This blog post is from Devin Gerzof, a sophomore at Georgetown University from Long Island, New York. This summer, he interned with "Team Up!" for Autism Speaks in their New York City office.
“Tell me Devin, how did you get involved with Autism Speaks?” I was asked this question frequently this summer during my time here in the Autism Speaks office in New York City, as I interned with Team Up! with Autism Speaks. The answer was simple: my mom ran a few races with Team Up, and I applied for a position. So that’s it, just a typical internship, right? Well, not so much for me. My connection with autism runs deeper. A connection that nearly cast a shadow over my life.
A connection that has been around since I was two years old, when I was placed on the autism spectrum.
When I was diagnosed, my parents’ dreams and hopes for my future instantly evaporated. So many things that other toddlers enjoyed in their childhood never existed for me. There were no singing silly songs or babbling, because I was non-verbal. No cuddle time, because I was too sensory adverse to tolerate being hugged. No bedtime stories, because I could not sit still long enough to get through the book. I couldn’t even go to birthday parties, because the singing and loud noises would send me into temper tantrums and running for the door. I was essentially a prisoner trapped in my own world.
That is, until early intervention began.
At 3 ½ years old, I attended Variety Child Learning Center in Syosset, NY, a special education school that deals with kids with developmental disabilities, including autism. Right before I turned 4, I uttered “mama” for the first time, and I entered the language based class soon after.
This restrictive environment, and the structure it provided, really seemed to work for me. My eye contact improved, I could attend to simple commands, and my vocabulary grew. Due to the excessive labels for every object in the classroom, I became a pretty proficient sight reader, and it didn’t take long before I started “reading” the sports page every day after school. These gains in my language and reading abilities led to my acceptance in a local private school in first grade.
Throughout this time, I had also discovered basketball. Instead of jumping up and down on my bed for hours a day, it was replaced by shooting hoops with a miniature Nerf ball; over and over and over. These skills carried over with me when I played on my New York State championship varsity basketball team in high school. Instead of doing something detrimental to everyone around me, I had found a way to use my extra energy and direct it into a strength.
My mom always used to tell me how special I was, and that I truly was gifted in so many ways. When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand her, and I figured she was doing her job as a mother. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 when I learned of my diagnosis. By that time, I was already involved with student government and completing honors classes. On that day, I realized that I owed my life to so many individuals. And the only way I feel I can truly say thank you is by giving back to the community that gave so much to me when I needed it. For the remainder of high school, I was an inaugural member of the Variety Child Youth Action Council, which organized fundraisers and events to help raise funds for the school and autism awareness. A couple of years ago, I filmed a public service announcement to prevent bullying in the autism community. And now I am finishing up my internship here at Autism Speaks.
One thing that I would like everyone to take away from my story is that I do not let autism define me. I define me. My own personality, passions, and achievements are what define me. I let my life speak. And by letting my life speak, I aspire to be a voice for those without a voice. I am blessed to be entering my sophomore year at Georgetown University, where the Jesuit concept of building “men for others” seems to fit. I hope that no matter what my future holds for me, I will be able to continue to give back to the autism community.
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. I get to be a typical college intern.
And I’m perfectly fine with that, and forever grateful.