I am a psychologist and clinical director of an autism program here at Rush. Several of my closest friends are also clinicians who specialize in autism. We all took different paths to our careers. Johanna, a child psychologist, worked as a behavior therapist for years and discovered she had a knack for both behavioral psychology and for working with children with autism. Kara was a special education teacher whose practice slowly shifted over the years until she was completely specialized in autism. She now holds a doctorate in special education and does important work on transition and independence people with autism spectrum disorder.
My route was a little different. I grew up with a family member with autism. My cousin Wilson is a few years younger than I am. We were raised almost like siblings, seeing each other several times per week while growing up. Wilson’s autism is not conspicuous. As a child, his parents and teachers knew something was different because he was late to talk and had some quirks, but they did not know exactly why or how he was different.
As a young child, Wilson enjoyed acting out the dramatic scenes that were shown between wrestling matches on his favorite show, WWF. He loved french fries, to the extent that he ate fast food even when the rest of us had pizza, but ate them only after lining them up according to size and discarding any irregular ones. He loved game shows and led me and our other cousins in games of Jeopardy and Remote Control, pulling off perfect impersonations of the hosts.
In 2013, with our more sophisticated understanding of the signs of autism spectrum disorder and enhanced diagnostic criteria, most clinicians would easily recognize Wilson’s autism. Over 20 years ago, however, as he was growing up, the professionals who were supposed to help were rather clueless. School personnel were not equipped to handle the social challenges and behavior problems that sprung up.
Wilson is now in his 30s and has lived independently and held a full-time job for several years. I have been Wilson’s go-to friend and consultant since before I was specialized in psychology and autism; it’s just the way we grew up. It’s a role that came easily and naturally. There are therapies and experiences I wish he had when he was a child, but, overall, he is doing exceptionally well.
While the cases I see on a daily basis are not exactly like Wilson and (in fact, many have very little in common), my personal experience with autism helps me to keep the entire lifespan in mind. This means that even when I assess a toddler I think of the adult that child will become and plan accordingly. For Wilson, the adult he became is one who still loves french fries and wrestling but has also developed into an adventurous eater and explorer of all Chicago has to offer him.
Without Wilson, I may still have become a psychologist. I can’t imagine I would have found my way into autism, though. I am extremely grateful that he helped me find such an interesting and rewarding group of people to whom I dedicate my career.
Rachel Loftin, PhD, is clinical director of the Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services (AARTS) Center at Rush.