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The Culmination of My Transition to High School

Recently, I took part in two events that pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I think truly represent the culmination of my transition to High School.

On May 6th, I took a huge step when I spoke to my whole school about my experience being Autistic. A year ago – even a few months ago – I would have flat-out said no to such an idea. But when I realized that many people in my school did not understand what it means to be Autistic, I changed my mind.

Of course, when my school invited me to participate with an Autistic adult in presenting to our school, I still had reservations. I had previously spoken at a number of schools and synagogues, and I was happy with the conversations we had. But this was my school. Not only was I nervous about the presentation, but I was also nervous because Matan planned to videotape the event. As the date got closer, I became more comfortable. Still, it was important to me that we keep my involvement in the presentation unknown to my fellow students. I felt really strongly about keeping my participation a secret because the goal of the program was to demonstrate that  anyone could be Autistic, and we need to treat everyone with dignity.

I believe my peers understood the message; I think that after the program ended, fellow students walked away with a new mindset. I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. We had many kids who were interested in the topic and wanted to learn more about me, and Autism in general. One of the best things you can do to support and include an Autistic person is to ask them what is easy and what is difficult for them. Everyone on the spectrum is different, and I encouraged my peers to remember that.

Many teachers and administrators at my school attended  the program, which I also believe was important. It is clear they also learned a lot about me and Autism in general. Teaching teachers about Autism is really important. One of the hardest parts of being Autistic is navigating our school system to get extra accommodations for assignments or assistance when we need to collaborate with others. For example, group projects may be fun for many students, but I experience an additional layer of stress due to the social aspect. Over the course of this year, I have grown more comfortable educating my teachers about what is difficult for me. Likewise, it is important for each of them to consider what might be difficult for others and how to approach conversations with students who may need some extra help or support.

The second thing I did that forced me outside of my comfort zone recently was prepare for and attend the Annual Matan event. This was my first time going to one of these events and I was nervous, especially since I was being honored with my fellow teen bloggers. Matan staff members and I came up with many ways for me to prepare.

First, understanding that I, like many Autistic people, like to know in advance what to expect from a situation, Matan sent me the Event Program and an early draft of the video. This allowed me to know in advance what was going to happen during the event, and what the video (in which I and the other teen bloggers were interviewed) would cover. I and many other Autistic people enjoy knowing what to expect and like everything happening on schedule. Secondly, I decided to take off school in the afternoon so I could mentally and physically prepare for the event. For me, it takes a lot of time to transition from one environment to another, and so with high-stress situations like these, I need time to decompress.

In terms of some other related challenges, I applied some of the skills I developed over the past year to find solutions. First, there were my clothes. I am hypersensitive to textures. Some can make me concentrate and feel relaxed, while others can distract me. My mother and I went shopping and specifically looked for pants and shirts that would make me feel comfortable. My new shoes were another story, so I had to work all night to try to ignore the pain in my left foot. Another thing that was challenging was some last-minute changes and delays because of inclement weather. Many Autistic people have a hard time with flexibility/adapting to changes, and if I was in this situation a year ago, I probably would have had a panic attack. But over the past year, I have worked on keeping my emotions more in check and I was able to stay calm.

As I wrap up my Freshman year of High School, I realize that my journey is only beginning. Over the past 9 months, I have learned how to socialize and spend time with classmates, and I have had an easier time harnessing my emotions and controlling my panic attacks. I have also learned how to teach others about what is difficult and easy for me as an Autistic person. I am excited to do more to educate students, educators and other members of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

This summer, I will be going on Etgar 36, a cross-country trip with a focus on politics and policy. When I return, I plan to launch my own website where I will share my thoughts and experiences as an Autistic Jew. I will also be using this website to plan and coordinate speaking opportunities at synagogues, camps, schools and other community organizations. I am excited about this next chapter!

If you are interested in me speaking at your organization or community, reach me at rafijos@icloud.com.

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