For Josh E., a big move opened the door to happiness and self-discovery

Josh holding the book "Autistics on Autism".

Two years ago, Josh E., age 30, felt stuck in a life he didn’t love, in a Kansas community that didn’t quite fit. Now, he is thriving as an elementary school teaching assistant in his home of Pensacola Beach, Florida. His new life has opened the doors to a rewarding career, solid support system and fulfilling environment where he can be himself. But his road to success wasn’t always smooth sailing.

In this Q&A, Josh talks about his journey and shares some lessons he has learned for dealing with life’s chaos.

Josh was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 13. He is an engaged member of the Self-Advocate Committee that advises the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network. He has served as a panelist for Family ECHO: Autism, a virtual training series designed to build caregivers’ confidence in raising a child with autism through learning and discussion with experts and community members.

Can you tell me about yourself?

I was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Kansas when I was 6. I lived there until two years ago when my mother moved to northwest Florida for work and health reasons. I had just gotten out of college with a bachelor’s degree in social work and was working as a teacher’s assistant at a high school. That job was not the right fit for me and really affected my mental health, so when my father sold the house and moved south to be with my mother, I decided to come here too to figure out my next move and be with the family.

As you can imagine, the move caused a lot of instability in my life and required a lot of transitioning for me. But looking back, I have to say that it was definitely the right decision. Honestly, I’ve wanted to live at the beach since I was a kid and I was ready to leave Kansas. I was ready to see the next chapter of my life.

For a year, I worried that I made a mistake. Then, I got a job at an elementary school and life just started to work itself out. I started going to the beach a little more often. I became a little more open, a little more self-driven and started checking out new areas of the city. The more I looked, the more I found places that suited me—a mini golf and ice cream place, an arcade, restaurants on the beach and great little surf shops. Life started to be a wonderful surprise when I let it.

Moving here has really helped my mental health and brought me out of my shell. I’ve regained a lot of my individuality. It’s been a hard road, I admit, but I see myself becoming better at applying coping strategies. I have to thank my mother for that. And definitely my father—he has been very encouraging. My father has been such a great advisor, relating to me through life experience and reminding me to brush off small situations and treat every day like a trial and error.

What have you learned as you’ve transitioned to your new life in Florida?

I’ve learned about the significance of self-care and how important it truly is. I’m also learning to be less of a perfectionist and not beat myself up for reasons that are not my fault. I’ve learned that when a situation happens and you wish you could change it, what’s done is done. As long as no one’s hurt or you didn’t hurt yourself, you can keep going. Forgive yourself and recognize you’re only human. Learn to love what makes you who you are.

A counselor once told me to view myself like I’m watching myself on television. When a character you know and love on television makes a mistake, you don’t judge them because you know their nature, their heart and their character, and that puts it in perspective. That’s something I want to put into practice more and it’s something that I think can help other people.

What are some things you do for self-care?

One thing I learned at my job is that coloring is very therapeutic for me. One of the group activities I do with the children in my class is drawing sessions, and to participate, I print off a few pages to color. I found that I feel much lighter and less tense when I work on certain pages. For other forms of release, I jog. Another thing that helps is vacuuming and cleaning.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to get away from the stressful environment. For me, it’s important to have options and opportunities in my environment. When I feel like my life is defined by limits and I feel trapped in a particular setting, it makes it very difficult to deescalate from a frustrating day or night.

What helps is living in a city that has places that fit me. There are places where I can discover more of my personality and individuality. I go to the beach every day after work to decompress and feel a little more like myself. There was not a lot of that in Kansas. But I also didn’t have the same mindset then—I didn’t have that passion to push me forward and explore.

Social support is also important. I have my parents, I have friends in Kansas and I have a great deal of mentors for encouragement. Locally, I have one person who I would consider a mentor, but I am still trying to meet people outside of work. Living here, even though I don’t know many people yet, I feel like I can be acknowledged. I feel like I can be accepted as a member of the community. I’m not shunned or cast out; I don’t feel like I have to convert to a specific way of thinking just to belong. I feel a lot more whole here than I’ve ever felt.

Do you have any advice for other autistic people who might be struggling to find their direction in life?

Know what makes you happy. Know where your passion is and don’t be afraid to get involved and pursue it. That’s who you are, so recognize it. Self-awareness is critical to a meaningful life journey. Remain open to all of the opportunities that come in your path—don’t think there’s only one right or wrong way to do what you love.

Another piece of advice I would give is to recognize that we are all on the spectrum and unique, whether or not we’re diagnosed. We’re all human, no matter who we are or what we look like. So learn to love yourself and be patient with yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic because you’ll punish yourself more than anyone else.

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