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Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself

From societal recluse to international speaker.
From societal recluse to international speaker.

My name is Russell Lehmann, and I am a motivational speaker and poet who happens to have autism along with some mental health diagnoses.

I don't relate to the autism community's "group think" mentality. I don't have "autistic pride", but rather human pride. I am not sensitive to the word "disability" and do not placate myself by stating that I'm "differently-abled" in order to cover up an insecurity. I am proud to say that I have many disabilities, because it validates how much I have to overcome every day just to function.

Some reach out to me calling themselves a "fellow autistic" and I honestly don't know what the hell that means. How you identify yourself means nothing to me compared to your character and how you conduct yourself, in real life AND online.

I do not relate to many people, perhaps 2 in my entire existence. I am indeed the last of a dying breed.

I have lived a very unusual life. I dropped out of public school in the 5th grade due to horrible treatment by my teachers. I was that kid in the corner of the room, sucking his thumb, with his hood on and never making eye contact. Exiting school and staying home to do my work lead to prevalent isolation and solitude that continues to this day (aside from my speaking engagements). I have been inpatient 3 times in my life, each stay leaving worse off than when I had entered due to lack of understanding and compassion by the hospital staff.

I never lived out my teenage years or had a college experience. I say that life has taken from me everything I have ever wanted, but in turn has given me everything I ever needed. I can excel at the extraordinary (keynoting conferences with 1,000+ attendees, traveling the world by myself, etc.) but struggle with the simple (getting out of bed in the morning, running simple errands, forming relationships, "fitting in" [whatever the hell that means], etc.) I am very inexperienced socially, yet have amassed an enormous amount of experience existentially. Every day I fight off my OCD, depression, panic attacks, body dysmorphia, an anorexia relapse, and thoughts telling me an easier life will always be just out of reach. However I am bigger than what my thoughts say I am, and so are you.

I am very much a tortured soul who has a lot of experience with suffering. They say that those who know how to suffer, suffer less. Lately, however, with each dark day I am beginning to see more light. I am coming to terms with my true intrinsic nature, and am very excited for not just the future, but for the now.

We oftentimes put off what we can do today in hopes of achieving it tomorrow. Yet as tomorrow never arrives, we trap ourselves into the state of mind that tells us "Some day, when this or that happens, I will be happy". We live with this perspective for our entire lives, until one day we realize we won't be here much longer, and all we have ever had was this moment right now.

Be kind to yourself, cherish the "normal" days (for how much you will want them back during the dark days!) and remember that you are always in control of your life. We at times cannot control our circumstances, but we can always control how we live through them. Cut ties with everything that is holding you back, for when you prioritize yourself, you can give more to those you love.

It’s easy to get caught up in our modern day rat race , but in the end, there are only 2 things that matter in life: the connections we make and the experiences we have. Love a little stronger, listen a little better and always follow your heart, for the biggest regret anyone can have is not staying true to themselves.

‘Running From Myself’: Reno Mental Health Advocate Struggles With Pandemic-Related Disruptions

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.

Bert Johnson / CapRadio

When you meet Russell Lehmann, the first thing you notice is that he looks like he just walked off the set of an action movie. He has built shoulders and chiseled biceps, because he spends hours throwing heavy weights around.

But it’s not just about his physique — working out keeps him alive.

“When I work out first thing in the morning and have a great workout, my social anxiety for the rest of the day is just gone,” he said. “Almost everything is gone: my body dysmorphia is gone, my OCD, my depression, my anxiety.”

That's why when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered gyms closed on March 17 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it came as such a blow to Russell.

“My jaw just literally dropped when I saw that on my phone,” he said. “I was terrified.”

Russell carries a heavy emotional load. On top of those other conditions, he also has autism.

In spite of all that, he’s a motivational speaker, mental health advocate and spoken word poet. He travels around the world, appearing at conferences and spreading awareness of the harm caused by the stigma around mental illness.

Mental health advocate and poet Russell Lehmann posed for a portrait near his North Reno gym on June 15.   Bert Johnson / CapRadio


He’s also active online, connecting with others in the mental health community and self-publishing his poems. They’re a way for him to articulate the pain he feels — and the daily triumph of persisting anyway.

In a recent piece called “Simply Exist,” Russell summed up the toll his mental illness takes.

“I’m withered. I’m worn. A decrepit soul, to be precise.”

Russell has to be uncommonly strong just to get out of bed. On the really bad days, he can’t.

Over the course of this story, he made several voice recordings of himself to document his experience during the pandemic shutdown. He made one of those on a day when he wasn’t able to get exercise — which led to a depressive episode by the early afternoon.

