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.
Russell Lehmann releases second book chronicling a life with Autism
(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.
I have come a long, long way in life. When I was 12, at the height of my distress, I was pretty much non-verbal. I was too afraid of the outside world to speak to anyone other than my parents. I stayed inside my house as much as possible, clinging to my parents’ sides, terrified of any external stimuli, such as the doorbell ringing, the TV being on, or the microwave going off. I was a prisoner inside my own body. I would have multiple meltdowns every day, curling into a ball in the corner of a room, just crying for hours. I was extremely low-functioning, and could barely take care of myself.
Now, however, I’m a successful, confident man who travels the country spreading a message of hope, awareness, understanding and acceptance about autism and other disabilities.
I happen to not only have autism, but anxiety, depression, OCD and a previous battle with anorexia.
I am a member of the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, I sit on the board for the Autism Coalition of Nevada, am the Youth Ambassador for the mayor of Reno, Nevada, am affiliated with the renowned Kulture City organization which spreads awareness and acceptance about autism, and have written a book that earned an honorable mention at the NY Book Festival. I also happen to be a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT).
As I mentioned before, the amount of personal growth I have experienced has been astronomical. The catalyst behind this growth is not due to some secret pill or “cure”, but rather due to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis. Every single day I take every chance I can to push my mental abilities to the test, whether it be pushing myself to the limit at the gym, initiating a conversation with a stranger, placing myself in the middle of a loud crowd in order to expand my sensory processing capabilities, or just simply making full eye contact with an individual I’m talking to.
I do this not only to further grow and develop into the best person I can be, but to also conquer the remaining demons that I do still deal with. It is this drive that keeps my symptoms in check. If I were to stay inside my comfort zone, and not push myself out into the extremely frightening outside world, I would eventually regress back to where I was when I was 12: a low-functioning individual with autism who is pretty much non-verbal.
My progress in life may seem like a miracle on the surface, however everybody and anybody can attain this type of personal development. With regards to individuals on the spectrum, we can conquer our disability and turn it into an extraordinary ability. I like to say that autism is a gift, you just have to figure out how to open it first.
My advice? Run towards, and not away, from your fears. Fear, firstly and foremost, is nothing more than opportunity disguised as risk. Behind every single fear in your life is a wondrous reward that you will only attain if you push through what frightens you. It is a fact that when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, your chance for personal growth increases exponentially.
Failure is another factor of life that we all need to embrace. If we were to never fail, we would never know what we need to improve upon, and we would never be aware of what we are truly capable of. When there is a chance you may fail at something, you either succeed or you learn. There is no losing when it comes to failure. Think of failure as a trampoline: You are going to fall, but you will bounce back better because of it!
I chose to become a self-advocate and speaker in order to help others not have to go through the unnecessary pains and struggles I’ve been put through. I take pride in being a voice for the unheard, for I know how frustrating and challenging it is to go unnoticed. I’m honored and humbled to be able to give hope to families and parents who are concerned with their child’s future, just as my parents once were.
I have a raging fire within me to help others succeed no matter what obstacles or hardships they may be faced with. I sincerely hope this article aids in this all-important endeavor of mine.
Moving Beyond Fear to Support Your Child on the Autism Spectrum
I increasingly feel as though I’m backed into a corner (a spot that is usually a safe place for me), but in this corner there is a subtle yet deafening voice issuing a profound ultimatum:
“Be safe and stagnate, or take risks and flourish.”
Each time I hear this voice, a fire ignites within me as I stand up in the corner, back against the wall, and remember a quote that has been the continuous theme of my 27 year-long journey: “You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.”
I have had the amazing opportunity to travel to all corners of the country sharing my story, insights gained and lessons learned, and I make sure every audience I speak in front of takes one message home with them: I believe the heaviest burdens in life are only put upon the shoulders of those strong enough to carry them. The lesson for me here is clear: If I were to stay inside my comfort zone and not push myself out into the extremely frightening outside world, I would not be able to touch a single life with my message of hope, inspiration and acceptance.
Being a motivational speaker, I travel a lot, and I have recently developed PTSD when it comes to airports after I experienced a horrendous meltdown in June of last year at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Although this experience went viral after I wrote about it on Facebook, the mental and physical repercussions of this traumatic incident have been immense. Meltdowns are already exhausting. Public meltdowns? Downright agonizing.
