Meet Kayla C.

Kayla C., 34: Navigating life with a little help from her friends, this aspiring dietician is proving that a little self-belief can go a long way

One of my first thoughts was, "I’m not autistic; there isn't anything wrong with me." I had a difficult time accepting being different, yet I already knew that I didn't fit in with my peers. I learned that it was fine to be different and love who I am.
Kayla accepting an executive leadership award

Diagnosed with autism at 9, Kayla C. could not quite grasp what her autism diagnosis meant for her future. That was until she was in her 20's and introduced to Heather Burke, Director of Sports and Wellness at Special Olympics Michigan.

“When I first met Heather, I had no idea what direction I wanted to take with my life. I didn't believe in myself,” said Kayla. “Heather saw something in me that I couldn't see in myself at the time. She always believed in my abilities, which served as the catalyst for positive developments in my life.”

Thanks to Heather’s support, today Kayla competes in eight sports with Special Olympics Michigan. She’s learned that by accepting her diagnosis, she can help others. She’s now a supervisor for the ski and snowboarding program at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. Outside of sports, she is in college studying to become a registered dietician.

At work, she’s become a champion of inclusive hiring. When she was 26, she landed a job as a cashier at Dollar General, eventually working her way up to on-duty manager. When someone with an intellectual disability applied for a job, her manager was on the fence about hiring the person, but Kayla was an advocate.

“I told him, ‘you gave me a chance, now let’s give him a chance,’” recalled Kayla. “That applicant quickly became our best cashier and helped us raise more than $3,000 in just one month for Autism Speaks during a fundraising campaign, making us the top grossing store in Michigan and one of the top in the entire country.”

Hear more about Kayla’s story and the special people who have helped her along her journey in this Q&A:

Kayla C. holding her YMCA staff badge

When you first received your diagnosis or found out that you were on the spectrum, what were some of the first thoughts that ran through your mind?

One of my first thoughts was, "I’m not autistic; there isn't anything wrong with me." I had a difficult time accepting being different, yet I already knew that I didn't fit in with my peers. I recall many days sitting alone and no one talking to me at school. As I aged, I learned that it was fine to be different and I learned to love who I am. I began providing speeches to high school and college-age kids about the challenges and learning to understand what it meant to be autistic.

What are some of the resources, therapies, etc., that have helped you through the years?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has been a helpful treatment for me, along with talk therapy. Also, being involved with Special Olympics helped with my confidence and making long-lasting friendships. Additionally, Special Olympics keeps me physically active, which can be a common issue for individuals with special needs. One resource that has also been helpful was finding a job where the boss doesn't shame, compare, ostracize or demean me. The job I have now, my boss treats me with respect and encourages me to grow. Working has been a huge asset to my growth.

Can you talk about the impact friends/supporters have had on your trajectory in life?

Kayla and friends smiling at an event

While I was growing up, I was fortunate to have such an amazing mother and amazing sisters who were both so wonderful and who never stopped fighting for me. They made it their top priority to ensure that I got off to the best possible start in life. When I was in middle school, my mom was told about Special Olympics Michigan. I'm thankful she did because that is how I met Heather Burke.

Heather is someone when you hang around her long enough, she’ll end up getting you to believe in yourself and seeing that you are making a difference. For the first time last year, I told myself I was proud of myself. I was so excited, the first person I told was Heather. Heather has had a significant impact on my life. She’s always told me, "You've done the work; I've just been there to support you.”

How has your autism shaped you into the person you are today?

Growing up autistic was difficult, but it shaped me into the confident and self-reliant woman I am today. It has also given me the opportunity to be an advocate for others and a voice for those who do not have one.

How do you discover your passion for nutrition along your path to becoming a dietician?

I found my passion for nutrition by developing and designing a seven-week cooking class for Special Olympics Michigan athletes called “Let's Get Healthy Together.” Through this cooking class, I met Nick Caudle, who works for Special Olympics Michigan. As I worked with Nick, I started really loving nutrition and wanted to serve my Special Olympics athletes even more. Nick encouraged me to reach for the stars and told me that he’d be here for me in whatever capacity I needed. Thanks to Nick and my cooking class, I found my path to go to school to become a registered dietitian.

When facing new challenges and life changes, how do you cope with the anxieties that can come along with that?

Through EMDR, I was able to acquire the skills necessary to manage my anxiety. Prior to this therapy, this was something I struggled with. The beginning of a new academic year or a new job used to be challenging, but with the help of EMDR therapy, this is no longer the case.

When you reflect on your life to this point, of what are you most proud?

Kayla C. holding her ski equipment

Getting this far! I didn't let my disability limit who I am or what I can do. This year, I got my executive leadership certificate, which was one of the proudest times of my life because I worked so hard to get it.

What is your connection to Autism Speaks and how has the organization touched your life or the lives of others in the autism community?

I first learned about Autism Speaks when I worked at Dollar General, and we were raising money for the organization which helped me learn about how the organization was improving the lives of people like me by creating a more welcoming and accepting workplace.

What advice can you give to other young autistic adults who are entering into a new stage of life?

Never let anyone tell you what you can and can't accomplish because of your disability and never let your disability define who you are. Go out and show the world what you are capable of and how amazing you are.

What are some things you wish neurotypical people understood better about people with autism?

I wish people understood that just because we have autism does not mean we are incapable of doing things. That has happened to me throughout my life, and I’ve been constantly fighting to disprove it.

The story shared above represents the experience, views and perspectives of the individual(s) highlighted. We aim to share stories across the spectrum and throughout the life span, but the information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals.