ‘wow’ moment for me to see all the work he put into this project. It’s been a really great match, and I couldn’t be prouder of Cory.”
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