This article originally appeared in the OARacle.
My name is Russell Lehmann, I am 26-years-old and I happen to have autism.
I have come a long, long way in life. Fourteen years ago, at the height of my distress, I was pretty much non-verbal. I was too afraid of the outside world to speak to anyone other than my parents. I stayed inside my house as much as possible, clinging to my parents’ sides, terrified of any external stimuli, such as the doorbell ringing, the TV being on, or the microwave going off. I was a prisoner inside my own body. I would have multiple meltdowns every day, curling into a ball in the corner of a room, just crying for hours. I was extremely low-functioning, and could barely take care of myself.
Now, however, I’m an internationally known author, poet and motivational speaker who travels the country spreading a message of hope, awareness, understanding and acceptance about autism and other disabilities.
I happen to not only have autism, but anxiety, depression, OCD and a previous battle with anorexia.
I am a member of the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, I sit on the board for the Autism Coalition of Nevada, am the Youth Ambassador for the mayor of Reno, Nevada, am affiliated with the renowned Kulture City organization which spreads awareness and acceptance about autism, and have written a book that earned an honorable mention at the NY Book Festival. I also happen to be a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT).
As I mentioned before, the amount of personal growth I have experienced has been astronomical. The catalyst behind this growth is not due to some pill or “cure,” but rather due to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis. Every single day I take every chance I can to push my mental abilities to the test, whether it be pushing myself to the limit at the gym, initiating a conversation with a stranger, placing myself in the middle of a loud crowd in order to expand my sensory processing capabilities, or just simply making full eye contact with an individual I’m talking to.
I do this not only to further grow and develop into the best person I can be, but to also conquer the remaining demons that I do still deal with. It is this drive that keeps my symptoms in check. If I were to stay inside my comfort zone, and not push myself out into the extremely frightening outside world, I would eventually regress back to where I was 14 years ago: a low-functioning individual with autism who is pretty much non-verbal.
My progress in life may seem like a miracle on the surface, however everybody and anybody can attain this type of personal development. With regards to individuals on the spectrum, we can conquer our disability and turn it into an extraordinary ability. I like to say that autism is a gift, you just have to figure out how to open it first.
My advice? Run towards, and not away, from your fears. Fear, firstly and foremost, is nothing but opportunity disguised as risk. Behind every single fear in your life is a wondrous reward that you will only attain if you push through what frightens you. It is a fact that when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, your chance for personal growth increases exponentially.
Failure is another factor of life that we all need to embrace. If we were to never fail, we would never know what we need to improve upon, and we would never be aware of what we are truly capable of. When there is a chance you may fail at something, you either succeed or you learn. There is no losing when it comes to failure. Think of failure as a trampoline: you are going to fall, but you will bounce back better because of it!
I chose to become a self-advocate and speaker in order to help others not have to go through the unnecessary pains and struggles I’ve been put through. I take pride in being a voice for the unheard, for I know how frustrating and challenging it is to go unnoticed. I’m honored and humbled to be able to give hope to families and parents who are concerned with their child’s future, just as my parents once were.
I have a raging fire within me to help others succeed no matter what obstacles or hardships they may be faced with. I sincerely hope this article aides in this all-important endeavor of mine.
About the Author
Russell Lehmann is an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, poet, author and advocate who happens to have autism. His words have been featured in the USA Today, LA Times, NPR, Yahoo! News, Autism Speaks and archived in the Library of Congress, reaching over 20 million people worldwide, from Argentina to Norway, Lebanon to Australia.
Russell happens to have autism, and is a council member for the Autism Society of America, sits on the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, is a board member for the Autism Coalition of Nevada while also chairing their statewide Youth Advisory Committee, a committee member for the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders, is a founding member of the Kulture City Speaker’s Bureau, an organization which spreads awareness and acceptance about autism, and is the Youth Ambassador for the mayor of Reno, Nevada, Hillary Schieve.
Russell showed signs of autism as a newborn, however he was not formally diagnosed until the age of 12 after suffering through 5 weeks in a lock down psychiatric facility. In 2011 Russell wrote a book titled “Inside Out: Stories and Poems from an Autistic Mind” which was featured in the LA Times, earned an Honorable Mention at the 2012 NY Book Festival, read by Temple Grandin and won the award for Literary Excellency at the 2013 International Autistic People’s Awards in Vancouver, Canada.
Russell currently travels the country spreading hope, awareness, acceptance, belief and tolerance while also setting his sights on erasing the stigma and stereotypes that come with having a disability. Russell’s passion is to be a voice for the unheard, for he knows how difficult and frustrating it is to go unnoticed.
Visit Russell’s website at www.TheAutisticPoet.com for contact information, motivational videos and booking information. You can also look him up on Facebook, Twitter, and follow him on Instagram at autism_advocate_