One of the reasons the Milestones National Autism Conference is unique is its workshops and panels made possible by individuals on the spectrum. One of those individuals in Molly Dann, a 24-year-old self-advocate from Parma who is returning this year to speak about topics relevant to her life and to others in the autism community.
Between planning for her October wedding and being Milestones’ administrative assistant, Molly is also a Good Life Ambassador (GLA) for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, a role that allows her to educate the local community about autism.
Can you talk about the conference workshops you are doing this year?
I am doing a Safety in the Community presentation with GLA and a session about sensory issues. The sensory issues workshop is my first time presenting a session that I came up with.
How would you describe common sensory-processing issues to someone who doesn’t understand the effects they have on individuals with autism?
Sensory issues are one of the most difficult things to deal with for me. It can make a simple trip to the store something I have to recover from. There are times when noises or textures make me want to physically hurt myself. There are a few basic sensory issues many people with autism share, such as loud noises and bright lights bothering them. There are also very specific and individualized sensory issues.
In your session, “Safely in the Community,” you’ll talk about personal experiences you’ve had. What advice would you give to someone on the spectrum experiencing anxiety when traveling or encountering related challenges?
Don’t let the anxiety keep you from accomplishing things. I have horrible anxiety daily and I have to be careful not to let it decide what I want to do. Continue reading →
My name is Sondra Williams, I am a wife, mother, grandmother, national speaker, and advocate for myself and others. Lastly, I am Autistic. Autism does not define me; it describes only a part of me.
During Autism Awareness Month, I pause and reset my thoughts as I begin to digest what awareness means to me in regards to autism. Awareness has been around for many years now, so you would think it would be profoundly understood by now. Yet, that is far from my truth.
There are so many voices with various messages from “Defeat” and/or “Cure Autism,” to highlighting neurodiversity and able-istic viewpoints. I hear the terms over and over of high functioning versus low functioning, adding label upon label to define this complex disability or as some say difference. So, autism awareness becomes a huge question left unanswered; what should I believe and what camp of thinking do I support?
As an Autistic adult who travels to teach and speak, I meet many teens and young adults who simply struggle in regards to self-awareness and self-advocacy. Many have no clue outside of the diagnostic label what autism is and how it affects them. If one does not know how something affects them or have the vocabulary around their disability, how can we expect them to become great advocates? We must empower their voice through knowledge and teach them the vocabulary around their disability.
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As a speech-language pathologist in training, I recognize the importance of self-advocacy. As an Autistic* person and sister of another Autistic adult, I have seen firsthand how safety and happiness depend on it. I spent years watching my brother come home from school hurt, angry, and misunderstood. His self-advocacy, rather than being cherished and honed, was often ignored or even punished. The trauma he endured in these experiences, and my experiences learning to advocate for myself, while riddled with anxiety, have shaped my appreciation of the critical need to honor and promote self-advocacy.
My brother’s diagnostic process followed the usual timeline. My mother and the pediatrician noticed early developmental delays in areas of mobility and speech. He got his diagnosis by age 3 and was enrolled in early intervention. After school each day, I’d sit on the other side of the mirrored-window and watch various professionals work with him. My journey with autism has differed widely from the understood norm, but is not at all uncommon. In kindergarten, I was reading chapter books and already performing in the top of my class. My mother’s ongoing lament throughout my life was that I could be “so good at school, yet so difficult at home.” As it turns out, this holding-it-together-in-public-and-melting-down-at-home routine is common in people whose autism doesn’t present naturally. We have managed to appear “okay” when complete loss of control feels too unsafe. But doing so taxes our nervous systems heavily such that we pay for it later.
For most of my early life, it didn’t occur to anyone, myself included, that I might also be on the spectrum. At school, I was quiet, but quick to learn. At home, I was an unruly brat. My brother was probably the first to realize, though not consciously. We bonded with one another more deeply than with anyone else in this world. During family parties, we have always found where the other was hiding (or crying if we got too overwhelmed) and quietly kept each other company, an unspoken tradition of camaraderie. We would pick up each other’s stims and lift the mattress for each other to go under when we were struggling.
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If you told me five years ago that I would be a practicing social worker, I wouldn’t have believed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a social worker. Rather, I felt that it would be something that I couldn’t do because of my Autism. To be entirely honest, I took to heart some of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Autism. I felt like I could never support others because my eye contact is fleeting. From a young age, most kids learn that good eye contact is one of the most important skills for social interaction. My interests can also be rather specific, and I really enjoy sharing about them, but sometimes I have a difficult time telling when others want to change the subject. In all my years receiving Autism-related services, I had not once met a clinician with Autism. Since there were no models, I worried that people must not want a social worker who has Autism. It was during my time in undergrad that I met someone who had similar differences who was pursuing a career in social work. With that person’s support, I came to the realization that I would take a chance on my dreams and become a model for others who might wish to follow suit. I earned my undergraduate degree and applied for a master’s level social work program.
My early career assumption was that I would pursue employment in the realm of immigration or refugee services, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to interview at one Autism-related agency. That agency was Milestones Autism Resources. “Milestones serves clients with Autism and I have Autism, maybe this could be a good fit,” is what I told myself. I called Beth Thompson and within a week I had an interview. I arrived far too early than what might be considered professionally appropriate, the dress shirt (that my mother encouraged me to tuck in) was untucked because I found it to be too uncomfortable, and my interview consisted of an abundant amount of oversharing. Yet from the moment I walked through the door to the moment I left, I felt welcomed. I knew then that Milestones was where I wanted to complete my first year internship. I celebrated with my family when Milestones offered me a position as their Graduate Social Work Intern.
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