“Empowering your young person is the key to giving them the skills they need to live an independent life. If you do things for them that they could learn or even do for themselves by themselves, then you are DISEMPOWERING your young person,” Tom Iland
By Debra Muzikar
What is your first book Come to Life about?
My very first book, Come to Life! Your Guide to Self-Discovery, takes readers through my mantra…Know Yourself. Love Yourself. Be Yourself. In the book’s six chapters, I explain the importance of knowing that you have a disability or learning difference and how it affects you both positively and constructively. I then assure readers that even though you may have a disability or learning difference that you are still worthy and capable of love. Furthermore, I explain to readers the importance of working with ‘allies’ (parents, teachers, therapists, etc.) as a team to take your life to the next level and become your best self. After these internal processes take place, readers can then begin to explore their options in their external environment. Whether it be finding out what school to go to or classes to take, a job or line of work that the reader takes on or even something as simple as what color to paint a room, getting out there is key. Why? Because life doesn’t come to you…it’s up to YOU to come to life! Once the reader gets out there and finds out what the world has to offer them, the reader can then gain some real-life experience and figure out what is or isn’t working in their favor and why. After that, the reader can use this information to evolve and ultimately find their niche…an activity that the reader enjoys, might get paid for and allow the reader to effectively contribute and become a productive member of society.
Who is your book written for?
Come to Life! is written for young people (12+) with learning differences such as autism that might be having difficulty coming to terms with or accepting their diagnosis. Come to Life! can also benefit a young person that is “stuck” living at home and has little or no aspirations for a better future or how to change their situation. Come to Life! is also for young people that are in need of motivation and need to hear from someone that has gone through similar struggles as they have or are and that success is still possible. Ultimately, Come to Life! will help readers find themselves and find their voice.
Why did you decide to write this book?
My mother (Emily Iland) and I decided to write this book in order to help youth with autism and learning differences shape their futures for the better. Young people are being put at the transition table and asked questions such as “What do you want to do with your life?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and the response is often, “I don’t know.” In addition, the outcomes of adults with autism and learning differences are dismal with respect to love and relationships, independent living, further education and employment. Come to Life! helps young people become more prepared and develop more answers to important questions through the use of colorful and engaging activities and exercises that young people can complete with their allies.
Have you had times when you felt bad about yourself because of your autism?
When I was first told about my autism diagnosis at 13 years old, I thought my brain was broken. I felt hopeless and that things would not improve for the better. I was also hell-bent on finding a girlfriend at the time and would be saddened or embarrassed when I said or did something that caused girls to reject or avoid me. For instance, I called a girl that I liked on multiple occasions (even though she wasn’t responding) to the point where she told my younger sister that the police were going to be involved if I didn’t stop.
How did you overcome that?
Shortly after receiving my diagnosis, I discovered that I FINALLY had some answers and an explanation as to why I behaved the way I did (lining up toys, rewinding my favorite scenes from movies over and over, not getting calls from people when my siblings did, etc.). Furthermore, my parents assured me that they would love me no matter what and that they would fight for me no matter what. I was very relieved to know that I have such a wonderful support system. Knowing that other people like Einstein, Jefferson and Spielberg, just to name a few, were also believed to be on the spectrum and did extraordinary things with their lives made me believe that I could live an extraordinary life, too.
The family dynamics had to change based on the knowledge and eventual acceptance of my diagnosis by my parents, my younger brother and sister and myself. In the case of me calling a girl I liked multiple times, my family had to create rules for me to abide by. In this case, my mother compared the phone conversations to a tennis game. I get to call a girl twice (serve the ball twice) and if she doesn’t respond (serve the ball back to me), I have to find another girl to play with. My sister explained to me what girls look for in a guy (keeping clean, knowing how to dance, how to cook, treating family well, etc.) and I decided to do these things to make myself more attractive and appealing to girls…and it worked! I got dates and girlfriends!
How have you overcome the common fear of doing new things?
My family and I have traveled and continue to travel to many countries throughout the world which exposed me to many cultures, new foods, and differing experiences. Variety was often encouraged in my family and even though I have had my share of routines and things I liked more than others, I soon found myself becoming bored with the predictable the “same ol’ stuff.”
As I grew older, I wanted to live an extraordinary life to the fullest and found myself being more daring and saying “yes” to opportunities that came my way (like Jim Carrey in the movie “Yes Man”) while also knowing my limits and having the sense to say “no” when necessary.
I began to read a number of books on personal and professional development. I have read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, John Gray’s Men Are From Mars: Women Are From Venus, Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, just to name a few. The most memorable book that really hit home for me was Jack Canfield’s book, The Success Principles: Getting From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be. It had a number of quotes that stuck with me such as, “All the good stuff is outside our comfort zone” and “Everything you want in your life is on the other side of fear” along with the concept of ‘rejecting rejection.’ If a job or a relationship didn’t work out, I discovered that the world was not over, life carried on and that I could pick myself up and keep moving forward towards something even better for myself.
I noticed a pattern in these books and many more: change is and should be viewed as a good thing and be embraced rather than feared and avoided. Ironically, the only constant, predictable and unchangeable thing about the world over the course of its existence has been change. Rather than fighting change and letting it eat away at my happiness, I became more open to change and found the benefits in adapting to new situations while still maintaining my core self. I was not changing who I was as a person…I was becoming a BETTER PERSON!!!
If more people with autism and other learning differences understood and embraced this concept, that change is good and will always be around no matter what, they could lead much more fulfilling, enriching and happier lives!
Was it difficult making the decision to leave public accounting to write a book and go on the speaking tour?
