How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger’s Kindness

Russell Lehmann (left) and David Apkarian at their StoryCorps interview in Reno, Nev.

Courtesy of StoryCorps

Air travel can be a stressful experience for all of us. But for Russell Lehmann, who has autism, a flight delay or cancellation isn't just a small inconvenience. Unexpected changes can cause him to have panic attacks — or worse.

That's what happened when Russell was trying to catch a flight from Reno, Nev., to Cincinnati in June that got delayed.

"I remember sitting in the same exact spot for seven hours crying and not one person approached me. Not one person made eye contact with me," Russell, 29, says in a StoryCorps conversation. "The next day, once again, my flight was delayed, and that's when I found an empty ticket counter. I sat behind it and I started sweating bullets, rocking back and forth, hyperventilating. I hadn't had an episode like that probably since I was like 11."

That's when David Apkarian, an airline employee, walked up.

"You were sitting on the floor, and you looked really upset. Do you remember what I first said?" David, 49, tells Russell at StoryCorps.

"I don't remember a whole lot, 'cause for me, in the midst of a meltdown, my brain literally feels like it's on fire, with a vise grip around it, just getting tighter and tighter," Russell says. "I have a hard time comprehending the simplest sentences. I just feel like I'm on a planet all by myself."

Then David crouched beside him and asked him what was going on, he says, meant the world. "I didn't feel as fragile. I had someone on my team," he says.

David says he let the crew know Russell was uneasy about getting on the flight, and he brought the captain over to him in hopes of giving him a boost of confidence.

"That's when I made up my mind, 'Yeah, I'm getting on this plane,' " Russell says. "You walked me onto the flight. I was able to board before anybody else to get situated and just kind of have some peace."

Russell asks David if he wondered what happened to him after he boarded.

"It's actually funny you should ask that. You know, I have access to our computer system at home, and I followed you," he says. "I saw that second flight did have a little bit of a delay, but it showed that you had stayed on board and got through. I was very happy about that."

"You didn't really know much about autism that day in the airport, but you connected on a human level," Russell says.

And that, he tells David, changed his life.

"Knowing that since this was such a difficult meltdown — and one of the worst I've ever had — that since I got through that, I can pretty much get through anything," he says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

How Finding Poetry Helped Me Cope with My Autism Diagnosis

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Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.           
When speaker, poet, and advocate, Russell Lehmann, was 12 years old, he spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital, plagued with troubling symptoms like crippling anxiety and such sensitivity to sounds that he was nearly nonverbal. Even after his prolonged hospital stay, doctors remained puzzled and he was discharged without a diagnosis.Later that year however, he was diagnosed with autism, a life-long neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s social skills, communication, and behavior.

Living with autism rattles your social and emotional world and Lehmann has spent much of his adult life learning how to navigate these challenges.

“People living with autism often struggle with anxiety and depression. For me, they’re intertwined. Some days, it’s difficult to get out of bed,” says Lehmann.

He also struggles with OCD and severe depression. “In 2012, I didn’t shower, leave my bedroom, or change my clothes for 56 straight days. After those 56 straight days, I took one step outside of my bedroom, and I went back inside,” he tells Healthline. But by the end of the week, he made it to the end of the hall, and has continued to persevere.

Instead of letting his disorder control him, Lehmann uses his creativity to cope with these emotional difficulties. In 2011, he wrote his first book, “Inside Out: Stories and Poems from an Autistic Mind,” which won a literary award at the 2013 International Autistic People’s Awards in Vancouver, Canada.

Lehmann's second book came out in 2019.

“I’m a very philosophical person. When I met all of these struggles, I found it my moral obligation to live the life I want to live and not to let my disability control my actions,” he says.

My mom has always had my back. She fought for me when I was too weak to fight for myself.

Despite his optimistic outlook, living with autism can be a lonely world. In fact, for the first 22 years of Lehmann’s life, he felt utterly alone. “I can’t tell you how agonizing it was,” he says.

