Guest Post by Diah Askari, BCBA: “Who am I?” A seemingly simple question, requiring a simple answer. My name is Diah Askari; I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with my family and lived a comfortable childhood with a loving family. We had our struggles, but who does not? As I grew, so did my curiosity. I began to seek knowledge and independence. In order to satiate my growing desires I decided to venture away from home to attend Kent State University for my undergraduate studies.
Faster than I can remember, I was weeks from graduation and this seemingly simple question suddenly became more complex. Against futile protests from my classmates and I, we were given a final assignment—a reflection paper of sorts. After countless hours of determined procrastination, I reluctantly came to terms with the concept of time, due-dates, and the necessity of sleep, and I began to write. The premise of this paper was the question that my grandfather once told me that I needed to ask myself; the same question as in this very post: “Who am I?”
At the end of this arduous and enlightening task of self-discover, I recognized that the answer to this question was, is, and will always be a fluid one. The realization that at no point in my life I will be required to submit a final self-reflection paper etching my life, deeds, trials, and tribulations in stone, was both comforting and disconcerting. With reckless, eager enthusiasm to continue my journey, I moved to South Florida to attend graduate school, and it was here that I discovered my true calling.
Before I continue, there is something I must explain. The plan to move to Florida is probably somewhere around the top of my ill-prepared-plans list, in that I knew I wanted to continue my education, but the continuation bit is as about as far as I had gotten. The one underlying focus of my future endeavors was that I wanted to work with children. It is difficult to explain exactly why or how I had come to this resolution, but, there it is; the one essential factor that led my hapless feet in the direction I had never once thought to wander.
Wandering, stumbling, chancing upon, are all great metaphors for my actual transit to my current career path: clicking on a craigslist add. Yes, I, a broke graduate student looking for a means to get by happened to find an advertisement that led to where I am today (poetic, I know). While looking for a job, I found an opportunity. This opportunity did not pay well, but it did offer something else; it offered a means to satisfy both my desire to learn and work with children. But most of all, it intrigued me. My ever-growing curiosity was presented a chance to discover a new world: The wonderful, dynamic, unique, trying, and, more than I can ever explain, enlightening world that is Autism.
I must admit, before this time, my understanding of Autism was rudimentary at best. I (as the common masses were/are) was largely misguided, ignorant, and unaware of the true nature of Autism. Almost as soon as I began working with these amazing children, this ignorance soon was replaced by thorough understanding. The first fact that I discovered is that these children are not different any more than all children are different. Every child in the universe became a unique child with their own wants, needs, weaknesses, and strengths. I began to view autism not as a disability, but rather an individual child’s own unique perspective on the world. This once happened upon job, became less of a job, and more of a passion.
It took all of about one solid month for me to realize that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Soon thereafter, my once ill-planned continuing education track became earning a Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (which I have since earned and become certified). For those who are unaware of what Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is, to sum it up, it is a science. ABA is to human behavior as physics explains the laws of gravity, how chemistry explicates the interactions and properties of elements, and how biology and physiology explain the mechanics of the body. Behavior suddenly become less of random collections of events based on theoretical constructs, and more of observable, quantifiable, and rational processes that serve a function based on our environmental conditioning history. We are objective, data-driven, and empirically based scientists who apply our knowledge to make changes of social significance.
In case I have not made it entirely evident as of yet, I am whole-heartedly passionate about what I do. I could write a thousand pages to describe the relationship between ABA and Autism, but somehow I feel as if I would fall woefully short of the mark. Try to think of a time in your life where a task was difficult beyond frustration, but then you apply a slight change in approach, and suddenly the unachievable becomes unexpectedly and overwhelmingly feasible. That is how I feel about the impact of ABA on autism. These children sometimes miss a step in development, communication, or understanding. ABA allows us to assess each child, retrace their learning history and teach the child in the way that they understand. We give them a means to progress, to succeed, and to accomplish what others might have deemed improbable, while we have always known that they were fully-capable.
We now come full circle, and I once again ask myself: Who am I? I think at this point in my life, it is less about who I am, and more so who I can help others become. Anyone who holds a child with autism, or any child for that matter, close knows that every child deserves a chance to reach their full potential. It may not always be easy, and some of our roads may be more difficult than others, but there is something so refreshingly honest, genuine, and innocent about the nature of children, that warrants nothing but all the love and good fortune this world has to offer.