Jessica Zavala could not speak until she was 5 and Now She Helps Children to Communicate

Jessica Zavala Autistic SLP

“I wanted to become a speech pathologist so that parents hear my story and I could potentially give hope to them. I would assure them that one way or another their child would communicate.” Jessica Zavala

By Ron Sandison

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, I interviewed Jessica Zavala an amazing young adult with autism who works as a speech and language pathologist tech. She is an inspiration who proves that with love and perseverance nothing is impossible.

1. What were some early signs you were on the autism spectrum?

One of the early signs that my parents noticed right away was that I did not speak at the appropriate developmental age. I also organized my toys from largest to smallest. I didn’t make eye contact when having conversations. My parents noticed I walked on my toes. Along with those signs, I had constant breakdowns when I was frustrated or experienced sensory issues.

2. At what age were you diagnosed with autism?

I was diagnosed with a mild case of Autism at 2 ½ years old. No other paraprofessional diagnosed me with any other disability than autism.

3. Did you experience any sensory issues? If so what were they?

The main sensory issue I experienced was the humming from the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. I would automatically cover my ears and close my eyes. It irritated me so much that I sometimes had to step outside for a break. I also had issues with the sounds of people whispering. When I heard this, I would feel anxious as I thought they were talking about me.

4. How did your parents respond to the autism diagnosis?

My parents responded well to the diagnosis because a few years prior, my older cousin had been diagnosed with autism. They instantly recognized the early signs of autism. They did not know what to expect from me since they had been told that every child with autism is different.

My parents took a different approach in regards to acceptance. They attended parent counseling groups provided by Regional Center, where other parents would discuss and ask “why us?”. My parents did not want be like them in terms of feeling sorry for themselves and depressed. All they could do was accept the diagnosis and move forward; or else they would spend years and years feeling sorry for themselves instead of focusing on the here and now for their child.

They did not want my diagnosis of autism to be seen as an obstacle. They treated me no different because of my disability. They treated me as if I did not have a disability.

5. How did autism effect your speech development? At what age did you begin to speak?

I would say it greatly impacted my speech development. I did not speak until I was 5 years old. The time before that, I only grunted and pointed to things I wanted. It was hard to express my wants and needs. I remember thinking I was in a soundproof room where I felt I was speaking perfectly normal, but everyone looking at me seemed confused. At one point, they tried American Sign Language, but I got frustrated to learn it. I also did not like the feeling of someone touching me in an attempt to model the signs. Eventually I began talking at 5 years old, however as I entered mainstream education I received speech therapy up until 2nd grade.

6. What therapies did you receive as a child? Which therapy helped you the most?

I received both speech therapy and behavioral therapy. I believe behavioral therapy helped me the most. I received this kind of service up until third or fourth grade. The behavioral therapist would come to my home and would play games with me. They also offered tutoring services as I got older, since I was struggling a little with my academics. They noticed if I did not know how to complete a problem or understand the directions, I would push aside my materials and give up. The therapists would come in to minimize my breakdowns or show me techniques to not get upset so easily.

Speech therapy was not much help. The reason being I was not receiving the appropriate services as mentioned in my IEP. The school district was supposed to provide me with 30 minutes two/three times a week, one on one speech therapy. However, I was actually in a room with four other kids and only receiving about five minutes of therapy. The rest of the time was the therapist trying to calm down the other students.

7. What has been your greatest challenge attributed to autism?

My greatest challenge with autism would have to be taking what people said literally. It was not in terms of sarcasm, but in terms of how one felt. For instance, if someone said they were mad at me, I would feel as if my world was ending. I would walk in circles wondering what I did wrong and what to do from here. I would feel so much anxiety.

At a young age, I assumed people did not change. If they felt about you a certain way, there was no going back. Also, I had a problem with taking criticism. Again, if they said something negative about me, I would feel as if those words circled around in my mind. I would carry these words throughout the years. However, as I got older, I would take these words as motivation to prove them wrong. Some of the things people would say was “you’re never going to make it to middle school”, “you’re stupid”, and the list goes on.

8. What were some ways your parents helped you to interact socially?

My parents helped me with maintaining eye contact. My dad would have me look him in the eye when speaking to him. He said it was crucial that I did because people could take offense to it. This would help me understand social cues.

They encouraged me to let other kids play with me. I was so used to playing alone and only with my toys. They told me the other kids wanted to be my friend and were nice. This would help with turn-taking.

9. Were you bullied as a child?

I was bullied as a child. I remember being bullied by the children from the block. It was before I started pre-school. They would see me look down at my feet and fumble my thumbs (something I do when I’m nervous). I would often play by myself because I did not like others playing with my toys. These kids would harass me and call me the R-word constantly. My older sister would step in and scare them off so they would leave me alone. She had to defend me since nobody else would. I was also bullied by my Kindergarten teacher who saw my school file which contained information about my disability.

The teacher saw the label of autism and immediately took it upon herself to separate me from the other children in the class. She had me sit in the back of the classroom facing a wall, away from the rest of the class. Her excuse was that she did not want the other children to copy my behaviors and be like me. She made me feel as if my autism was contagious. The children did not know what it meant and neither did I. At this point, I had no adult figure at my school to look up to. The first teacher I have already looked down upon me for the label on my file. She began making negative assumptions of me before giving me a chance to prove myself. I was discriminated from fulfilling academic and social achievement.