But two years ago, Lehmann pushed through his loneliness and gave his first speech. “I was a social recluse. I just wanted to be known and to let others know that it’s okay to let your feelings show,” he says.

Now, through his speeches, poetry, and writing, Lehmann turns his struggles into wisdom, spreading hope to those facing similar challenges. While public speaking is a newer endeavor, he began writing poetry in high school. “In high school, I wrote a poem about a hurricane. It was one of the first times when I felt proud of something I did,” he says.

For Lehmann, poetry is a form of therapy that allows him to write down his feelings and visually process them by reading his words. “When I read a poem out loud, it adds a third dimension, allowing me to dissect and process my emotions. It reminds me that vulnerability can make us stronger,” he explains.

Lehmann is sharing his prose with you in a new poem about perseverance and how pushing through difficult times can make us stronger:

  • You wake up, wishing to stay in bed
  • Your head is clouded, you dread the day ahead
  • Yet you still shed the bedspread, all the while wanting to be dead
  • You get up! You fight! You focus on life instead
  • You move throughout each and every day
  • With a hardened look of apathy
  • Passersby not able to see
  • You’re on the precipice of self-catastrophe
  • It hurts to be misunderstood, on top of barely surviving
  • You’re taken at face-value, instead of the price your heart brings
  • Yet you somehow cast that all aside, in order to simply do the right thing
  • The epitome of a broken soul, housing a fire that is ever igniting
  • You let the world know, that it’s okay to let the pain show
  • To fail, to cry, to be in woe; Plant the seeds that in turn proceed to grow
  • A fervid force within you, that you would never know
  • Has the power to bring this world together; Bonding in sorrow for a better tomorrow

Encouraging parents to be the rock his mother was for him

While creativity and expressive arts help Lehmann heal, the 29 year old still faces social and psychological obstacles.

“Last week I felt very anxious. My heart was racing, and I couldn’t open my computer to look at my emails,” he says. But instead of playing tug-of-war with his depression and anxiety, Lehmann tries to coexist with his emotions, especially when he can’t overcome them.

Lehmann also relies on the support of his loving mother. “My mom has always had my back. We have an honest relationship, and she fought for me when I was too weak to fight for myself,” he says.

It’s his mother’s unending love and support that’s given him the courage to advocate for himself, as well as for others who are living with autism.

And Lehmann’s words inspire parents, too.

“Parents often ask me if they’re on the right track and I say belief is contagious. If they believe in their kid, their kid will believe in themselves.” He also reminds parents that if they “do it out of love, they can never go wrong.”

Lehmann says that when their autistic child is having a meltdown, parents often want to “fix, fix, fix.” However, during those times, Lehmann was most comforted by having his mother by his side.

“Really simple things mean a lot to kids who are on the spectrum,” he says.


Russell Lehmann is an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, poet, author, and advocate who happens to have autism. Russell sits on multiple councils and boards and he currently travels the country spreading hope and inspiration. His passion is to be a voice for the unheard, for he knows how difficult and frustrating it is to go unnoticed. Visit Russell at www.TheAutisticPoet.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum Cope During Coronavirus

Coping with Coronavirus - Autism

Q: How can parents help their kids adjust to the changes in their schedule and routine given school closures and the cancellation of most extracurricular activities?

This is a great opportunity for parents to educate the children that the only constant in life is change. Through a controlled environment such as their home, parents can ask their kids how unexpected change makes them feel and how best to deal with the emotions that change brings up. These practices can then be generalized into the real world.

With most physical activities being canceled, this is also a great time to introduce the arts as a vehicle to promoting emotional integration and intelligence. Whether that be through poetry, painting, music, etc. the arts have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and promote neuroplasticity in the brain.

Q: What should we expect to see in kids regarding increase in anxiety, including meltdowns? 

Individuals on the spectrum generally have increased sensory needs, and during a time such as this those needs may not be met.

Expect an increase in defiant behavior from younger children as well as increased anxiety, depression and perhaps OCD. Always remember, however, that a behavior is a by-product of a past experience and/or emotion. Instead of punishing your children full stop, initiate a dialogue to figure out the why and what behind their actions.

