by Leanne Libas, Age 18
We all are defined by labels. “You’re this. You’re that. You’re… .” Labels can be both a blessing and an annoyance. Coming from a traditional Filipino family, there are times when family members cringe at being labeled, especially when it comes to disabilities.
When my parents first found out about my autism, they were shocked just like any other parent who discovers their child’s on the autism spectrum. My mom was very concerned because she always wanted what was best for me. She worked very hard to provide me the best speech therapy and education. Meanwhile, I just followed her path and stride with no defiance (sometimes).
I knew I was a peculiar child but I was oblivious to why I was different. Of course I lined up my stuffed animals in a certain order, my emotions were like a roller coaster, I had a hard time making friends, and I went to speech therapy. That’s pretty much what every kid goes through, right? Apparently not. I didn’t understand why I acted this way or had to go special day classes.
As I got older, I started to question my behavior. My behavior wasn’t understood by others – especially my parents. I remember they would ask me, “Why do you do this?” My answer was always “I don’t know.” I became confused about who I was.
One day, I was bored and decided to look through a cabinet. It held my movies, magazines, books and binders containing my progress reports and grades. The progress reports said I was very shy at first but my personality eventually came out during the school year. After looking through these reports, I continued to peruse through the binders and saw my IEP papers. I read through them and then read something that made everything stop.
“Leanne has been diagnosed with mild autism at the age of four.”
I reread that quote over and over. My first thought was: “What’s autism?” I logged into my computer and researched the word. As I read through countless pages about autism, everything became clear. My mind started going through flashbacks of special education, going to speech therapy, going to different elementary schools, how I communicate with others, my emotions, etc. Tears streamed down my face as I acknowledged the fact that there was something wrong with me. Afterwards anger came because my parents never informed me about this. I was shocked because I was so naive for not knowing. How could I not know?
For the next 6 years, I was determined to fix myself.
I wanted more than anything else to be “normal.” I didn’t want to be autistic. There were times where I hated myself and cried myself to sleep at night. What did I do to deserve this? Why am I autistic? Why can’t I be like everyone else? I never understood that I have to live with this for the rest of my lifetime. I thought maybe if I cured myself, I wouldn’t be autistic anymore.
I was a light switch. My emotions were on and off. I tried to act happy so no one would question me. In reality, I tried to pretend I was happy because I wanted to be known as the girl who’s not defective – a girl who would grow up and lead a successful life. This behavior kept going on until my high school sophomore year. During that time, I was still in speech therapy and I was doing well in school. Eventually I broke down and I knew something was wrong. I made a drastic decision to drop speech therapy and transfer to personal counseling.
At first, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to talk to a counselor about my issues. Apparently, I became an open book and started opening up. Over the next few years, I confronted my low self-esteem and my past. I was a nervous, insecure person who wanted to protect herself from letting anyone harm her. I discovered the person I wanted to be was actually hiding inside me.
The real me started to manifest the summer before my high school senior year. My career case worker told me that there was a great opportunity. That opportunity was called Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities (YLF). YLF is a five-day forum where disabled students meet and learn about being an advocate. All I had to do was apply and hopefully make it through the application process. I had low expectations; I believed that I wouldn’t become a finalist. When they called to tell me that I was a finalist and I was going to be interviewed soon, my low expectations suddenly vanished. A few weeks after my interview, I received a letter stating that I made it into YLF. I was so excited! I knew that I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity.
Going through YLF made me learn that it’s okay to have a disability and to advocate not only for myself but for others too. I met people who had similar struggles and who understood me. I’m very thankful that I had the opportunity to learn more about who I am. When my last year at high school started, I took the lessons I learned and used them for good use. I became more open with my disability than ever and as a result most people opened their arms in support.
Looking back at all my struggles, it was worth it. As I’m growing up, I know there are more battles I will face in my future. There’s still a stigma in the autistic community. I want people to know that having autism is not a burden. The stereotypes are not true. Although we have very talented autistic people pursuing science and math, there are others who have different talents. I’m proud to be autistic. I never thought that I would say that with confidence. Now I can. I’m not an inspiration; I’m a motivator.
After high school, I will attend community college in the fall where I will be getting my general education out of the way. While going to school, I plan on participating in the cross country and track team and hopefully try some new activities such as salsa dancing. After community college, I plan to transfer to a four-year university to pursue a degree in special education.
Being autistic means that I’m nothing less. If a cure was created, I wouldn’t take it. I know that I’m not perfect but I don’t want to risk losing myself.
Leanne Libas is starting college in the Fall. She wishes to pursue a degree in Special Education.
What is it like to be autistic in the year 2015? Read Autism Unveiled – 90 blogs from autistic people in 40 days.