August 19, 2010- the very day I learned of the results. On my ride to go to the neuropsychiatrist's office, I had a couple conflicting thoughts. On one hand, I wished my hunches were right because it would have explained a lot of my struggles in fieldwork. On the other hand, I didn't want to be right because I would not know how to face my OT peers, as well as accepting the identity of being a differently able individual. Two hours or so later, it was the moment of truth- I indeed do have autism, as I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.
I was relieved for a second. But, that sense of relief turned into sadness really quickly. When I came home, I told what my parents what happened. Then, I quickly went retreated to my room. All I thought about were- how would I tell my classmates that I failed my first level 2 fieldwork, and how would I tell my classmates that I have Asperger's?
A few days later, my second year of occupational therapy school officially began. As I expected, almost every classmates were beaming with joy. But, I was feeling miserable and sad. Because they were too overjoyed of seeing each other, almost all of them didn't realize that I was desperately in need of someone to talk to me. Making matters worse, there wasn't any good spots to tell people privately about what had transpired with me.
Knowing that I need to get the depressed feeling off my chest, I told some of my classmates what had happened to me through Facebook. All the classmates I talked to were shocked of the diagnosis. After all, they all had seen the strides I made socially when I was with them. Moreover, they realized how much fortitude I showed just to attend class with them during the early weeks of our second year of OT school.
At the meantime, I was planning my own recovery, as my parents left me in charge because they felt that I know a lot more about autism than they do. So, I first decided to seek occupational therapy services, which I had been getting prior to the diagnosis through the Lifestyle Redesign for College Students Program at USC. Then, the occupational therapist I was seeing at USC suggested me to go to a social confidence group that was offered by the counseling services also at USC.
Initially, I felt ashamed of the idea of going to a social confidence group. After all, I felt that others in the group might have wondered why an occupational therapy school student would ever be a member of a social confidence group. But knowing that I had to do whatever I can to be a competent OT, I reluctantly accepted the idea eventually. Fortunately, the other participants in the group never judged me. In fact, because I have relatively less anxiety compared to them, where I was at baseline (before I started with the group) actually was a point where these participants wanted to be.
Then, two key things happened proved to be pivotal for my recovery. First, I stumbled upon a song called The Story Song by a former childhood cancer survivor named Paige Armstrong. After listening to that song several times, I realized how lucky I am comparing to a lot of individuals with autism when they first learned the diagnosis. I had some tools to help manage my symptoms (through my OT training). I had a great support system (with my OT classmates and folks at my church). I accomplished a lot (I got to OT school without needing any accommodations). My symptoms are not as severe as others. All that adds up to the fact that I have an opportunity to make a difference for the autism community. So, I started to broaden my horizons in trying to understand the best I could about what individuals with autism are going through, as well as their caregivers.
My second thing that happened to me was during the 2010 AOTA/NBCOT Student Conclave. I happened to have a couple one-on-one conversations with then-Assembly of Student Delegates Steering Committee chairperson, Jaclyn Tarloff, not once, but twice! The first one was before the event started, as we used the time to get to know each other- since we competed against each other for the very position that she was serving. The second one happened because of a gaffe that I made at the airport as I was trying to go back home to LA, which was a long story in itself. As I was waiting for my flight home, I saw Jaclyn walking along the gate as she was waiting for her flight. We ended up chatting for an hour, in which she gave me a pep talk once she learned what I was going through. At the end of the pep talk, she told me that she respected me a lot than when she first knew me. Considering Jaclyn had become one of my OT idols after we got to know each other, it was special for her to say that to me. So, I decided to try to follow what she has been doing since then as a blueprint and adding my own elements.
On my flight home back to LA, I spent a good bit of time to think about making my mark in the OT profession. I then decided to do the following things, which has led me into becoming a starlet in the OT profession.
1. I associated myself with majority of the candidates who were running for the Assembly of Student Delegates steering committee positions in the last two years. I was able to use my previous campaign experiences as a way to connect with them.
2. I began to share my "new found" perspective via OTConnections. Dr. Clark (current AOTA president) has taken notice of what I did and named me as one of the vibrant pixels in the OT profession in the 2011 Spring edition of the USC Alumni Magazine, as well as constantly putting me on the top of the occupational therapy social scene at the occupational therapy conferences I have been to since I was diagnosed.
3. After learning that Jaclyn would be doing her share of OT conference presentations, I decided to challenge myself to start doing some, too! As I attempted to do these presentations, Dr. Clark also took notice, as she knew it probably took a lot of guts on my part to even try something like this, which was true.
Behind the glory, however, I was miles from where I wanted to be. So, I signed up for not one, but two independent "bridge courses" where I could get my feet wet in trying to rebuild my clinical skills. These "bridge courses" were designed for students who felt they needed additional seasoning before they go on their level 2 fieldwork assignments.
Although I have demonstrated good knowledge, anxiety still overwhelmed me when I was trying to lead treatments on my own. Even though I expected the anxieties to happen, I knew that the anxiety episodes had to be under control when I resumed trying level 2 fieldwork again. Towards the end of my second "bridge course", I decided to try anti-anxiety medications out of the urge of a Facebook friend whom I have never met but I happened to know her vicar. She has dyslexia and ADD.
Coming from a family that resists medication, I initially didn't like the idea of being medicated. But, considering what was at stake, I reluctantly to give medications a try. So, the psychologist at USC who gave me the screening for autism prescribed me Lorazepam towards the last 3 weeks of my second "bridge course", since I would only be at the clinical setting 2 days a week for no more than 8-10 hours total. I noticed some subtle improvements. Then, I got a prescription for Lexapro because I would be at the clinical settings for longer period of time and at a more consistent basis.
After getting used to the effects of Lexapro for the first 4 weeks, I have seen my performance at the clinic improved as my anxiety have dramatically reduced. Although I still showed signs of impulsivity and anxiety at times, it was night and day comparing to me from almost two years ago. Now, I am proud of the recovery I have made in almost two years since my diagnosis. Sure, part of the reason for my wonderful transformation was that I started in a better position than a lot of individuals with autism. But, without the hard work that I put in, the support I have received, and the fact that I tried to understand myself holistically, this transformation wouldn't have happened.
Sure, people may argue that I started in a much better position than a lot of individuals with autism. But, without the hard work I put in, the support I have received, and my efforts to try to understand myself holistically, this "beautiful transformation" wouldn't have been as great as it is.