Self-advocacy can be very interesting. It’s given me the ability to advocate for a cause that is very close to me on a personal level. With the help of organizations such as the Autism Society and Autism Speaks, I have learned to build my voice in our autism community. For the last six years I’ve been focused on becoming an advocate for persons on the spectrum. Three years ago Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) recognized those self-advocacy skills in me.
Senator Menendez saw one of my posts while I was interning for Autism Speaks and reached out to me. A few months later I was completely stunned when his office said he wanted to see me in Washington. I literally thought it was a joke the day I got the call. I was in complete and utter shock. A few days later I was on my way to Washington D.C by Acela train. During my visit I didn’t know what to expect. When I finally got to his office, he greeted me with warmth. He showed me around his office and then took a seat and let me share my perspectives with him. After we spoke for a while, he asked about my opinion on public policy! I was amazed. The conversation led to the discussion of the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act which would provide increased federal funding to help those with autism.
Once the day was done, I thought that was probably the last time I was going to see the Senator. A year later the CARA act passed. That was when I got the next call. He wanted me to speak on the day of its announcement in my hometown of Jersey City! We’ve kept in touch ever since. Just three weeks ago, the Senator gave me another opportunity to appear with him and speak as he announced the AGE-IN Act, new autism legislation he is sponsoring to help adults like myself succeed. This legislation is focused on helping with the challenges that young adults with autism deal with when they “age out” at 21 of the public school systems supports.
Through my experiences with the Senator I’ve been blessed by his generosity. The speech that I gave most recently with him was one I will remember for the rest of my life. In my 10-minute speech I got to share how I met the Senator and how he has become an influence not only in my life but the lives of countless young individuals with autism in New Jersey and throughout the country. In my speech I also referenced the need for supports. I told the audience that the time has come to change the conversation from “children with autism” to “people with autism” when it comes to services. I would now add that we have to be ready for all of these children as they reach adulthood.
This message is something I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to tell to local and national audiences because of the support of the Senator. Moving forward in my mentoring I hope to use the opportunities I’ve been given to create other opportunities for young adults to have their voices heard too. I hope this leads to a stronger and more aware community for everyone.