Meet Chanel K.
Chanel K., 28
It is difficult being an adult and having such a late diagnosis, but it has also given more confidence in myself. So even without knowing for most of my life, my autism managed lead me to this point and I am incredibly proud of that.
As a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and doctoral student, Chanel was a bit conflicted when she received her autism diagnosis earlier this year. At first, she experienced feelings of relief because it finally provided answers to many of the questions she struggled with for most of her life. This was followed by an overwhelming sense of shock when her doctor told her that she not only had autism, but other disorders as well. These conflicting emotions, mixed with the vast knowledge of autism and related behaviors that she gained during years of schooling, left the 28-year-old with a lot to process.
“Receiving an autism diagnosis helped it all come together for me, but it wasn’t the only diagnosis I received that day. I was also diagnosed with frontal lobe deficit/executive functioning deficits, attention/concentration deficit, expressive language disorder, mild cognitive impairment, severe depression and mild anxiety.”
Chanel said she relied on her extensive education and professional training in the field of behavioral science to help her come to terms with her diagnoses and the understanding that she will have to work even harder to achieve her long-term goals, which include earning a PhD in Clinical Psychology and eventually working as a pediatric neuropsychologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md.
“Whether they are on my caseload and I am creating their behavior plans or if I’m simply stepping in to relieve another therapist, every patient means the world to me. In many ways I can relate to what they are going through, and I feel like it’s my purpose in life to be there for every person and child I am fortunate enough to meet in this profession.”
Learn more about Chanel, her recent autism diagnosis and her thoughts on ABA and other autism therapies in this Q&A:
How did your autism diagnosis come about?
Truthfully, I was watching a young woman in her 20’s on TikTok about her autism diagnosis journey. I related to pretty much everything she was saying, so I decided to take some online assessments before bringing the concern to my primary care physician. All eight assessments that I took online said I was likely on the spectrum. My doctor was very understanding of me wanting to get an affirmative diagnosis and referred me to a neuropsychologist.
How has your autism helped to shape you into the person you are today?
Since I was diagnosed so late, it is interesting to look back on my struggles and successes. I wonder if some were related to my autism and/or other diagnoses or if they really had nothing to do with my diagnoses at all! It is difficult being an adult and having such a late diagnosis, but it has also given more confidence in myself. So even without knowing for most of my life, my autism managed lead me to this point and I am incredibly proud of that.
What struggles have you faced as a result of your autism?
Looking back at my childhood, I struggled a lot with making friends and keeping them. I have always had a difficult time speaking to people in general, whether it is a brief conversation with a friend, calling my doctor’s office, checking out at the grocery store or interviewing for a new job. I know the words, knowledge and thoughts are there in my brain, but I can’t seem to get them out correctly. I was also very hard on myself in school because I struggled quite a bit when I was younger, but it’s something I’ve gotten much better with over time.
In what areas of your life has your autism helped you excel?
Relating to the population that I work with is probably the most significant! I am able to advocate for them in a way that my neurotypical coworkers may not be able to. I think that my “special interests” have been useful because they have led me to the career path that I’m on today. Human behavior, pediatric neuropsychology and the brain are some of my special interests that I obsess over. Because of these interests, I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in psychology and applied behavior analysis, graduate certificates in neuropsychology and child/adolescent psychology, and am now pursuing a doctorate in clinical behavioral health with a focus on pediatrics.
Why has advocating for behavioral healthcare services for the autistic community become such an integral part of your life?
I wish I had access to these services when I was growing up. I have found myself using some Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) tactics in my own life over the years. Behavioral healthcare covers so many avenues and the work that I do in the field of ABA isn’t just sitting at a table and touching cards all day - it’s teaching life and social skills, coping and job skills, functional communication and replacing harmful and dangerous behaviors, etc. Changing the lives of these patients means everything to me.
We often hear varying opinions on ABA and its effectiveness. What are your thoughts on autism’s most common form of therapy?
As a scientist, I immediately look at the research in this field and it’s clear that ABA is effective. Looking at the patients who I currently work with and have worked with in the past, it’s clear that it is effective. And the best part is that it can be effective without the abuse that people may have experienced in the past when this field was just beginning. We have a much better understanding of the practice now and there is so much more of an emphasis placed on advocating for the patient and allowing for autonomy. ABA’s goal is not to “cure autism,” it is to provide the opportunity to learn skills in a more detailed and personalized manner.
On a personal note, it truly breaks my heart when people discuss that “all ABA is abuse” and “all ABA is bad ABA.” I find that this is often coming from people that have not even experienced ABA services first-hand or have been to facilities that are clearly not following any ethical guidelines. I certainly do not want to discredit anyone’s experiences - I just know that I am so proud to be at a clinic that advocates for the wellbeing of the patients, allows autonomy and truly cares for the individuals receiving services. This is a topic that I could go on and on about because I am so passionate about this field and providing these life changing services in an ethical manner.
How important do you believe early intervention services are to younger children with autism reaching their full potential?
Very important! I have seen how successful children can be when they are in early intervention services. I have also seen older adolescents and young adults who have never had any form of intervention struggle immensely in numerous areas. Collaboration is key in this field in order to provide younger children with autism the highest quality of care. The research shows that early intervention maximizes development in children with ASD and I will ALWAYS resort back to data and research when expressing the importance of early intervention to parents.
What advice would you give to another adult who just recently received a diagnosis?
I would say to find people, or even just one person, that can support you. I have a great primary care physician who is understanding and open to hearing my concerns and a neuropsychologist that has provided me with so many different options for treatments and activities to help me through my numerous diagnoses. I also rely heavily on my family, who is willing to learn what MY autism means and friends who are just elated that I finally have answers to questions I’ve struggled with for my entire life.
When you reflect on your life to this point, what are you most proud of?
I am proud of how far I have come despite the challenges I have faced, aside from my diagnoses. I grew up in an abusive household, my mom was chronically ill and I spent my childhood taking care of her until she passed away when I was 12. Life is tough, but so am I. Despite the odds stacked against me, I am still kind, intelligent and determined to succeed.