“I’m not tired at all,” he said. “But I am in bed with my blinds closed, because I couldn’t stand to be awake. It was too painful.”

COVID-19 restrictions have been disruptive for the entire country. But for people like Russell, they’re more than just an inconvenience — they’re a threat. On top of interrupting his routine, which Russell says is especially difficult for people who have autism, the pandemic has the potential to exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Herbert Coard is a clinical psychologist at  Renown hospital in Reno. He says many of his patients are struggling with the new normal.

“One of the variables associated with depression is isolation. Well, we’ve certainly built that into this equation,” he said. “We’ve decreased the contacts that people have had and because of those decreased contacts that they’re having, their senses of depression are increasing.”

According to Coard, that’s putting people with mental illness at heightened risk.

“We have seen some increase in suicidal ideation,” he said.

Russell turned to running as an alternative to the gym. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped. On another of the recordings he made — this one during an 11-mile run — he described the fear that drove him to keep going.

“I know that when I get home and I stop being active, the gates are going to open and all my mental demons are going to be rushing back in,” he said. “I just wish I could just keep running forever. Run away, really. But I’m running from myself.”

Russell’s devotion to fitness is a well-recognized strategy for managing mental illness. According to Coard, exercise can be an effective treatment for chronic depression in particular.

“One of the best protectors for depression is physical activity,” he said. “We call it behavioral activation, people doing things. Because if you do things, then guess what happens? You feel good about it.”

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.    Bert Johnson / CapRadio


For Russell, exercise isn’t enough on its own. He’s in therapy and takes medication, too.

His mom, Gretchen Lehmann, says there’s a huge difference between the days he’s been able to work out and the ones he can’t.

“If he has not been able to exercise, he pretty much is stuck,” she said. “He will often sit on the sofa with a blanket either over his head, or partially over his head. And that’s kind of his coping mechanism, is to withdraw and pull into his shell.”

Gretchen is grateful he’s found an effective way to manage his multiple diagnoses. But in an emotional interview with CapRadio, she also acknowledged it’s a day-by-day fight for him to survive them.

“I worry about him, but at the same time I know what he has overcome,” she said. “I know how hard it is for him to feel like there’s a purpose for all this suffering.”

Russell is open about the fact that he endures suicidal ideations as a result of his depression, but according to Gretchen, he tries not to dwell on them.

“He does talk about it when it gets, I think, to a crisis point,”  she said. “The rest of the time he tries to shield me.”

Herbert Coard says if people notice signs of severe depression in friends and family, they shouldn’t be afraid to check in.

“You can not make somebody suicidal by asking them if they’re thinking about suicide.”

But he cautions that if someone has gotten to that point, it’s critical to get outside help. “That’s really outside of your ability to help them,” he said. “In order to keep yourself healthy, it’s time to pull in the professionals that can help you.”

Ultimately, Russell finds strength in sharing his perspective and fighting the stigma associated with mental illness.

“The toughest challenges are reserved for the toughest people,” he said. “I know that through my challenges I can spread hope to others, through my speeches and writings. So that’s what makes it worth it.”

Russell’s been back in the gym for a few weeks now. He says getting back to his old routine is already restoring his hope for the future.

And a lot of Russell’s speaking engagements are being rebooked as webinars — he says sharing his experience virtually makes him feel almost as good as the in-person appearances he’s used to.

But the pandemic is far from over — in recent days, Nevada’s case numbers have started to climb again — and that could mean more changes to come.

For Russell, that uncertainty is a challenge in itself.

“The key for me will be to implement the flexible thinking I developed during the shutdown.”

If you’re in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.   

5 Mental Health Tips During COVID


Due to COVID-19, our world has been turned upside down. Restaurants once full of lively conversation now sit empty and desolate. Schools are vacant, our educational centers now in the hands of parents and the students themselves. Sporting arenas are dark and silent, a surreal scene for many as sports has historically been our main outlet as a society during times of uncertainty.

While we have all been hit hard during these times, the autism community has been especially affected. Routine is sacred to those on the spectrum, while the fear of the unknown can cause debilitating anxiety and depression. Suffice to say these trying times can be detrimental to the personal, professional and academic progress an individual on the spectrum has made.

Many people are struggling to maintain their mental well-being right now, however as those with autism are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis, it is imperative that we offer all the resources we can to them.

Below I highlight 5 strategies you can implement into your daily schedule to help maintain your mental health during these trying times.

  1. Become Your Own Best Friend

If it is one person we can completely and entirely rely on throughout the course of our lifetimes, it is ourselves. It is important that we remember to be kind to ourselves during these unusual times. Loneliness and isolation are rampant and can have detrimental effects on our well-being. However, if looked at from another perspective, can also bring great insight and strength.

