I, Too, Am the American Dream: Innovating and Advocating for Students with Developmental Differences

My heart sank. “I’m moving schools,” my friend said. “I can’t get the help I need here.” She had autism and needed support, but living in a small town and attending a small, low-funded school meant getting affordable support was not possible. It wasn’t fair and I was confused: why wasn’t anyone doing anything to help individuals with autism get the assistance they need? That night, I spent hours researching and learned  how difficult it is to obtain resources for not only students in small towns, but everywhere. I wanted to take action, so the next day I went to my friends to tell them about my revolutionary idea: we can create a solution using technology. They all laughed in my face: “what makes you think you can do it” and “no one will listen to you.”  I questioned myself. What makes me think I can do it? I was a fourteen year old girl of color from a town that people living in my state wouldn’t even know of. But, these thoughts weren’t enough to discourage me; I had to try. I sent emails to local universities asking if  I could work in their labs that help individuals with disabilities. My inbox was barren, except for a few responses saying no. Three weeks after I sent my emails, I noticed one more. “Yes. We are looking for student interns.” Over the course of a year, my organized bedroom became a home research lab cluttered with prototype drawings of different aids and piles of research papers. I quickly discovered that finding a solution was going to be harder than drawing a prototype on my bedroom wall, but I could do it.

Before stepping on campus, I thought I had an easy solution: create a game to teach students with autism social-emotional skills. But as I read my first academic journal on assistive socio-technical solutions, one of my first realizations was that not all individuals with autism are like my friend. They interact differently depending on where they are on the spectrum. I also learned that access to resources and contact with others at a young age determines how much individuals with autism trust people as adults. I experienced this firsthand when I asked my friend with autism to try my aid. She wore it with no hesitation, so I assumed that all individuals would be eager participants. But during user testing, one person refused to wear the aid and it took weeks to establish trust.

After user testing, I realized that it isn’t enough to simply create an aid: innovators must be advocates as well. My research illustrated how crucial early intervention is for not just people with autism, but all individuals with developmental differences, but few school districts are aware of this need. I have dedicated the past year to raising awareness about the lack of resources for students with developmental differences. My first step was advocating to my local community. As president of my school’s Interact club, I partnered with the Rotary Club of Scotts Valley and spoke to Rotarians about how crucial it is to provide early intervention. My next step was to provide learning centers with aids to teach social-emotional skills. Partnering with multiple organizations that focus on different skills to assist individuals with developmental differences allowed me to provide specialized resources for learning facilities. Working with these organizations taught me that turning my aid into a nonprofit could help reach a larger audience. So, I joined Girls With Impact, a group of six-hundred girls who use business to create change. After presenting my work, the CEO asked me to speak on her LinkedIn live show about the issues that individuals with developmental differences face as well as other societal problems in our world today.

Working with individuals with developmental differences made me aware that fairness is much more complicated than what meets the eye. At fourteen, I thought I could fix the unfairness that my friend with autism experienced with an aid, but that is not enough. We need to take action to make a difference. As a society, we see global issues occurring and we think the solution is as simple as reposting a social media post, but it isn’t. From the women’s rights movement to the crisis in Lebanon, as issues are no longer front page news, we disengage and forget about the need to stay active. I don’t want to be the person who just draws prototypes on my bedroom wall: I want to innovate and advocate.

I would’ve never realized the complexity of disparities in our world, especially for individuals with developmental differences, if I listened to my friends. My friends answered honestly; they truly believed that a fourteen year old girl cannot solve a societal problem. Society tells us this and doubts the youth’s abilities. I wanted to solve a societal problem using technology, a male-dominated field. As much as society likes to believe that we are working towards filling the gender gap, it is still prevalent. A year after I proposed my idea to my friends, one of the boys in my class told them about an idea using tech. Not a single person laughed. No one told him to give up. Instead, they praised him. My dream is that we can live in a society where students and youth are encouraged. The color of my skin, the fact that I am a first generation American, or that I am a girl should not matter. My parents emigrated to American to give me opportunities they didn’t have; everyone wants their children to have opportunities because one of these opportunities can change the world. I hope that one day a young girl of color with an idea is praised and supported because she may be the one to change the world.

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