My autism has meant that I’ve been surrounded by therapists for most of my life. As it so happens, the field of school education, counseling and therapy is often dominated by women.
Thursday is International Women’s Day, so this column is a tribute to the amazing women in my life — especially one who literally turned my life around.
Up until middle school, I was going nowhere and learning nothing. I was nonverbal and had no means to communicate. I was in a series of short-lived special education classrooms — teacher after teacher was eager to hand off the “difficult” autistic kid.
I first met Janna Woods, with her purple hair and pink pants, when I was 13. It was chance when my parents attended a seminar and met Tyler Fihe, who was, at the time, a college-going and nonverbal autistic typer. Janna had been his therapist and, after meeting my parents, she came to work with me.
Janna changed my life by teaching me to type and, as a result, communicate. She loosened that first brick in my Berlin Wall of Silence, and she helped the world see the person inside.
As brick after brick was dismantled with one slow letter after another, thoughts poured out of me. I was able to have deep conversations with others for the first time in my life. I remember once telling Janna that typing had taken me from “personless” to “personhood,” and she replied that that was because communication is foundational.
Janna encouraged me to do creative writing. She believed in me and my potential with a confidence that even I had ceased to have. She became my Angel Janna.
With communication, I was able to enter the world of mainstream education. Janna trained other therapists to work with me and took me to weekly cognitive behavior therapy sessions to help me manage my emotions and anxieties.
Janna gave me my first job: taking care of her huge dog when she went on vacation. I was thrilled that someone would actually entrust me with such responsibility and pay me for it as well.
She had insisted, even back then, that college was a definite possibility for me. Janna, you would be so proud to see me at UC Berkeley today.
Unfortunately, Janna joined the angels above after fighting cancer two years back. She was too young to die. Janna helped many kids like me that the world had given up on by giving us a voice.
We can’t underestimate what the women in our lives do for us — especially if they are not family members, with no vested interest. I’ve been fortunate to meet a few wonderful women who have given me an unexpected leg up or helped guide me along the unclear path of my autism journey. They have shown me compassion and empathy. They advocated for me, which a differently abled individual such as myself sorely needed. Most importantly, they have had faith in me. I am amazed and grateful. Janna was just the beginning.
Cherie Azodi was the behavior therapist behind the dozen phrases that I am able to verbalize today — she would insist on having a conversation with me even if the phrases were rote. She did more than any speech therapist I’ve had ever managed.
Cindy Riley first noticed me in a park as a toddler and brought her three kids over to my home every week for over eight years so that this young, autistic only child could socialize with his peers.
Viji Dilip is the founder of Access Braille, a nonprofit that supports literacy access for the visually challenged. She showed up out of the blue and made me the editor of a Braille periodical, which accompanies free Braille teaching kits distributed in many countries in Africa and Asia. Madhu Krishnan is a co-founder of Inclusive World, a nonprofit that provides training and volunteer opportunities for the differently abled population. These two women sent many interesting internships and projects my way. They made me feel that I too was a contributing member of society.
The college counselors from the Disabled Students’ Program are the enablers of my path to higher education. Their open attitude and faith is a wondrous and refreshing change from the days of my district’s special education teachers.
All these women chose to believe in the possibility of individuals like me. All these women helped me build confidence and contribute to making the individual I am today. I want you to know that I truly appreciate and admire you, and I look forward to meeting many more such amazing women in my life.