I was pretty much a societal recluse from age 11 to 23, so isolation is not new to me. I learned, however, that with isolation comes solitude, and with solitude comes wisdom. Now is as good a time as ever to look inward and learn about who you are and what your heart truly desires in this life. Writing down your life’s purpose is a great reference point to look back on during normal times when you feel like you may be lost in life or on the wrong path.

Take some time during this period to nurture yourself. Every morning before I get out of bed, I tell myself “Good Morning” and whenever I’m struggling I give myself a hug and say “I love you Russell”. It may sound corny, but when our brains process self-affirmations said out loud, they literally develop the neural networks in order to become more efficient in self-care.

Self-love is the hardest love, but it is also the best love. The Buddha once said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection”.

  1. Exercise 

Exercise has always been great for the mind, however with all gyms being closed and outside activities cancelled, it can be difficult to find ways to stay active. Personally, the gym is my number one self-care tool, so having that tool taken away has made these past six weeks extremely challenging.

When we think of exercise, we tend to think of lifting weights, hiking, jogging, sports, etc. However, there are many activities you can do around your house that are beneficial to your mental and physical health. These can include dancing to music, yoga, walking your dog, yard work and even cleaning (fun, right?).

When the weather is nice and I am not too depressed, I have been going for long runs in the beautiful Sierra-Nevada foothills, however lifting heavy weights is vital for me as it fulfills my sensory-processing needs for the day. Unfortunately, I don’t have weights at home, so I must fall back on body weight exercises such as isometric (no muscle contraction, basically you stay frozen in place) squats, lunges, pushups and crunches.

All in all, anything you can do to clear your mind of worries and accelerate your heartrate will serve as a great coping mechanism during these times, and after.

  1. Explore the Arts

Perhaps the most difficult of tasks for parents during COVID is helping their kids adjust to the changes in schedule and routine given school closures and the cancellation of most extracurricular activities.

With social interaction all but gone for now, this is 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.

As a poet, I can tell you that there is no better catharsis for my daily struggles then to write them down and create a piece of art from them. Reading back my poems to myself out loud also helps me process my feelings more efficiently as I am using my visual and auditory senses to dissect my emotions instead of having them just float around in my head with no outlet.

  1. Meditate

Meditation and mindfulness play an instrumental role in promoting a healthy mental state, regardless of the state of our external circumstances. Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, “You can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf”. This I have found to be so aptly true, for we can utilize the steadiness of our inner-being as an anchor to weather turbulent times such as these.

Similar to number 1 on this list, you can use your current isolation to sit alone with yourself in order to realize that your thoughts are not real. Anxiety and depression, specifically, all boil down to our thought processes and patterns. Take this time to be curious about how you think. Meditation does not need to be sitting down in the lotus position for hours on end. It can be practiced informally throughout that day by just simply being mindful of how and why you think the way you do.

As the romantic poet Novalis once said, “The path of mystery leads inward”.

  1. Hone the Most Underrated Skill: Perseverance

Humans are an incredibly adaptable species, and perhaps our most underrated collective skill is perseverance. As mentioned before, the gym is instrumental in maintaining my well-being. I usually workout two hours a day, six days a week, and couldn’t have ever fathomed I’d go this long without stepping foot inside a gym. Yet when you are forced outside of your comfort zone, magical things can happen. While it is by no means an easy feat, when we are in unfamiliar territory with regard to our routine, the flexibility of our thinking increases and adapts to the new environment, stimuli and circumstances around us. If we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones on a continual basis, our self-confidence also increases and we begin to feel a sense of empowerment and fulfillment. As I always say, in order to promote your personal growth and development, you need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable!

Throughout my life I have continuously found success through my struggles, and COVID-19 will be no different. After all, how many times, in hindsight, have we come to kiss the feet of adversity? Using our hindsight from previous struggles to develop foresight for future challenges may be one of the most beautiful gifts in life.

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 in the post-COVID era.

In the end, COVID-19 will serve as a permanent reminder for us all to be mindful of the challenges faced by others. Collective struggle brings us closer, and it is my hope that after this pandemic passes, we will be a more kind and compassionate society.

Follow Russell's journey on Instagram and Facebook.


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.

New Cyberbullying Report Highlights Why We Need to Talk about Disability and Mental Health

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Russell Lehmann knows firsthand the impact cyberbullying can have on your life. When rapper J. Cole used a slur in reference to autistic people on Drake’s track “Jodeci Freestyle” in 2013, Lehmann wanted to use his voice to fight back. He posted a video on YouTube of his spoken word poem performance in response to J. Cole’s lyrics that quickly went viral. The comments that rolled in were, as Lehmann said, “pretty brutal.”