10. What were some of your interests as a child?

As a child, my interest was art. I enjoyed drawing and coloring. I would often copy animals from those animal books and recreate the same outline and form. It looked as if I put the paper over and traced it, but I didn’t. I also enjoyed completing puzzles. My mother kept having to buy the next number of puzzles (20, 40, 60, 80, 100, etc), because I would finish them too quickly. I also loved to read, any and every book.

11. What were some ways your parents advocated on your behalf?

In the midst of the speech therapy, my parents were also fighting for me to be in mainstream education. The school district felt that if a child had a disability, they should automatically be placed in special education. My mother had to fight vigorously for me to stay in mainstream education, even though I had no need to be in special education. They gave me so many educational tests to prove myself. My mother had to get a lawyer involved for my educational rights. Now the whole school district was against me – A child! A child who was not given the chance to prove herself.

12. What inspired you to want to become a speech and language pathologist?

As a child, I received speech therapy. However as mentioned in the question above, I was not receiving the therapy that was written in my IEP. Being a child, I did not know any better. My mother only found out when she happened to randomly stop by. Seeing my mother’s face of anger and disappointment, was heartbreaking. I did not know what was happening other than I was getting mistreated. Once I came upon speech therapy as a major, I knew that this was the right path of study for me. I wanted to become a speech pathologist so that parents hear my story and I could potentially give them hope. I would assure them that one way or another their child would communicate. I used to be in that seat and know what it’s like: fear, anxiety and anger. I was once that child and I know what to do if children behave a certain way, because I was frustrated too.

13. How did you choose to attend California State University Fullerton?

California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) was actually my first choice. I was indecisive in what I wanted to major in. At first I wanted to become a special education teacher. However, at the time, many school districts were having layoffs. I began to feel uncertain so my father mentioned speech pathology. He said becoming a speech therapist would have job security and it would be a full circle moment for me. I looked into it and the science behind it intrigued me. When I did my research, CSUF had one of the top programs. Plus, Fullerton was not too close or far from my family.

14. What did you like best about college?

I liked that college felt like my place to grow. It was my time to prove everyone from my past wrong. I had gotten this far and I did not want to give up. I strived for greatness and CSUF allowed me to do so. I also liked how I grew independent since my parents were not around. It was the first time living away from home. I was given so much freedom, which I liked.

15. What were some of your favorite books? Do you have any favorite Bible verses?

One of my favorite books was a book I randomly chose for a class project. We had to do a book report for my Introduction to Special Education class. The book is called I Am in Here: A Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice by Elizabeth M. Bonker & Virginia G. Breen. I related a lot to this book remembering how I felt when I was not able to speak.

16. What advice would you give to young adults with autism?

My advice to young adults with autism would be to not stop fighting. Fight for what is right! Do not let others bring you down, call you names, label you. You are a human being just like everyone else. Your best advocate is yourself.

Keep breaking barriers. I took the criticism, negative remarks, names and had them weighing down on me. It can be your best motivator but your worst enemy. During hard times, I felt that these words would just circle around in my head over and over, making me not want to pursue anything. If I didn’t get out of that mentality, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.

Jessica Zavala

When I walked that stage to receive my Bachelor’s degree, a lot of weight came off my shoulders because I finally did it! I completed the last task in proving people wrong, and it felt great. I cried tears of joy knowing that those words could no longer affect me since I did the impossible. Whatever that may be for you: striking a conversation with a peer, driving, pursuing a higher education, finding a job, know that anything is possible.

I was told as a child that I wouldn’t achieve many things in life. I am living proof of achieving the impossible. Don’t look at the odds, beat the odds. I also feel that when you break one barrier, you’re allowing opportunities for others. You are paving the way for the future generation of recently diagnosed children.

17. What are some of your future goals in life?

My future goal in life is to continue to break barriers for individuals like myself. I also have a future goal to get accepted into a graduate program. I am still stuck between speech pathology and audiology. I am leaning towards audiology though, so fingers crossed.

I also have a goal to potentially write my own book on my experience with autism that would include my parents and sister. I feel that it would make an impact in the Latino community, because it is a taboo topic in some cultures. My hope would be that my story inspires other Latino families to speak up about the topic.

Link to Jessica’s article in OC Register:
https://www.ocregister.com/2019/05/15/csuf-commencement-2019-student-with-autism-finds-her-path-in-speech-pathology/

Jessica Zavala

Jessica Zavala works at Autism Spectrum Interventions as a Behavioral Technician. She also works with a company called DirectEd as a Behavioral Intervention Implementation. Jessica has her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Disorders from California State University, Fullerton. She was previously a supervisor/barista at her school’s Starbucks. During her undergrad, she was a club member of her school’s N.S.S.L.H.A (National Student Speech Language Hearing Association and S.T.A.N.C.E (Student Speech Therapists and Audiologists Nurturing Cultural Enrichment). You can contact Jessica by email at jessicazavala0828@gmail.com

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

1 Comment

  • “I also had issues with the sounds of people whispering. When I heard this, I would feel anxious as I thought they were talking about me.”

    Me too, Jessica.

    I have issues with people laughing in groups or at a distance.

    If they’re not clearly laughing at themselves or each other – it must be at me.

    And yet I remember a time before I was self-conscious like that in a negative way.

    A lot of Autistic children prefer to whisper as one of their communication tools.

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