Catching up with Taniya H.
University of Albany women’s basketball senior is using her platform to help others become more comfortable in their own skin
Last time we heard from 19-year-old Taniya during World Autism Month in 2020, she was in the midst of her freshman season and still figuring out how to navigate the ups and down that come with being a student athlete in a Division 1 program. Not only was she learning how to adapt to the fast-paced, physical nature of the game on the court, but off the court she was adjusting to life in a new city with new coaches and a new group of teammates.
Today, as one of the senior leaders on the team, Taniya’s tenacious work ethic and passion for the game makes her the embodiment of a role model both on and off the court. Learn how she used her life experiences to go from a shy, nervous freshman to a brave, powerful senior who knows exactly who she is and what she is capable of in this Q&A.
How important has it been to your personal growth to have found a supportive environment at the University at Albany and a head coach that understands autism and has the connection of her own?
I feel like it's really been important to me as I enter adulthood and realize how it's more common than you think. It's good that I can relate to Coach Mullen and that I can strive to be a role model to her kids (Callan and Brennan) and all the kids out there who live on a spectrum. To show them that you can live a normal, typical life and can accomplish your goals if you work hard. You can overcome obstacles and be whatever you want to be with the right support system and work ethic.
I take pride in being a representative for the autism community. I feel like as a D-1 athlete, we use our platforms based off our grades and our talent, but as an individual who is on the spectrum, I just hope to give other people the insight that autism doesn’t have to define you.
Was there a time during your college journey when you leaned on a teammate, friend, or coach when times were tough? How has that familial type of support system helped you navigate various changes and challenges through the years?
I would say during my sophomore year is when I relied on people most because that's kind of when the pandemic hit. There were a lot of times when I felt stuck. I'm like, okay, what do I do during a pandemic? Just dealing with so much change was tough. So, it's good to have a support system there to help me and to reassure me that I’m doing great. Sometimes, we get lost with all the madness that happens in our everyday lives to realize all of the good.
I felt like my teammates and my coaches were there to help me as both an athlete and as a person. My parents and my family, of course, were always a phone call away to help with anything and to give advice to help keep me going.
What are you most proud of when you reflect on your four years in school and as a member of the women's basketball team?
I'm very proud of the person I’ve become. Obviously, freshman year, you're entering a whole new chapter in your life. Not much experience with being on your own, so much to learn and so much to build on. Now as a senior, I just feel like if I didn't go through what I went through freshman year with coming to Albany and meeting new people, working with a whole new coaching staff and just being in a different environment, I wouldn't be the person I am today.
Before college, I never really talked about my autism and there wasn’t much awareness about autism in general, so it was something I always held inside. Since I've opened up about it, I feel like it just gave me a breath of air, like I can be my true authentic self with nothing to hide. I feel like that's what I'm most proud of because if you asked me 10 years ago, I probably wouldn't have thought I would ever come out as being on the spectrum. I'm glad that I did because now I can be a representative and a role model for the community.
Looking back at when you first opened up to your teammates about your autism diagnosis, what do you remember most about that time?
I remember Coach Mullen came in for a team meeting right before our workout, and she opened up in a vulnerable way about her kids being on spectrum. In my mind, I’m thinking to myself, “no way.”
I have a good connection with other people who have experienced what I've experienced, and to know that my coach and her kids are going through the same thing that my mother and I went through, it lifted me up. It’s been great to have a real connection with Coach Mullen and her family. From the time she opened up to us, I knew she’d be someone I could trust and talk to.
As for my teammates, they were always there to support me. When I wrote about my story during my freshman year, I remember my teammate, Morgan, was just like, “If you have any trouble writing your story or if you're just feeling down or whatever, I'm here for you.” I appreciated that so much. It’s little things like that which wound up being so big for me. I have a great support system.
Now as a senior, have you become more comfortable with being open and honest about your autism? How has your confidence grown since you first talked about your journey?
It boosted my confidence to know I’m not alone. I'm walking to class with my head held high. Not being scared or feeling like an outcast. Not feeling isolated. Growing up I remember being taken out of PE and art classes to go to a psychologist. I felt ashamed of that. Everybody else is doing fun stuff and I'm here trying to figure out what this all means for me.
I held onto all these insecurities until I was in high school. I feel like now, in college, I realized there are people just like me. There are people in my class who are probably going through similar things. It’s boosted my confidence to know that I’m not the only one like me. It was always the world versus me. I always felt like I had to figure things out for myself because I was so different. Now I realize I’m really not that different. I’m just a regular college kid pursuing my goals. It took me 22 years to realize this, but I’m glad I finally did.
When you see your coach, teammates and countless others in the NCAA supporting an initiative like Coaches Powering Forward, how does that make you feel?
It makes me feel great to see autism being acknowledged in the public eye. Like I said before, to know there are other people out there just like me or dealing with similar struggles. It gives me hope and the strength to keep going. I'm glad that Coach Mullen uses her platform to have everybody in the community come together and bring more attention to autism. It makes me proud to see the NCAA bringing light to something that impacts so many people and families.
What advice would you give to a high school student athlete who is struggling to share their story with coaches and teammates?
I would say just always be yourself. When I look back to my time in high school, I was always afraid to be myself. I was never really comfortable in my own skin. I would always think something was wrong with me and ask why I had to be the one dealing with this. It was all just negative self-talk. Looking back, I'm glad that I went through that because I wouldn't be the person I am today. It’s so important to love yourself. Self-love will help you get through anything you are dealing with and will only make you stronger.
Why is it important to share your personal story with the world?
It gives people insight into different perspectives. Just because you go through obstacles, it doesn't define you. I wake up every day and feel like I’m wearing a crown on my head because of my autism, and I embrace it like I’m a princess. I'm proud of who I’ve become. If I wasn’t on the autism spectrum and didn’t go through things that I’ve gone through, then I wouldn’t be the Taniya I am today.
What do you want to be remembered for when your time as a member of the UAlbany women's basketball team comes to an end?
I just want to leave a mark that shows how dedication, commitment and hard work can get you so far. I want to show people that you can overcome obstacles and struggles, and those things don’t define you - it’s simply all part of the journey. This is just one of chapters in my life where I just strive to get one percent better every day on and off the court and in the classroom.
What five words would you use to describe yourself?
This is a tough one. I’d say hard worker, passionate, selfless, great teammate, motivator.
As you prepare to graduate and move on to a new phase of life, what does the future hold for you?
The future holds success. I’ll be continuing to work towards my goals and enjoy the ride wherever life takes me. I’m always going to be trying to reach my full potential.