Lehmann, who is autistic and now a motivational speaker, said at the time he was struggling, very isolated and didn’t have much contact with the outside world. After the backlash and cyberbullying he received in response to his video, not only did he want to retreat away even more, but his mental health suffered.

“This was the first time I was ever attacked in my life so personally and it made me never want to use my voice again,” Lehmann told The Mighty. “I used my voice and my poetry as an outlet, and now to get attacked, on top of being attacked [by J. Cole’s song]. I really fell into a depression, got very anxious, got very angry, and it made me just want to close out the world even more.”

Lehmann’s experience isn’t uncommon, in fact, people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be bullied online. In a survey of more than 20,000 students with and without disabilities, the Ruderman Family Foundation found students with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to be cyberbullied, and experience depression and suicidal thoughts at higher rates, than those without disabilities.

The paper, which was published on Wednesday and co-authored by Ruderman Family Foundation Chief Inclusion Officer Miriam Heyman, Ph.D., found about 33% of students with disabilities experienced cyberbullying online in the last year. Only 20% of students without disabilities were targeted.

Disabled students are almost twice as likely to be involved in cyberbullying, whether they are the victim, the bully or both. Heyman said often those who cyberbully others start off as the target. When they don’t know how to deal with the painful emotions after being harassed online, they may lash out at others as the only way they know how to cope.

While we know people with disabilities face discrimination both online and off, Heyman was still surprised by what they found in the white paper. “Students with disabilities were almost twice as likely to be victims of cyberbullying. That to me actually was shocking,” Heyman told The Mighty. She continued:

We, as a society and the educational professional community, have acknowledged that social/emotional learning and teaching kids to be kind is an important part of the school experience. So we think that we’re doing that. But this is, I think, a stark reminder of the fact [that] we’re failing, as kids with disabilities are cyberbullied at twice the rate of kids without them. We, as parents, as teachers, really are missing out on a key educational component of our children’s experience.

In addition, Heyman and the foundation’s work highlights the major mental health impact cyberbullying can have on students with disabilities. Students with disabilities targeted by cyberbullying experienced depression more often than non-disabled students: 45% of disabled young people had depression compared to 31% of their peers. Cyberbullying was also connected with suicidal thoughts. Though 23% of students without disabilities said they considered suicide, 38% of students with disabilities reported suicidal thoughts after being cyberbullied.

Heyman noted the cause of mental health issues can’t be directly connected to cyberbullying exclusively, but a correlation between cyberbullying, depression and suicidal thinking can’t be ignored. This was definitely Lehmann’s experience, who said after he was ruthlessly targeted online, his mental health worsened and he considered suicide. And the mean comments online, even though Lehmann has figured out how to focus more on the positive now, still have an impact.

“There have been days when I wake up, and I see my feed and I have a breakdown,” Lehmann said. “Sometimes I have to cancel meetings. Sometimes I just lie in bed all day, because it really hits me hard mentally and emotionally.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation’s report highlights the importance of creating safer spaces online for young people with disabilities, especially because the current conversation about safety hasn’t included people with disabilities despite the Ruderman Family Foundation’s findings they are more likely to be targeted online.

Disability advocate Natalie Weaver, whose daughter Sophia recently died due to complications related to her health, faced frequent cyberbullying because of her daughter’s disabilities. Sophia had Rett syndrome and facial differences and was often the target of abuse online. Weaver advocated for Instagram and other social media platforms to update policies about reporting online abuse to include disability specifically. In 2018, Weaver advocated for a similar update to Twitter’s reporting policies. Thanks to her advocacy work, Twitter did update its harassment reporting guidelines to explicitly include people with disabilities.

“Sadly, people with disabilities are common targets for cyberbullying,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told The Mighty in a statement, adding:

It is our individual and collective responsibility to take actions which ensure that adolescents can increasingly experience the benefits of social media platforms rather than their dangers, and a crucial first step in that process is making the cyberbullying of people with disabilities a greater component of the national conversation on social media activity. That is precisely what our white paper intends to accomplish.

On the flip side, the internet can be an important place for students with disabilities to find support, especially because disabled students may feel alone in their in-person schools and communities. Ruderman’s white paper found 38% of students with disabilities found online platforms an important aspect of social support, compared to 28% of students without disabilities.

