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Have you ever thought of the importance of early intervention and optimism when diagnosing autism? Here is my journey as a person with autism.
When I was three and a half years old, I was diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability. The doctor said that I would not be able to talk and he focused much on my deficits, which left my family hopeless. I choose not to name this doctor. Oftentimes doctors and professionals are more focused on what individuals with autism and other disabilities could not do, instead of focusing on what they can do.
Later that year, in December 1993, Jane Roberts, a school psychologist at Meadow Park Elementary School in South Florida, evaluated me, and she was more optimistic about my diagnosis and my possible future. Although she confirmed my disabilities, she also encouraged my family to be hopeful and to remain optimistic, and that made a lot of difference to me and my family. She was honest yet she gave us hope to move forward.
Having family and optimistic people in my life that believed in me and believed in inclusion helped me, so I could go far.
While I was in the 5th grade, I was a safety patrol at Forest Hill Elementary School in South Florida. A big tradition for the safety patrols in all parts of Florida would be to go on a train trip to Washington, DC for a couple of days. This would be the first trip away from the parents for many of the students. This was in February 2001. I really wanted to go and my mom was supportive, but at first the school was not going to let me go due to my disability and fear that I would not benefit from the trip. After some negotiations, I was able to go with my friends and one of my teachers in Exceptional Student Education went on the trip as a chaperone.
As a middle school student, I was part of the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches youth group, where I was welcomed and fully included and treated by all of the people really well. I was even elected to be the Homecoming King by the members of the youth group. At the age of 17, I started volunteering at the Durham VA Medical Center and worked one year in the canteen wiping tables before I moved into working in the Community Living Center, assisting the staff with the phones, computers, and other general administrative duties.
In February 2012, my mom was doing research on college options for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be included and be part of a college campus. There were people who were really supportive of me going to a college five hours away, and some people were not. In 2012, there were not many options for students with disabilities to go to college, until my mom and I attended the Western Carolina University (WCU) Participants Program and we realized that going to college for a student with a disability like me was a possibility. And it happened! On June 15, 2012 when I found out that I would finally be able to go to college.
As soon as I came to Western Carolina University I became more self-confident and proved pretty quickly that I was independent. During my last year, I started hanging out with the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity and became an official brother. The members challenged their alumni board and nationals to change their bylaws by making them more inclusive to possible members with disabilities. In my case, my grades could not qualify for a membership, but due to the modifications, I made it as an official member of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity. I graduated from the 2 year program at Western Carolina University in 2014.
The members challenged their alumni board and nationals to change their bylaws by making them more inclusive to possible members with disabilities.
A year after I graduated, I was given an opportunity to become a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, one of the best universities in the country and in the world. I was part of the Leadership Education, an interdisciplinary leadership program for graduate students in the allied health care professions involving self-advocates, in Neuro-Developmental Disabilities and Related Disorders at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, a well-known research center and clinic. All my friends and family were really supportive when they heard I got in.
When I was three and half years old, I was in early intervention at Seminole Trails Elementary School in South Florida. It really benefited me getting services and speech therapy at a young age. Part of what my mom did that really helped is that she refused to accept that I would never talk or learn. Including me with my peers without disabilities and going to loud crowded places really made me stronger. Including me in my IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) meetings at a young age and being able to express my wants and needs really helped prepare me to become a better self-advocate, a public speaker with autism.
Part of what my mom did that really helped is that she refused to accept that I would never talk or learn.
Many years later, when I started college, I met teachers and camp counselors who were really optimistic and who really believed in inclusion. With their support, I improved my communication skills and learnt to speak slowly. I have networked with people and planned my own power-point presentations. And through an old neighbor, I was interviewed on a radio show by my friend Lyn Browder. I have even networked with some international advocates and professionals. Having people proof read presentations or an article is helpful in my journey as a public speaker. People who know me have also recommended me for speaking at schools and conferences.
While doing public speaking, I have done my own power-point presentations with minimal help in preparing the slides. When I was doing my first couple of conferences, I did talk too fast and it was hard to understand me. I also realized that I could go beyond the power-point and that the words were up there for the audience to read. These have been important learning experiences, and I have now learned to master my presentations, slowing down my speeches and going beyond power-point slides.Something really wonderful about the natural support system through the UP Program is that the supports were more than supports; they were college students on the campus and they became my good friends.
While I was at the beginning of my senior year at WCU, I competed against graduate students to win a student travel scholarship where I ended up being successful. I was asked to express my thoughts on diversity and competency for research and evaluation. I made a presentation about social inclusion on a college campus and how to make the campus more inclusive, from my experiences as a student with a disability.
In November 2013, I had my first article published on The AEA360 about photo voice. After graduating from WCU, I have spoken to many high school students who receive special education services about my college experience and how it is a possibility for higher education. The teachers were happy to realize that these students have a lot of potentials. I have also done advocacy training for students who receive special education services and have spoken to students without disabilities about acceptance and inclusion.
After Thanksgiving in 2014, my mom and I went up with TASH, an advocacy organization for social inclusion and justice, for Capitol Hill day in Washington DC. While I was there, I got to meet with Congressman George Holding to talk about the Able Act and keeping children’s Safe Act in schools. Later that night on CSPAN George talked about me and the UP Program.
At all of my public speaking engagements, I aim to encourage and empower parents, professionals and individuals with disabilities. Public speaking, writing articles, and photography have been powerful resources I have used to advocate and voice the changes that need to be made. My goal, today, is to travel in the United States and internationally, and do international advocacy work abroad.
Families and the whole community need to know that while people with intellectual and developmental disabilities face several challenges, it does not mean that they do not have the capacity to deal with them effectively. Being optimistic, improving communication and social skills, putting words on objects, and the exposure to the real world can really help with personal development and self-determination. Service agencies and schools should never close the doors to families or students with disabilities and remember self-contained settings have no benefits to help students grow.
The following quote by Drew Barrymore has been my inspiration for moving forward:
I don’t just want to sit around and hope amazing things will happen. I want to make them happen and be in control of my own destiny.
I would like all the doctors and professionals who doubted me to know that I am now a public speaker and am currently writing my first book. My mom was told I would never talk and not to expect anything great from me, but she refused to believe it, and rather looked for ways to support me, as she believed I had potential. She was right.
As I said earlier, inclusion has really benefited me and it will bring acceptance and not silence anyone with a disability. I have contacted the doctor who said I would never talk; he is yet to respond to me and I hope he will understand the power of giving hope, focusing on positives than negatives.
By Kenneth Kelty with assistance from Dr. Seb Prohn, VCU Center on Transition Innovations
Kenneth Kelty was born and raised in South Florida and is currently a part time administrative assistant at the arc of the triangle in Raleigh NC. Kenneth is a motivational public speaker on his experience with autism and social inclusion on a college campus. He loves traveling and would love to do international advocacy work for social inclusion on a college campus. When Kenneth was three and a half years old he was diagnosed with autism and told he would never talk, but has pushed his limits ever since.