Few people understand the torment and anguish that lies behind the word “meltdown.” Tears, hyperventilation, screams, adrenaline rush, intrusive thoughts, vulnerability, sometimes even vocal tics and convulsions. In five out of the last 11 trips to the airport, I have been met with intense anxiety, prolonged panic attacks, distressing meltdowns, severe depression and invasive bouts of OCD, resulting in me pacing back and forth in the airport, sobbing uncontrollably, twitching and rubbing my hands together, all the while feeling like my brain is in a vise grip that has been set on fire. On top of this, I am always met with two extremes from the people around me: stares of curiosity or purposeful avoidance. I am either on exhibit or completely invisible, and to be honest I don’t know which one is worse.
Throughout all of this, I have somehow managed to board my plane each and every time, sometimes assisted by my mother and/or airline employees and have subsequently given a heck of a speech to boot.
So the question remains: Should your concerns for your child limit their pursuit of a fulfilling life?
My answer? No.
Without a doubt each episode of panic or sensory overload I experience takes a toll on my mental and physical well-being, but I have found that through strife and struggle we can discover our individual purpose, and come to understand why we are here.
I’ll refer you to this famous African proverb: A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
The purpose of this article is to inform you. After all, knowledge is one of the few things that can be given to you but never taken away. Having said that, you are the parent. You know what’s best for your child. When you trust your parental instincts above all else, while also compassionately pushing your child to take risks, letting them know you will be there to catch them when they fall, I believe you will be amazed to discover your child’s continuous growth of self-confidence, ambition and insight.
Parents of those on the spectrum often second-guess themselves and may regret certain decisions they made for their child. I know my mother did, but let me tell you, she has been the absolute perfect mother for a son with my struggles and circumstances. I believe when you do something out of love, you can never go wrong.
Jacqueline Laurita has made a household name of herself after joining the cast of Bravo's own Real Housewives of New Jersey. Beyond the hearty exterior portrayed on the show (although she's known for her honesty and authenticity), Jacqueline has struggled in her own right while raising her autistic son Nicholas.
I had the pleasure of interviewing her, and I hope as you read you'll join me in welcoming her to our growing and compassionate community!
Jacqueline is a very strong-willed woman who has a magnificent outlook on life. A loving mother who is not afraid to back down from any challenge, she actually takes the time to learn about somebody before passing judgment, unlike many of us. Jacqueline is also very ambitious when it comes to her multiple careers, yet she somehow manages to always make time for her beautiful family.
Jacqueline’s son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism back in 2012 at the age of three, and in the years since Jacqueline has become a leading campaigner for increasing autism awareness. I asked her about views on autism, her goals for the future and how she grew into the amazing woman that she is today.
Russell Lehmann: You are revered for being a thoughtful, down-to-earth woman who loves to give back to the community and spread welfare. Where do these impressive principles and traits of yours stem from, and what have you learned from your experiences of helping those who are less fortunate than you?
Jacqueline Laurita: I think that my parents had something to do with that for sure. I was always encouraged to be honest, stay true to myself and to stay grounded. I think it also comes from my life experiences. I’ve been through a lot in my life and it has always been the support of others that has got me through the obstacles in my life. I want to be there to support others because I know how it feels. Others have been there for me. It’s a way for me to pay it forward.
You exited “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” after season five. What have you been doing with your time since?
I have been enjoying time with my family and focusing on Nicholas’s recovery, writing books on beauty and autism, which are both passions of mine. I help out my husband with his beverage company while also trying to get my beauty website launched.
I have also been a very active advocate in the autism community by answering emails from families affected, attending autism related conferences, benefits, doing public speaking engagements and writing featured articles for magazines. I will continue to do that.
You have said that early intervention is the key to recovery. For the first half of my life I confounded doctors with my symptoms, until I was finally diagnosed with autism when I was 12. Your son Nicholas was diagnosed when he was three. You are a woman who emits vibes of positivity and optimism. Nicholas is almost five now, and so I pose this question to you:
If Nicholas wasn’t diagnosed for another seven or eight years, and you and your family were left in the dark with no idea as to how to help your son, what actions might you have taken, and do you think this hypothetical situation would have changed your bright and confident outlook on life?
I think that I would have taken each challenge as it came with the best of my ability. Regardless, I would have focused on enhancing Nicholas’s strengths and do my best to give him the tools he needed to get around whatever obstacle or challenge was in his way and to bring out the best in him. I’m all about focusing on the solutions rather than the problems. Otherwise, life can get too overwhelming.
With or without an actual diagnosis, the challenges would have eventually presented themselves and we would have had to address it and find a way to make progress by giving him the right tools he needed in order to thrive.
There is no doubt that the diagnosis definitely gave us more clarity and understanding to what we were dealing with, while also providing us with a better road map of what active steps we could take to help Nicholas, including knowing our legal rights. Regardless, I would continue to try to defy expectations. It’s never too late for anyone to learn and improve. Always believe things can get better, because they can. In coping with anything, it’s all about perception and keeping a positive attitude. Focus on the amazing “abilities” our children have and not so much on their “disabilities”. Everyone has special skills, and everyone has challenges.
