Meet Rebekah F.
Rebekah F., 35
Doing things for others gives my life purpose.
As a special education teacher for children with moderate and severe disabilities, Rebekah, 35, is always looking for new ways to bring the best out of her students. She tailors lesson plans to highlight their strengths and support their weaknesses and pulls from personal experiences that have provided her with the type of insight many teachers only wish they had.
Rebekah was diagnosed with autism when she was 14, about a year after she happened to come across a pamphlet about autism that provided answers to questions she’d been struggling with for most of her life. Things didn’t change overnight because autism services were not as readily available as they are today, especially for autistic teenagers transitioning into adulthood. Armed with advice from books and informational packets from the pediatrician, Rebekah’s parents would eventually help her obtain the support she needed to get on track to reaching her full potential, but it was a long, winding journey filled with many ups and downs.
Learn more about Rebekah and her autism journey in this Q&A:
Who was Rebekah as a child/teenager?
As a child, I was prone to having difficulty with change and there were many times when I was unable to participate in many family events because things would go wrong; like I couldn't find the article of clothing I planned on wearing or the time and date changed. I had a really hard time expressing myself and handling the constant sensory overload.
At 2 years old, I could assemble puzzles meant for 8-year-olds. When I went to kindergarten, the teacher told my mother that I could read and that I had "cracked the code.” I also see, hear, feel and smell things that others don't because my senses are heightened.
How would you compare who you are now with who you were before the diagnosis?
It was wonderful to finally know what it is that is different about me. It gave me a sense of understanding as to why everything was so hard for me. But it was the 90's and people didn't know as much about autism as they do now. It meant buying more of the same clothes in different colors so that I would have clothes that I was willing to wear. It meant a lot of being late to school because I had meltdowns some mornings and did not know how to cope with having to get up and be on a schedule. It was still very eye opening because it gave reason to why I didn't want to brush my teeth or why despite having really awesome things to do, I had to finish the puzzle that I was working on. I tried my best to do better but it was still difficult. The sensory acuity has not changed but I have become much better at adapting to my surroundings.
How has your autism helped shape you into the person you are today?
I think the biggest thing that autism has done for me is be able to appreciate so many more things. For one, growing up I did not have any friends. I did not know how to make friends and as I grew older, the friends that I chose were not good for me. One day at 3:00 a.m., because I couldn't sleep, I was watching Star Trek Voyager and saw the character named “7 of 9,” learning social skills and learning how to better interact with the people on her crew. It made me realize at 20 years old that I could do better too. I watched Star Trek every night and later came to join a Star Trek group where I found people that I was able to talk to and get better at my social skills. Because it took me so long to be able to make friends, it makes me appreciate even more. I now run a Star Trek group with three social events monthly (currently online only) and look forward to these events.
I also had difficulty understanding what it meant to love someone. I knew that you love your parents and your family, and I knew that that is something that is just a given but until I was in my 20's and I had finally begun developing social skills, I had never truly felt what it meant when you miss someone so much your heart hurts until I started babysitting my nephew. The first time I had to leave him, I felt sadness and my heart hurt. This opened my heart to all kinds of new opportunities and allowed me to eventually fall in love with my husband.
Finally, I am an artist. I love doing yarn art, diamond dots and most recently resin work. I have been knitting and crocheting for a long time and am proud of all the things that I have made. I firmly believe that I would not be as good at crafting if I were not autistic. Yarn arts were something that came about because I used to pull my hair out as a child. It eventually led to picking the fuzz off blankets. Which eventually led to keeping my hands busy by knitting and crocheting. I have perseverated for years on yarn arts which help me with my anxiety as well as to keep my hands busy.
In what areas of your life has your autism helped you excel?
I would say that being autistic has helped me in being a teacher because I have a unique ability to understand and empathize with my students. While my autism may present itself differently, I still understand the feelings and thoughts they may be having but might not be able to express. The parents of my students have told me many times that I relate very well to the kids and I am very good with them. I credit this to my autism.
Why has advocating and fundraising for the autistic community become such an integral part of your life?
I think that this has become so vital to me not only because I have this inherent need to help others in any way that I can, but also because I know what it is like to be autistic and not have access to the services needed because when I grew up, they were not readily available like they are today. I’ve been walking for Autism Speaks for many years now and I had a moment at the last in-person Walk. I saw all of the services booths and all the resources being offered to people with autism and I felt proud to help an organization that provides so many valuable resources to those who truly need it.
Why did you decide to go into teaching children with disabilities?
I started off by tutoring people who were struggling with academics. As I worked with them, I realized that these children might have undiagnosed disabilities and be struggling because they are not getting the help they need. I was good at tutoring, so a year later, I moved home and joined the special education program at California State University Northridge and began my journey to become a teacher. It has given my life purpose and I look forward every day. I revel in the small achievements of my students.
Doing things for others gives my life purpose. I have raised money for charities, sponsored toy drives, collected donations for the animal shelters and at the beginning of this pandemic, made over 1,000 masks to give to family and friends in order to help them protect themselves. I find that when I have something to do, it helps me be more at peace – and teaching does that for me especially.
Who have been the biggest supporters of you during your life and how have they impacted you?
My parents were always there to support me through everything. They were there to encourage me to finish my BA and eventually finish my teaching credential. When I needed to come back home because something didn't work out, my parents always welcomed me back with open arms. Both my mother and father made sure that I had a wonderful education and speech therapy when I had a lisp.
My sisters have also been supportive of me throughout my life. They are always there to assure me that I’m doing just fine and that I’m on the right track.
Last but not least, my husband is also very supportive of me. He encourages me to pursue all of my new crafts and anything that keeps me calm and sane. He and I support each other to help each other through autistic struggles that make our lives difficult. When I have anxiety, he gives me my space and helps me calm down by making sure that I am taken care of.
What advice would you give to other people recently diagnosed with autism?
I would say that you should try not to compare yourself to others. I find that to celebrate the things that make you unique is very important for self-esteem. If you are the recipient of less than courteous speech or bullying, you should try to let it go. It is so important to value your strengths. I also think that social platforms can be very helpful in order to find people who like the same things. There are people out there for everyone, don't feel shy to reach out.
What are five words that best describe you?
Artist. Strong. Generous. Trekkie. Patient.