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Els for Autism announces the 2023 Autism Spectrum Award Winner

By Merrick Egber

Since 2015, we have awarded an individual representing the tenacious spirit of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from the U.S. and Canada. The Autism Spectrum Award (ASA) winner receives an engraved award, an invite to the Golf Challenge Grand Finale, and a nomination to sit on the Els for Autism® Advisory Board. Over the years, the winners have represented excellence in self-advocacy, empathy, and pursuing the dreams that have captivated the population who can follow them.

The winner for this year is Andrew Blitman. While Andrew Blitman possesses a creative drive as a painter, author, and poet, he also aspires to make the world a better place through mentoring and tutoring in subjects like math and science. While congratulating Andrew on his win, we decided to interview him for our blog.

What was it like growing up with autism?

“Growing up with autism was socially challenging and affected me well beyond childhood. I had trouble making long-lasting friendships. The memories of bullying in elementary school left me socially timid and afraid of expressing vulnerability through early adulthood, and the desire to have relationships with my peers often embarrassed me. I also had anger issues and loathed myself for feeling inadequate compared to my neurotypical peers. I felt isolated, lonely, and unworthy of love, even around people who genuinely cared about me and enjoyed my company.

“However, I was still intellectually intact, and I loved reading, writing, painting, science, and video games, among other things.

“While I had trouble making and retaining friends, I started developing close friendships with mostly neurotypical peers in the 10th grade. I understood that what was keeping me back was more myself than the classmates who found me to be a valuable person to be around with. From the 11th grade to my first year of graduate school, my friends helped me develop my social skills, and I am thankful for that. The skills that I had helped me develop the tools to help me deal with any depressive moods today.

“But, for the sake of time, let me thank you [Merrick] and everybody else at the Els for Autism Foundation® for this excellent ASA that – I need to say – has taught me that my autism diagnosis is a blessing, and for the first time, I am grateful to have autism because it taught me also the role of persistence as the road to victory and vindication and then – happiness!”

How does your autism influence your poetry?

“Reading and writing poetry and promoting my written works helped me build my vocabulary, while my autism helped me develop the unique self-expression you see in my works. One thing that has been most crucial to my poems over the past eight years is that, aside from prepositions and articles like “a” and “the” and conjunctions, I avoided repeating words while writing them.

“Often, I used synonyms and rhyming words rather than words more than once in the poems. In doing so, I learned diction and the art of word choice to avoid repetition. It also helped me understand my rhythm of writing in general, like how I learned the basic pattern for most popular songs. The components of most songs with words are a title (often included in the lyrics) and alternating rhyming couplets (every two lines end with words that rhyme at the end).

“Music and poetry opened new doors for me, as music helped improve my poetry while my poetry helped me become a better speaker and improve my communication skills overall. It helped me overcome mental barriers and depression and helped me feel more comfortable conversing with others verbally. The boosted vocabulary catapulted me past my limits regarding aspects of my life after college. It led to the rapid development of a mind-grinding body of creative works to fall back on when I feel depressed about where I am, and so long as it drives me in my creation of these works, it keeps me happy!”

How did you get involved with Els for Autism®?

“I have been involved in the South Florida autism community since 2011 when I served as a constituency board member for UM-NSU CARD (University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disorders). I used CARD services when I was young. After graduating college and graduate school in around 2014, my parents introduced me to the Els for Autism Foundation, which helped me reconnect with Dr. Marlene Sotelo after I had moved back home after six years of living in Miami for school. I asked to be a summer camp counselor for the Center’s Movin’ and Groovin’ Summer Camp in 2014.

“That was the first time I met you, Merrick! I had a wonderful time at the summer camp and was offered to work on future programs at The Els Center of Excellence®. After my term as a UM constituency board member ended in 2017, I got to join the Els for Autism’s Advisory Board in 2019, and the rest is history.”

What do you do to support Els for Autism?

“I am a professional artist and a multi-published author. I love working for the Foundation as an Advisory Board member and being an art teacher for the past two consecutive summer programs (2022 and 2023). I also interviewed my friends at the Foundation and other leaders of the South Florida autism community on my website. I also donated more than 20 of my favorite original paintings to the Els for Autism Foundation, for which the Foundation receives 75 percent of the proceeds as a donation. When Amazon Smile was available, which would give a percentage of Amazon purchases to the charity of the purchaser’s choice, I chose the Els for Autism Foundation.”

What is your favorite painting that you did, and why?

“I would say my favorite painting is the Mandarin Duck Painting, which always captivates me when I look at it because it was an early project but one that demonstrated a skillset that influenced later works. I love it!”