It was very difficult to leave my full-time, permanent job with benefits, but I would not change it at all. I had worked a number of jobs up to that point in various industries from retail to office environments each with its own pros and cons. Some of these jobs are discussed in “Chapter Five: Find Yourself” in Come to Life!
At the end of the day though, I wasn’t happy sitting at a desk all day crunching numbers. I had done some talks about autism to police officers and high school students on the side for years and I knew that young people with autism and their allies could benefit from my stories. I really wanted to reach people on a personal level to improve their lives which is why I consider leaving accounting behind as me answering a higher calling.
When I told my parents about my decision and how I felt about it (I would rather die broke and happy than live rich and miserable), they thought I was nuts since I had worked so hard for so many years to finally get to the point of a high-paying job with benefits only for me to say, “No, thank you.” They quickly discovered though, as my mother put it, “Who are we to deny him happiness?”
This brings me to my biggest challenge to date: becoming somebody in the autism community by having my story of struggles and triumphs told to others. I hope to accomplish this through Come to Life! along with other books I intend to write in the future. My next book will likely be called From Accountant to Advocate and will focus on my journey through various employment situations.
I also need opportunities (preferably paid) to give keynote speeches and speak onstage in front of an audience reaching as many people as possible in order to foster positive change in the lives of people with autism and their allies. I still enjoy world travel so any possibility to visit and speak in another country or even another continent (I hope to visit all seven including Antarctica before I die!) would be greatly appreciated!
What advice would you give others on the autism spectrum?
Your diagnosis or disability does not have to define you and it will only define you if you let it. Your diagnosis or disability is not an excuse or “crutch” to do something wrong on purpose. If a situation goes wrong or you make a mistake, rather than blaming others or your disability, ask yourself, “What can I do differently next time to keep this from happening to me again?”
Be involved in where your life is going rather than leaving it to chance or in someone else’s hands like a parent. Be present in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and similar gatherings where your future is being discussed. It’s YOUR LIFE and you have the right to live it on your terms; however, please be open to suggestions, opinions and constructive criticism from others such as your parents or teachers. They are your friends or “allies” as described in Come to Life! and are there to help you as opposed to change you. Someone else may have an idea or bring something to your attention that you may not have known about or considered before and you need all the information you can get to make the best possible decisions about your life.
Finally, do not be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t mean that you’re stupid and you don’t have to be perfect or know everything. Your allies may have just the thing you need and they will not know how to help you unless you say something. Where there is a will…there is a way.
What advice do you give parents? educators?
You are the first line of defense in your young person’s life. School districts and other organizations are going to attempt to deny services or not effectively see or understand the difficulties that your young person is experiencing. Come to the table with the FACTS and you will get what you need for your young person. Do not stop fighting, do not take “no” for an answer and, just as I mentioned above to the young people, where there is a will…there is a way.
Know what people or characters your young people look up to and compare their struggles to that of their favorite person or character. The opposite can also apply…if a young person’s behavior is like that of a villain or bad guy they know about (Darth Vader, in my case, and any unacceptable behavior of mine being associated with someone from ‘the dark side’), bring this to the young person’s attention and see if the behavior can be adjusted accordingly.
Patience and more time are key factors to allowing the process of self-discovery to take place in young people with autism and learning differences. You may have a schedule or particular time frame in mind for the young person(s) in your life, but know that, with respect to autism for example, your young person(s) might function at two-thirds their calendar age…meaning an 18-year-old may have the mind of a 12-year-old. If you would not let a 12-year-old “into the wild” that is adult life, it would not be best to do so for your young person with autism even if they are legally an adult.
That is why any young person with autism or other learning difference about to graduate high school should be taken off the “diploma track” at once even if the young person’s grades are up to par or if you think it might result in a self-esteem issue for the young person. It’s better to have a small, temporary setback from delaying the awarding of a diploma rather than a large, permanent lack of services from accepting a diploma when your young person really isn’t ready. It is the life skills that are not being taught in schools that our young people are lacking in and are causing them to fail in LIFE, as opposed to school. The life skills need to be taught at home and in other environments outside of the classroom.
Empowering your young person is the key to giving them the skills they need to live an independent life. If you do things for them that they could learn or even do for themselves by themselves, then you are DISEMPOWERING your young person. You might also be contributing to their sense of learned helplessness that will keep them under your roof learning few or no new skills until the day you die. They deserve better than that and so do you. Believe that your young person can learn and be part of the solution of your young person’s independence and the path to a better life when you are no longer around.
The next volume of Come to Life! (set for release in Spring 2018) is intended for you and will feature my mother, Emily Iland, a family advocate, adjunct professor in special education, lead autism trainer for the Los Angeles Police Department and past president of The Autism Society of Los Angeles sharing her secrets and what she has learned along the way in order to help you navigate the educational systems and prepare the best transition plan for your young person.
Where can I purchase your book?
You can order the book at http://thomasiland.com/come-to-life/
It will soon be available through Amazon and will also soon be available in Spanish!
Tom Iland’s achievements include graduating from Cal State University Northridge, becoming a Certified Public Accountant, and working in corporate America. Tom is now pursuing a professional career as a speaker and trainer sharing insights and practical advice with the Autism community. His new book Come to Life: A Guide to Transition to Adulthood (co-authored with Emily Iland) will be released this November. Tom is a Board member for the Art of Autism nonprofit. to find out more about Tom visit his website – www.thomasiland.com. Tom’s new book ‘Come to Life! Your Guide to Self-Discovery’ (co-authored with Emily Iland) is now available to the public!