Q: How we can best support children who are experiencing increased anxiety and meltdowns?

The literal definition of the word "compassion" is to "suffer with". Simply be there for them. Listen more than you talk. Give them a hug or a shoulder to cry on. Just by simply being present with your children an increased comfort will be felt throughout the household.

Q: Any ideas for helping kids stay “busy” and engaged in activities they find rewarding and engaging. 

This is a great time to think outside of the box and get creative. Scavenger hunts, board games, dress up, old family videos. Think of what you parents did with you during a rainy day and implement that into your routine.

We keep our kids so busy these days that it is also important to give them time to simply relax and rejuvenate, especially due to the increase in stress this situation is causing.

 

How accommodating workers with autism benefits employers—and everyone else

July 15, 2019

How accommodating workers with autism benefits employers—and everyone else
Providing workers who have autism with a quiet workspace and detailed instructions on tasks are among several accommodation strategies for employers. Credit: Crew/Unsplash

Companies seek a competitive edge by hiring talented people, yet many capable workers are overlooked because they have autism.

So why is it happening? Largely because autism is poorly understood and managers are ill-informed about how to accommodate affected workers.

Fortunately, recent research has provided us with many strategies to make workplaces more inclusive.

The diverse ways autism presents

Autism is a developmental disorder that people are born with. It is a spectrum disorder since it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and abilities. Each individual with autism is unique, and the way their condition presents itself varies.

Common symptoms include trouble "reading" social/emotional cues and difficulties with conventional language and . Some autistic people are non-verbal and use assistive technologies, making it important to remember that being non-verbal does not mean being incapable.

Another common symptom is repetitive thoughts or behaviors, including "stimming." Stimming may include hand flapping, rocking, etc. It's a reaction to being overwhelmed by a situation or by everyday stimuli.

Stimming helps people cope by focusing intensely on a specific sensation or behavior. People who stim report that they find it embarrassing but critical in order to calm themselves. As such, the lack of social acceptability of stimming can be a greater workplace problem than the activity itself.

Lack of empathy is frequently cited as an autistic trait. This characterization is disputed by the autism community and by evidence from psychologists.

Both suggest that some people with autism may suffer from excessive levels of empathy that overwhelm, but the way they express it is not well-recognized. Other traits associated with autism include the ability to focus intensively, persistence and high detail orientation.

Unspoken social etiquette can be a mystery

Many barriers experienced by workers with autism relate to social/communication difficulties and are affected by how they behave but also how others perceive them.

For example, people with autism are often accused of lacking in emotion. They do experience emotions, but tend to express them in ways that are not readily recognized. Socially, they may dominate conversations while focusing on narrow interests, have difficulty understanding variations in tone and reading body language and facial expressions, and they may take things inappropriately literally.

Many find eye contact overwhelming, leading to avoidance that is mistaken for being anti-social.

Norms can be difficult for people with autism to perceive. The unspoken social etiquette that everyone is expected to instinctively know may be a mystery, negatively impacting job performance when expectations are not clearly communicated.

Change can also be anxiety-inducing and lead to challenging behaviors if it happens unexpectedly. Heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as smells and sounds can lead to reactions that seem extreme. A lack of understanding of those reactions often leads to those with autism being labeled "difficult," and those labels create additional problems.

Accommodation strategies for employers

Many people with autism are able to focus intensively. If a topic interests them, they will spent large amounts of time developing expertise. Attention to detail, combined with heightened pattern recognition skills, are also common traits, leading many autistic people to become technical experts in their fields.

Some people with autism enjoy repetitive routines and can tolerate work that others find monotonous. Others are creative, able to visualize solutions to complex problems and develop unique insights. People with autism are also known for being forthright and are less likely to engage in toxic political behaviors.

There are many accommodation strategies workplaces can adopt for employees with autism. Here are some:

1. Reduce workplace stimuli

There are many ways to reduce unnecessary stimuli at work. I'm providing some examples but this should not be considered an exhaustive list. Solutions are limited only by one's creativity.