Why is a foundation like the Els for Autism Foundation so significant?

“The Foundation is so important because it helps children and adults with autism and other developmental disorders find ways to counteract the symptoms they are experiencing daily. They connect people diagnosed with autism to healthcare and mental health services and help their families find ways to cope or improve their loved one’s outcomes with early intervention if necessary. Els for Autism has this fantastic community service/outreach department that actively welcomes and tends to struggling families.

“The Foundation’s Advisory Board is also extraordinary—as the only two autism assistance organizations I am currently aware of that select people with autism, including young adults, to serve in leadership roles: Els for Autism and UM-NSU CARD. I was the first-ever constituency board member at UM to have autism. Both organizations actively ask people with autism for guidance with their research and for opinions to improve community service roles with direction for their outreach programs.

“Both Dr. Sotelo (Executive Director of Els for Autism) and Dr. Michael Alessandri (Board Chair of Els for Autism & Executive Director of the University of Miami CARD) revolutionized the way autism diagnoses work. They actively and openly welcomed the opinions and advice of people who have autism to guide their organizations’ policies as equals on these boards. I believe that they should be commended and appreciated for doing something so trailblazing that is yet so basic—that people with autism can have a say in the laws, regulations, and policies that concern them. That people with autism can advocate on behalf of themselves and for others whose voices are silent or marginalized in their communities.”

What is so important about being an educator in this society?

“Educators are the people who most directly influence the lives of the generations after them. We teach, help, and empathize without judging. We protect them from ignorance while connecting them to the resources they need to survive and thrive. Outside of the home, only teachers and other students spend the most time together throughout the day.

“Educators are essential now more than ever because we strongly influence the lives of our students. We are the emotional rocks for our students. Even one empathetic conversation with a child can save a life. It only takes one unexpected or traumatizing experience to cause a mental health collapse.

“Educators are supposed to be beyond reproach, but they should not replace the involvement of parents, siblings, and family members. The educator’s role should be a bit like that of a consultant, to help identify strengths and weaknesses and provide solutions for children and their families.”

Who is your most excellent role model?

“The two most important role models are my dad and my grandfather, who have taught me so many life lessons and given me such great joy, which I finally now appreciate. Their quotes, insights, and advice have guided me forever to this day and beyond.”

What does winning the ASA mean to you?

“To tell you the truth, the Autism Spectrum Award is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, but as proud as I am of it, I am still in gleeful disbelief. However, I am thrilled to have won because it proves that my contributions to art, science, poetry, and other things positively impacted the world around me.

“I would call it an affirmation, but I am not the only one who deserves the credit for this great honor. I share this award with my family, friends, teachers, you, the Foundation, and hundreds of other people whose lives intersected with mine over the past 33 years and who believed in me and my work, and that my experiences with autism are not so bad anymore.

“This is the first time in probably my entire life I can say I am happy to have autism. Perhaps my struggles were vindicated, and I can move forward and continue to help people in need whenever my experiences are relevant to their problems.”

What advice would you give about adversity and living with autism?

  1. When in crisis, ask for help! If you see someone in trouble, help them or find someone who can help them because the worst thing you can ever be is a cowardly bystander.
  2. Harness your intellect and learn as much as you can because no knowledge goes wasted, and doing so can help you identify your direction in life, career-wise, or in other ways.
  3. Force yourself to be social, even if you do not like it, because that is how you make friends.
  4. You do not need to have so many close friends. You can find equal joy in having multiple friendly acquaintances.
  5. Follow your hobbies and passions, but do not rely on those skills alone.
  6. You do not have to like your job. Sometimes, it is okay to have a steady job and follow your passions and hobbies in your spare time.
  7. Stay off social media, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. It is fake and potentially fatal (Fear of Missing Out or FOMO) once you are addicted. You know you hate it, and it is killing you, so put your health first, quit, and protect your privacy.
  8. This is not my quote, but it is from a talented poet named Charles Bukowski:

“There are worse things

than being alone

but it often takes

decades to realize this

and most often, when you do

it is too late

and there is nothing worse

then too late.”

― Charles Bukowski

Thank you, Andrew Blitman, for taking the time to answer these questions. Since he has served on the Advisory Board since 2019, Dr. Shanok and I interviewed him for the official podcast of the Els for Autism Foundation, the Fore Autism Podcast, last year. His episode is Episode 26: Creative Arts: Stimulating Mental Health with Andrew Blitman and Graziella Gadia. Listen to it here.