Haley Moss is an artist, author, and autism advocate attending law school at the University of Miami. Her work is nationally recognized, and she is the author of “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About” and “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.” This week she shared how she grew up with a positive autistic identity and offered suggestions of ways parents and family can improve autism acceptance and advocate for their loved ones on the spectrum.
You’ve said that you had a positive experience growing up on the spectrum, in part due to your mother’s explanation of how she compared you to Harry Potter, and how different isn’t bad and that different could be extraordinary. In what ways did you notice you were different growing up? In what ways were you extraordinary?
I never really thought I was “different” or a “weird kid.” I thought I was cool and everyone else was different. I always had really high self-esteem thanks to my parents. I always believed I was the cool kid and everyone else was the weird kid at school, so quite the opposite experience of many of my autistic peers. I guess I knew sometimes my interests didn’t align with girls my age – I got along better with the boys. And I really loved art and had an extraordinary memory. Otherwise…I was very happy and kind of beat to my own drum.
What inspires your art? How do you hope your art inspires others?
Everything. I just hope my art makes other people smile. I try to make other people’s days better with art. It gives me the power to relax and forget a stressful day and escape into a world of my own. Other people relate to it and love the colors and whatnot, so as long as I am able to make someone happy, it is inspiring and awesome to do art. I also try to give and donate a lot to nonprofits and have art that gives back.
You’ve written several books and articles on autism. Can you describe the publication process? What were the most difficult and most rewarding parts of the publication process?
The publication process is interesting. There is a LOT of editing, no matter what you’re writing. The writing is the easy part since it just flows, and I am able to articulate my thoughts however I want, unlike talking since I can go back. But there are a lot of editing stages in writing books and even articles. The most rewarding part is knowing my books have made differences for others on the spectrum and their families. Also, I cried both times I got my books in print for the very first time. It makes everything feel real. No better way to explain it, really.
You’re attending law school now. Any plans for how you’d like to use your degree?
To be a lawyer! I went to law school to help others like me. I am so blessed to be there. That it’s possible. I’m graduating in May. I hope to help create more access to justice for people with disabilities with my law degree, in whatever form that takes in my life – whether it is through policy work, or actually being a lawyer. It is such a privilege to go to law school and have the opportunity to make change and help make people’s lives better, so that’s what I hope to do in the end: give back.
How can parents (or other family) help prepare their autistic children for college (and support them during this time)?
Be supportive, number one. Listen to what your child wants. If they are more comfortable with a smaller setting or a specific program, encourage them to pursue it. I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were – so did my parents. We took advantage of that during the application processes and deciding where I ultimately went to college. I also think teaching independent living skills is probably the most important and underrated preparation necessary for college and beyond – I am still learning things! I can probably tell tons of stories about mishaps in “adulting” and being on my own. So knowing what to do in emergencies, money management, laundry…things like that. It goes a long way. Stuff they don’t teach in school. In school they teach academics but at home, parents can teach life. School can teach you calculus, but not how to calculate a budget; for instance. If you took home economics at school, they don’t teach you how to fold laundry. So things like that.
What are some specific examples of positive ways parents can be autism advocates?
To listen to autistic advocates and work alongside them. To understand the legitimacy of our experiences and concerns. This should not be an “us vs. them” in terms of parents. A lot of parents and autistic advocates I think see it this way, but I don’t think that’s how it should be. Parents should respect their children’s wishes when advocating as well as the autistic person’s dignity. There are some things – no matter who the child is – that should remain private. Unless of course, you are okay with it not being private. So much of what is negative about parents as advocates stems from ignoring autistic people and discrediting their experiences – at the end of the day, we are the experts. We live autism 24/7. We are autistic. We have answers in places parents sometimes speculate.
What mistakes do you see neurotypical autism advocates make?
Not listening to autistic advocates and their experiences. Not reading our writing. Not listening to what we have to say and thinking we’re on totally different teams and planets. Writing and talking about personal things regarding us without consent, or that would be egregious if you talked about a neurotypical person in that manner. Listening to autistic people goes such a long way!
In what ways can the general public act to improve autism acceptance at the local level?
Listen to autistic advocates, first. Get to know people on the spectrum, hear their stories, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns. Do sensory-friendly events. Be understanding if something is too much or not otherwise “possible.” Do not discount what we can do. Be accommodating and accepting! Run a marathon and raise money. Volunteer at a nonprofit. Befriend an autistic person. Help us be gainfully employed in your community. There’s so many places to start and there’s so much to be done even at the local level. Not everything is about policy.
Interested in seeing more of Haley’s work? Check out her website: http://haleymossart.com/