Meet Xavier D.
Xavier D., 30
My parents might have thought I was destined for great things when I was younger, but even I can’t believe some of the things I’ve been able to do.
As he walked through the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wide eyed and slightly nervous for the once-in-a-lifetime journey on which he was about to embark, Xavier D. couldn’t help but think about the unlikely path that led to him making history as the first openly autistic person to intern at the White House. The building which has been called home by every U.S. President since John Adams took office in 1797, would be a place for Xavier to learn from some of the brightest political minds and get a glimpse into the inner workings of the country’s governmental epicenter.
“The first time I was brought into the Oval Office in 2019, I had the chance to sit down and have a half hour conversation with President Trump about my advocacy work for people with autism – it was a surreal experience. I met Vice President Pence before that and always felt welcome in the White House. The way I see it, autism is nonpartisan and eliciting change has always been my goal. My parents might have thought I was destined for great things when I was younger, but even I can’t believe some of the things I’ve been able to do.”
Xavier credits Andrew Guiliani, former special assistant to the president, and Andrew’s father, Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City, for helping him land the prominent position in the nation’s capital. The Guiliani’s were inspired by Xavier’s staunch advocacy work and persistent drive to create a better world for people with autism, which led to his introduction to several members of The Cabinet and eventually his role as an intern.
Long before he was rubbing shoulders with Washington D.C.’s top officials, Xavier was just a shy kid who loved puzzles, creating art and spending time with his mom and dad. During his early childhood, his parents noticed their son lacked social skills and would often exhibit behaviors that sparked concern. This led to visits to several doctors and eventually a diagnosis of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger syndrome.
“I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism after being diagnosed with ADHD. My parents knew I’d grow up and make something of myself regardless of what the doctors said because I had savant-like skills in many areas and a photographic memory. They always let me be me and encouraged me to express myself. My dad would say society didn’t accept me because it’s not what people typically expect, especially in the early 1990’s when not much was known about autism. I feel like I grew up in a time of transition of mental health and autism.”
Xavier quickly learned how to turn his shortcomings into strengths, absorbing information by listening closely to how others spoke or interacted with one another at social gatherings. As a result, he was able to transition from a shy, introverted child into a sociable adult, capable of jumping into any conversation. He also learned how to use difficult life experiences of his past as a springboard to creating meaningful changes for not only himself, but countless others on the autism spectrum who faced hardship and injustices.
Through the Xavier DeGroat Foundation, which he founded in 2018, Xavier has made it his mission to promote opportunities for people with autism through advocacy, education, economic opportunities and humanitarian efforts.
“Six years ago, I was pulled over while driving and had an unpleasant experience with the police. I was very nervous and having sensory overload from the flashing lights and cars speeding by. The officer didn’t have patience with me because he didn’t realize I had autism. From that point forward, I decided I was going to advocate for changes to be made in the way the police are trained to interact with people with autism and other disabilities.”
Xavier’s work led to the creation of a law that would require state identification cards to alert law enforcement that a person has autism or a communication impediment. The law in his home state of Michigan went into effect on July 1, 2020, because of the collaborative efforts by Xavier and Michigan state Senators Tom Barrett and Curtis Hertel.
With more than 16,500 school-age children diagnosed with autism in the state of Michigan and 1 in 54 diagnosed in the U.S., this new law is just another step towards creating more awareness about autism and creating a more accepting world for people on the spectrum. But Xavier didn’t stop there – he’s working with congressional leaders from various states to implement autism-friendly changes to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) protocols at airports across the country.
Beginning in May of 2021, the TSA began educating its officers to look for designations on driver’s licenses and other state identification cards denoting that a person has a disability that may pose a communication barrier. Thanks to the work of Xavier and the backing of many forward-thinking elected officials, including U.S. Rep Dan Kildee, D-Mich., several states have updated their laws recently to allow people with disabilities to add what’s known as a “communication impediment designation” to their ID cards.
Xavier said he plans to continue to expand his reach to other large-scale advocacy efforts that can improve the lives of people with autism and other disabilities by making it the norm to have sensory-friendly environments in stadiums and arenas, churches and hospitals, among other places that often have large crowds, bright lights and loud noises, etc. But for now, he vows to continue to inspire change with every step he takes along his own autism journey.
“I began my advocacy work because of the many injustices I’ve faced in my life. I want to disprove some of the things people told me I could never do and be a mouthpiece for other people with autism who were told similar things. Just because we learn differently and go about things in a different- way doesn’t make us wrong or less than, it just makes us who we are.”