Physical blocking of work spaces can reduce distractions. Examples include providing private offices or cubicles that face a corner. Whenever possible, LEDs should replace noisy and intense fluorescent lights. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be used, although some people will not be able to tolerate the sensation.

Similarly, uniforms can be a problem if the fabric is itchy, collars are tight or there are tags that irritate. Wardrobe flexibility may be needed.

Moving beyond the physical, minimizing interruptions can also help. You could encourage the use of e-mail instead of phone calls and ask people to use meeting rooms instead of hallways for conversations lasting more than a couple of minutes. Co-workers could be asked to schedule chats instead of "popping in."

Regardless of your efforts, workplaces may still overwhelm sometimes. A "quiet room can be very beneficial." They are darkened rooms in a low-traffic places containing comfortable furniture and a minimum of other sources of stimulation. Spending time in a quiet room helps people with autism cope when overwhelmed, and non-autistic workers also report psychological benefits from quiet spaces.

2. Create a culture of clear communication

The communication and social difficulties experienced by people with autism are heavily intertwined. And so resolving communication issues will also help with social difficulties.

First, make unspoken norms explicit. Managers should be trained to provide detailed instructions in writing and avoid ambiguity in task assignments. Things that may seem obvious, such as how to prioritize assignments, should be explicitly explained.

Performance criteria should be clearly outlined and employees should be capable of monitoring their progress. It is worth noting that these steps help all workers, and represent documented best workplace practices.

Workers with autism report that their ability to communicate is increased when they are able to see questions in advance, when people avoid jumping between multiple topics and when their intent is not judged by eye contact or having the "right" facial expression.

3. Offer social and emotional coaching

Even with the supports already outlined, workers with autism may find the social and emotional behaviors of others mystifying. A coach can be helpful. That mentor could be a trained co-worker or an outside expert. Co-workers may also benefit from receiving information to increase understanding.

These are all simple steps that can help employers leverage the large group of under-utilized workers with autism in the labor pool.

Many of these accommodations could help all workers and represent good business practice. Accommodating autism, therefore, has the potential to make our workplaces more just and productive for all.

Success Magazine – A Moment with Russell Lehmann

Success Magazine Russell Lehmann 2019 www.russell-lehmann.com

If it is one thing all of humankind has in common, it’s that we all struggle. Within this profound commonality of the human race lies the key to personal growth and development.

Diagnosed with autism at 12, I have been admitted to 3 different psychiatric wards at the ages of 11, 21 and 25. I dropped out of public school in the 5th grade and subsequently became somewhat of societal recluse for the next decade. I have battled incapacitating OCD, tumultuous panic attacks, severe depressive episodes and almost lost my life to anorexia.

Now? I am 28 and an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, author, poet and advocate. My story is archived in the Library of Congress.

Through my strife I have learned to run towards, and not away, from my obstacles. To not turn my back on my challenges, but rather to stare back at them. To kiss the feet of adversity, for it has given me the opportunity to learn my most cherished lessons and gain my greatest insights.

I am strong because I have been weak. I’m fearless because I’ve been afraid and I succeed because I have failed.

A large portion of life’s struggles are unfortunately exacerbated by societal conditions such as judgement, expectations, prejudices and biases, comparisons, peer pressure, so on and so forth. To protect ourselves from this, each of us has a mask we wear in certain situations to protect the fragility of our true selves.

It is behind our masks where we find the true essence of life and where we can experience the totality of what it means to be human. What Novalis stated centuries ago turns out to be true: “The path of mystery leads inward”.

I used to shun my trials and tribulations. Now, however, I embrace them with open arms. I have found my success through my struggle. You can, too.

 

The Secret to Life in 2 Words

Russell Lehmann, APSE Keynote

Don't resist.

Oftentimes we fight so hard against the things we don't want in our lives that it's akin to playing a game of tug-of-war: we pull and pull with all our might, yet whatever opposes us seems to only pull back stronger and harder.

Don't resist.

There are times, however, when we must learn to let go of our end of the rope, to not resist. In doing so, our opponent in the battle we are fighting loses its power, and when it goes to pull its end of the rope harder than ever before, it justly falls on its back.