Have a clear vision of what you want your future to look like. Believe you can manifest it. Make short and long-term goals while focusing and following through on them with tunnel vision and perseverance. Block out all the negative talk and choose positive thoughts and actions. Have gratitude. Continually try to defy expectations while focusing on the solutions rather than the problems when hitting any obstacle. This will help you achieve anything in life… if you believe it’s possible!
What lessons of life have you learned from having a first-hand experience with autism?
I have definitely learned patience and understanding and what’s important in life. I learned to still remember to make time for myself so that I don’t get too overwhelmed. Those small breaks help me to go back in and fight harder for my child. It’s also important to make special time with your spouse and other siblings that are not diagnosed. The experience has also taught me to be more accepting and understanding of others’ idiosyncrasies. It taught me to have gratitude and celebrate each and every accomplishment my child makes, and not take anything for granted, because I see first-hand how hard he works for those accomplishments.
I myself do not think that autism should ever be fully cured. I believe it is a gift that one must learn to live with. I couldn’t agree with you more when you say Nicholas doesn’t need to be fixed, because he isn’t broken. When did this philosophy of yours come into being and what do you think made you come to this conclusion?
I don’t see autism as being something bad or something to be ashamed of, and I never want my son to be ashamed of it either. It’s just one piece of who he is as a whole individual. He just has a different way of processing things. I know my son is brilliant and I have heard of many well-known successful people at the top of their fields who have either been suspected to have or have been diagnosed with autism. I know it’s a gift, I know my son is happy and I know he loves me. People with autism just learn and view the world differently. Different does not mean bad. It’s just different. When I say “recover” my child, I want him to recover all the skills he lost when he regressed and for him to continue to learn things that will help make his life a little easier in the future. I’m not trying to “fix” him or even make him “typical” but I am trying to give him all the tools I can provide for him to help him to become more independent. If I can do that for him and he is going to benefit from it, then I am going to keep fighting to give him what he needs. His quirkiness makes him unique and adorable and I wouldn’t want to change that for anything. He makes me smile every day. I think everyone is a little quirky. I know I am.
Autism definitely has an ugly side to it, but with that ugliness comes the opportunity to learn and grow in a very unique and special way. When times get tough and Nicholas is having a bad day, do you sometimes wish that Nicholas never had autism? Or would you rather live with the emotional wounds dealt out by the disorder, knowing that you have an ability to be much more insightful about life than the average person?
Don’t we ALL have an ugly side as well as the opportunity to learn and grow? Someone with an autism diagnosis is no different. Autism is not something that I ever wished my child would have, and it’s a different journey than the one I had expected, but it is still just as wonderful. I think it’s difficult for any parent to watch their child, typical or not, struggle with anything, so when Nicholas is struggling with something and is having a bad day, it breaks my heart.
Nicholas has struggles that my other children don’t have, but they each have their own unique struggles in life and have challenged me and themselves in different ways. I’ve hurt watching all of them struggle at one point or another. That’s a parent’s love. We all have struggles, they are just different struggles. You learn to adjust and cope. We all learn, grow and evolve. We all get frustrated with life, we all hurt at times and we all feel joy. Support from others is really important during these times.
I honestly love the journey that my son’s autism diagnosis has taken me on. I have learned so much and I have met so many wonderful, supportive people along the way. My son has brought me so much joy each and every day. All my kids are unique and I love them all.
What is your biggest stress reliever?
Venting to someone who “gets it”, then meditating while listening to positive affirmations. I like going into the Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber to relax and walking outdoors when the weather is nice. Sex works, too. (Laughs)
What do you like to do for fun, and what kind of activities does your family enjoy doing together?
I enjoy our crazy family gatherings every Sunday because they are very entertaining and always a lot of fun. I enjoy date nights with my husband as well as with other couples. We enjoy good food. My kids enjoy watching movies together. We also enjoy hiking. In the summer we rent a beach house with many of our family members. We also do a lot of fun activities in the fall at local farms. Road trips anywhere are always fun.
What do you have your sights set on for the future?
I want to continue to raise autism awareness any way I can in hopes that I can help educate people to be more understanding and compassionate toward others with autism or other idiosyncrasies. Different doesn’t mean bad, it’s just different. Acceptance is so important. Everyone can learn from each other if you allow yourself to be open to it.
I want to make a difference in this world. I have a few things in mind that I’d like to accomplish. I’ll share those at a later date.
I also have several books I’d like to write. Two of them are being written and published right now. I want my family to stay healthy, happy and very connected with each other. Oh…and world peace.