Meet Nils S.
Nils S., 28
His name in Swedish means "champion." I cannot think of a more appropriate name for my son - he champions the rights of autistic people and models the role of someone who is proud of who he is and his confidence in his own abilities.
I first realized that I had Asperger's syndrome when one of my high school counselors unintentionally revealed the news to me during a session. Although I had been officially diagnosed with autism at the age of 10, I didn’t know until that day. I was initially shocked and worried about what it meant when I learned the news later in life.
When I came to learn about what having Asperger's entailed, I was more understanding, but I did not feel comfortable disclosing it to my peers because of my concerns about bullying and ostracism. Over the years, however, I've come to appreciate how it gives me a different perspective and has been advantageous to me in many ways. My autism makes me unique in that I have an eidetic memory and am able to process information more quickly than the average neurotypical person; it has helped me excel academically in my areas of specialized interest, and I tend to be very direct in speaking my mind.
My autism also gives me a narrow and single-minded focus on my topics of specialization, particularly the field of history which I'm very passionate about. It has given me a very diligent work ethic, as I always bring a firm commitment to fulfilling the tasks that I am given. In addition, I have a very strong attention span because of my autism, and I can type very fast. Consequently, I've developed a thriving side career as a freelance journalist, and my articles have covered various topics, including history, travel, and issues relating to autism and the disability community in general.
The struggles that I have faced as a result of my autism have included the challenge of securing academic accommodations in the form of Individualized Education Program (IEP) during high school; speaking in front of audiences; social interaction with my peers; and finding acceptance among many of my peers. Over the years, I've improved significantly upon these issues by taking numerous theater classes; social skills groups; regular psychotherapy sessions; and actively participating in social activities.
Through these activities, I've become more confident in my ability to speak before audiences; have made many new friends and have generally become more integrated into social life. I still feel, however, that some of my peers are not fully accepting of me since most of the members in a local young professionals group, do not really engage with me, even in virtual meetings during this time of COVID. My autism also seems to have been a factor in the rejection that I've experienced from numerous young women to whom I've been attracted. Even if I haven't told them outright that I'm on the autism spectrum, they have likely sensed something different about my mannerisms, which they may have found off-putting.
I'm most passionate about the field of history, especially Civil War history, and I really enjoy visiting historic landmarks from the Civil War here in North Carolina and in Virginia. I always relish the opportunity to learn about the Civil War ancestors of the people I meet, and I've created a personal blog that features their stories. I'm also highly passionate about theater, and I really enjoyed taking theater classes at Berkeley Repertory Theater and Cal Shakes during my formative years in the Bay Area. In non-COVID times, one of my hobbies is volunteering as an usher at theater productions, enabling me to provide customer service while seeing the shows for free. In addition, I'm very passionate about photography and art. I always take numerous photos of natural sights and the different cities and towns that I visit, and I enjoy drawing historically themed pictures, especially of scenes from the Civil War.
My personal and professional goals include living independently and finding a full-time career in the historical or library field upon completion of my second master's degree in Library and Information Sciences (I have a previous master's degree in History). I plan to achieve these goals by continuing to work on independence skills (I have become more actively engaged in cooking and baking while staying indoors during the pandemic), succeeding in my MLIS program, and reaching out to different museums and institutions to inquire about potential employment prospects.
I feel that a lot of people have been major support systems for me. These have included family friends who have provided emotional and financial support; different faculty and staff members from school and college who have written strong letters of recommendation on my behalf for scholarships, graduate programs, and jobs that I've applied for; my godmother who has been a profound mentor to me; and my mother who has always encouraged me to apply myself with vigor to my academic and professional pursuits, broaden my skillsets and go the extra mile in making potentially beneficial connections.
If I could give advice to someone who was just recently diagnosed with autism, I would say: don't let this inhibit you from reaching your potential. Don't see it as something to be ashamed of. Instead, recognize the various strengths that autism gives you and utilize those strengths in order to succeed. There are many social challenges that come with being on the spectrum, but if you work on mastering these challenges, you will have a positive and thriving social life."
Hear a mother’s perspective on Nils’ autism journey through this Q&A with his mom, Renee:
What makes you most proud of Nils?
His name in Swedish means "champion." I cannot think of a more appropriate name for my son - he champions the rights of autistic people and models the role of someone who is proud of who he is and his confidence in his own abilities. He is the most courageous person I have ever known. He is never afraid of challenges -- he embraces them. When one of the psychologists told me, "he won't be able to succeed in college, let alone U.C. Berkeley," he not only succeeded but he graduated phi beta kappa - with straight "A's.” He also went on to found "Spectrum at UNCG," an organization dedicated to promoting autism awareness on the campus of University North Carolina Greensboro and fostering community and support for students with autism.
What do you hope the future holds for your son?
In August, Nils will receive his second master's in Library Studies. He is starting to search for full-time employment as a military historian, librarian, archivist or curator at a university, library, historic site or museum. However, because of the pandemic, finding work has been tremendously difficult, especially given the fact that hiring seems to have stopped for the employment venues that Nils is interested in -- libraries, museums, historic sites and state archives.. One would think it might be fairly easy to find employment with two master’s degrees, but this is not the case. I am hoping he eventually finds a job that he loves and finds gratifying. I also hope he finds a romantic partner, which he really wants. The girl of his dreams hasn’t appeared yet.
What advice would you give to other parents who have a child/children on the spectrum?
Build a community. The old adage: it takes a village to raise a child certainly rings true. In our case, my family was not there for us. I would say: stay away from anyone who is not supportive, kind, helpful. I would also encourage people to get supports right away -- therapists, social skills groups, as many interventions as possible. Nils was totally mainstreamed in school. I kept him busy with theater camps (he really enjoyed these), other activities, piano lessons. I'd also say: love your child beyond reason -- tell them how great they are, how talented they are while still admitting to them they are different and would be perceived as such.
Why would you recommend other autism families reach out to Autism Speaks when they are in need of assistance - regardless of what they might need?
What helped me more than anything was knowing that there was a community that had my back and that I could go to them with my problems. I know they will understand my neuro-diverse child and his behaviors. You need someone who understands the complexity of this diagnosis and its consequences. Autism Speaks is a wonderful resource with people who are not only knowledgeable about what an autism diagnosis entails but also have the empathy that is so critical for those of us with neuro-diverse children.