Don't resist.

Life is not a fight. It is not a destination. Rather, life is a journey, an at-times tumultuous venture that no one has ever quite mapped out.

Respect the path before you. Spin wildly into the chaos that is the unknown and have faith that everything is for a reason, even if you never find out what the reason may be.

How liberating it is to at times be at the mercy of the immensely powerful universe that surrounds us. To just simply be, and to take breaks on whatever route you may be on to admire all that you come to encounter.

If there ever was a key to existential freedom, it would be to simply not resist.

Stay Strong,

Russell

P.S. Have you checked out my new book? Powerful poetry and emotional stories shed raw, transparent insight into life on the spectrum. Find it here!

Interested in working together? Shoot me an email here!

© 2019 Russell Lehmann: Speaker, Author, Poet, Advocate

You Matter

Russell Lehmann - You Matte and You Are Loved

 

“Do you ever wake up, wishing to stay in bed?

Your head is clouded, you dread the day ahead?”

©Lehmann

I often do, and the best thing I can do for myself is to get up, look in the mirror and say “Russell, you matter”.

Of course, this phrase is much more powerful coming from somebody other than ourselves. So today I just want to simply tell you:

YOU MATTER, YOU ARE LOVED and YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH EACH BREATH YOU TAKE

We don’t hear these words enough. When we have a challenging day, society has conditioned us to wear a mask, and cover up our struggle. We fight through the day in silence, wishing for someone to take our mask off for us and to simply let us know that we’re not alone.

And so I say to you again, no matter who you are, what you’ve been through or what you are going through:

YOU MATTER, YOU ARE LOVED and YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH EACH BREATH YOU TAKE

“It’s okay to let the pain show, to fail…to cry…to be in woe

These plant the seeds that in turn proceed to grow

A fervid force within you, that you would never know

Has the power to bring this world together, bonding in sorrow for a better tomorrow”

©Lehmann

On May 11th I'm heading out to Cambridge to take part in LEAD20 @ MIT (https://lead20mit2019.rudermanfoundation.org) then I’m heading straight to London to present for King’s College.

As always, thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for supporting me and following my journey as I use the lessons learned and insights gained from my painful experiences to help make this world just a little bit better.

If you haven’t checked out my new book yet, find it on Amazon here, and if you have enjoyed reading it, I would greatly appreciate an Amazon review!

Sending Strength & Love,

Russell

 

 

Autism and Mental Health Advocate Releases New Book

Russell Lehmann releases second book chronicling a life with Autism

Rusell Lehmann_MediaPhoto
Reno author and autism activist, Rusell Lehmann, debuts his second book about life on the autism spectrum.

 

(RENO, Nev.) – Author and internationally recognized speaker Russell Lehmann debuted his newest book, “On the Outside Looking In: My Life on the Autism Spectrum,” (Lucky Bat Books, 2019) on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at Lark & Owl Booksellers in Georgetown, Texas, an Austin suburb.

The event began at 7 p.m. and featured Lehmann reading excerpts from the new book as well as a group conversation about Autism in our society. In addition to purchase availability for the book at Lark & Owl, copies may be purchased on Amazon or at local independent book sellers.

“On the Outside Looking In” is Lehmann’s story of overcoming the odds and achieving immense personal growth. Exposing his vulnerabilities, naiveties and painful personal experiences, Lehmann relays the many lessons learned and insights gained throughout the circumstances in his life. Emotionally powerful stories and intense poetry give a raw and transparent insight into Lehmann’s life on the autism spectrum.

This is Lehmann’s second book. His first book is entitled “Inside Out” and features his gripping and personal poetry.

About Mr. Lehmann:
Russell Lehmann was named a 2018 “Most Outstanding Young Professional” in Reno-Tahoe and has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, NPR, USA Today and numerous other national publications. He is a globally recognized motivational speaker, poet and advocate who happens to have Autism. He is a member of the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and an ambassador for several national Autism programs. He speaks to organizations around the world.