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I Have Autism and Won an Award for Leadership

This post is by Aaron Likens, an adult with autism from Missouri. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share for the series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org

There I was, in a suit and tie (very unlike me). I heard my name called out to receive Missouri’s Youth Leadership Award for my work as Easter Seals Midwest’s Autism Ambassador. It was all a blur, really, as I kept thinking, “How is this happening?” I knew I was getting this award but didn’t know what to say when I got to the podium. So I just started talking, which was exactly the same process that got me to that podium.

Eleven years ago I got my Asperger diagnosis and the prognosis back then, at least what I read on the Internet, was bleak. I lost hope in life. What was the point of trying if failure was the only outcome? This is what I believed until I started writing my book, “Finding Kansas”, back in 2005.

In my speech I said, “I’m up here by accident,” and I meant it. When I started writing there was no motive to write a book that would be published. All I wanted to do was to tell my dad who I was and why I was because, back then, I couldn’t express it with spoken words. I discovered myself through writing and one thing led to another and eventually I had a book.

After my book was released, I was invited to give a presentation. This was about as terrifying of an event as possible because, while I may have been able to write my emotions, I thought there would be no way I could speak them. Somehow (I’m still shocked to this day despite the 500 plus presentations I’ve given) I survived that presentation. The reviews were good, and one thing led to another and I got the job title of Autism Ambassador for Easter Seals Midwest.

As I continued my speech, I wanted to justify this term “leadership” because I don’t do what I do for recognition or accolades. I do it because it needs to be done. I do it because there are people out there who are where I was when I got my diagnosis and I know the pain, the despair and the impact of feeling like a complete failure. To illustrate this, I mentioned a presentation I gave the previous week. A big presenting venue I’ve been doing, and one I feel is of utmost importance, is to student bodies. I was speaking to a fourth grade class. After my 20-minute presentation, I opened it up to questions. This boy raised his hand and said, “Yeah, I don’t really have a question but rather a comment. I just want to say thank you because my parents told me I had Asperger’s last month and I didn’t really know what that meant. But now I feel hope after hearing you. Thanks!”

This all started by a wonderful accident. When I concluded my presentation I was speechless. I remembered all those hopeless nights as I wrote my book. All I wanted was for someone to understand.

I now have this “leadership award” tied to my name and I intend to continue pushing forward because there are people out there who were in my place, people like that fourth grader who are just wanting a little bit of hope, a little bit of understanding and the knowledge that they aren’t alone.

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org