My dad homeschooled me from the sixth grade until I got my GED in 2000. The reason was because he did not want me to be bullied by the other students. Homeschooling helped me learn how to work extremely hard. I studied hard for exams, wrote papers, and completed extra credit assignments. But I sometimes wished that I could have spoken up more about wanting to be around others who were similar to me. While I was not as comfortable advocating for myself when I was younger, many of my experiences since then have taught me how to be better at speaking up about the accommodations I need.
Self-advocacy is important for individuals like me on the autism spectrum because it gives us a sense of our own identity. It lets us find who we really are without someone else dictating it for us, and allows us to make choices we will be happy with in the long run.
Being a self-advocate means knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and asking for help when you really need it. Self-advocacy can also mean educating others about people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). That’s why I’m speaking at UJA-Federation of New York’s Hilibrand Autism Symposium on April 28. I am interested in helping teachers and professionals who work with those on the spectrum because it is important that they understand how individuals with ASD learn, think, and communicate their ideas.
I didn’t start advocating for myself overnight. But in my late teens and early 20s I started going out independently, and I went to college, which gave me more opportunities to make decisions for myself. For example, after my first semester at Bronx Community College, I decided to choose liberal arts as a major rather than business administration because even though I was not really sure what I wanted to do with my life, I knew I wanted to be well-rounded.
I went for a diagnostic assessment in January of 2006. I was going through a lot at the time and even though I was living on the campus at St. John’s University, where I was now in school, I did not have any close friends.
My oldest brother Blair had done some research and sent me a link from the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai. He had tried to get me some help for years, but he told me that my dad was against it because he thought if I got a diagnosis there would be a stigma attached.
So I did a couple of interviews and I took a few tests and it was proven that I was on the autistic spectrum. When I found this out, I was happy because it was a blessing in disguise. I started reading up on it and a lot of things related to what I had gone through in the past and what I was still going through. My diagnosis confirmed that my problems were not disciplinary, but were related to social, emotional and communication issues.
When I got the diagnosis, a doctor told me about Adaptations, a program at the JCC Manhattan that holds social events for people on the spectrum and with other developmental and learning disabilities. Adaptations helped me in numerous ways. It increased my social skills by helping me pay attention to others. The program also helped me learn from social mistakes I’d made in the past. I made lots of friends over the years, both male and female, and I was even in a relationship.
Being in Adaptations for a long while has helped me become a self-advocate. I was able to observe a few people and how they communicate with others. I know that some people in the program will speak up quickly and loudly if someone says something that they may find offensive. For someone like me, because of the way I was raised, I pick my battles and I don’t speak up about every little thing that may seem frustrating to me. But I have gotten better at speaking up when someone interrupts me or when someone answers for me. I also do it in a nice way so that I won’t hurt their feelings.
Now that I am better at speaking up for myself, I also want to find more ways to help others. I currently work as a special projects assistant at the NYC Autism Charter School, and as a research assistant at the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai. I don’t work directly with patients or the students but I enjoy contributing to the important work of these organizations.
I have created a meaningful life for myself. The advice I would give to others would be to do your best to improve yourself on your terms, not anyone else’s. Have a few role models who make a positive impact on others. And remember that it is alright to make a few mistakes because that is really how you are going to learn.
Emanuel Frowner grew up in the Bronx. He works as a research assistant at Mount Sinai’s Seaver Center and as a special project assistant at the New York Center for Autism Charter School.