By Adria Nassim
Recently, I heard a conversation in which someone said 2008 was fifteen years ago. In the fall of 2008, I had just moved to Bloomington where I started college at Indiana University. At that time, I also enrolled in a program for college age students with autism and learning disabilities which helps them to develop independent living, academic, social, and vocational development skills. The 3.5 years I spent in the program helped me gain the skills I needed to live an independent and fulfilling life. In addition, I have a very supportive family who were very involved in my care from an early age and who planned for my independence starting when I was young.
It’s really cool for me to stop and think that I’ve been living independently for 15 years now. In recognition of this anniversary, here are five things I’ve learned through this process. The following are listed in no specific order:
Self-advocacy skills are important in relationships: When I was younger, I would ask teachers and sitters for help with certain tasks from a young age but coming to Bloomington was the first real opportunity I had to experience reciprocal friendship. Being able to explain to my peers what my different diagnoses were, how they affected me, and why I might need assistance with certain tasks gave me a lot of confidence. And in the long run, my doing so brought us closer and made them want to get to know me more.
Self-acceptance takes time: This took a long time and a lot of support from family and mental health professionals to learn to accept my diagnosis as it is. Sometimes, there are still hard days, but overall, I am doing much better than in my adolescent years. I finally accepted that in some ways, my life will be similar to that of my friends. However, in other ways, it will be quite different, but it can still be a good life.
Independence doesn’t happen alone, but together: Being able to live away from my parents and have my own place is awesome, but it takes a team of people in order to make it possible for me to live the life I want. I have also had to accept them and be willing to let them into my life. Most of these people are IU students. Many are interested in fields such as medicine, social work, psychology, education, and others that involve direct interaction with individuals with developmental disabilities. They usually work around four to eight hours a week total in the evenings and may assist with tasks such as making dinner, shopping, running errands, or taking Thomas for a walk. We might also do social activities such as attend an event on campus, go to a movie or a basketball game.
Being able to safely navigate my community changed my world: One of the biggest accomplishments that helped to open up my world was learning how to navigate Bloomington. The program staff figured out that although I have terrible difficulty making sense of spatial concepts such as directions and how close or far away something is, I can read. They taught me the names of the streets and what sorts of physical landmarks were around or on each street. Slowly, after months of repeated exposure, I began to memorize the landscape, and thus, I began to navigate a city for the first time.
Individualized supports can make a big difference: When it comes to providing support, what works for one person may not work for the next. An individualized support that works for me was the addition of Lucy, my former service dog. She helped me increase my independence and confidence. Lucy is trained in navigational assistance and can find the way home on cue while providing balance and stability when I’m walking. Lucy allowed me to be able to cross the street safely for the first time without another adult. With her along for the ride, I had my first taste real freedom.
There are also other supports that help me be successful including direct support providers, applied behavior therapy, and clinical psychotherapy. These, along with a service dog, have made a big difference in helping me live my best life. *Note: Thomas, Lucy’s successor, was hired onto Team Adria in the fall of 2021.
I chose these five areas to focus on because they have been particularly important in my development and movement toward more confidence and independence and claiming a place in my community in young adulthood. In many ways, these areas of focus have helped me continue to challenge myself to meet my potential and do things that my parents never thought I would.