The Ruderman Family Foundation, in addition to providing resources for parents and educators to help students with disabilities stay safe online, wants to focus on fostering kindness more broadly. This could include a social media profile badge (similar to the blue verification checkmark) to indicate accounts that consistently treat others on social media with kindness. Another idea to reinforce kindness is a #BullyFree hashtag.

“At the most basic level, it starts with teaching kindness,” Heyman said of proposed interventions. “How cool would it be if every single adolescent ended every single online communication with the hashtag ‘BullyFree’ as a statement of, ‘There’s nothing bullying in this content and I’m proud of that. I’m going to display this hashtag with that’?”

The Ruderman Family Foundation’s white paper continues the organization’s tradition of ensuring people with disabilities are included in every conversation we have in society, from cyberbullying to police violence. For Lehmann, who uses his online presence as an important part of his advocacy work as well, wants other young people to know they aren’t alone and find support — not hate — online.

“I would say sticks and stones may break my bones but words hurt even more,” Lehmann said, adding:

The ignorant and the mean comments actually fueled my fire to become more passionate about spreading awareness. I want everybody in this world to have the liberation of being themselves. I don’t care if you have autism, I don’t care if you’re physically disabled, I don’t care if you have a mental health illness. We all deserve to be ourselves because a huge peace of mind comes with that. And cyber bullying is getting in the way of that and causing a lot of harm on top of it.


Autism & Mental Health: When the Two Collide

Distraught man with hood on and facial hair gripping his head with his hands

As April nears its end and May approaches, we segue from Autism Awareness Month to Mental Health Awareness Month. As such, I thought it apropos to briefly discuss these two topics, and how a dual diagnosis of autism and mental illness can have devastating effects on an individual.

My name is Russell Lehmann, and I am a motivational speaker, author and poet. I happen to have autism as well as several mental health diagnoses. In normal times, I travel for work quite frequently.

Oftentimes, to get from the airport to my hotel, I will take an Uber or Lyft. Inevitably, the drivers ask what I am in town for, and when I tell them what I do, they subsequently ask me what I speak about.

I hesitantly say autism and mental health, not because I am embarrassed or ashamed, but because I know what the driver’s response will be: “Oh wow, I would have never guessed YOU have autism! You must be doing very well!” I give a half-smile on the outside, while frustration fills my inside.

Individuals with autism are at a significantly increased rate of having a mental health diagnosis. I have 8 invisible disabilities, and usually, aside from massive public meltdowns that have taken a toll on my well-being, only those closest to me see my struggles.

The driver taking me to my hotel doesn’t see my meltdowns at home where I shake, rock back and forth, screaming at the top of my lungs while cussing and punching myself in the head.

My followers online don’t realize the excruciating thoughts that consume my mind, such as suicidal ideations and disturbing intrusive thoughts stemming from my OCD.

My neighbors aren’t aware that every day is a fight to get out of bed. Sometimes I don’t, and when I do I want to run away from being misunderstood, not fitting in with society and being extremely isolated and lonely.

Very few know of my past hallucinations, because even though I take pride in being extremely transparent and authentic, there is still too much stigma for me to walk around telling people how terrified I was when I was sobbing on my floor while the devil was yelling at me.

I can excel at the extraordinary, but I struggle with the simple. Do not for one minute think I have it “made” due to the nature of my career. I have not “outgrown” or “overcome” autism or my challenges. To be honest, I wouldn’t wish my mind on anyone unless they were readily prepared for it.

Indeed, I have beaten the odds and continue to do so every day due to my tenacity and perseverance, but don’t let that paint a false narrative. I still struggle vehemently, I get severely depressed, I get discouraged with the lack of compassion and understanding in society and I cry almost every other day.

This world is too harsh for me. However, my heart and soul drive me to speak up for others who are not heard, because I know how challenging and hurtful it is to go unnoticed.

Always remember this line I wrote a few months ago, and that I continue to find to be more and more true with each passing day:

“What you do not see is much more important than what you do see”.

Interested in having Russell speak at your event? Contact him below:

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.


A Letter to My Mom

Son and Mother Embracing

Preface: As a motivational speaker who travels the world spreading awareness surrounding autism and mental health, I encounter many autism parents struggling to find a way to help their children in a more efficient manner.

Parenting may seem like a Herculean effort, but the simplest acts can create the strongest bonds. Below, I write a letter to not just my mom, but all autism moms and dads. You are validated, you are recognized, and the only true failure as a parent is when you stop trying.

Always remember these words: "If you do something out of love, you can never go wrong, no matter the outcome".

Son and Mother Embracing
Russell Lehmann with his mother.

Dear Mom,

I will never have the words to tell you how much you mean to me. What is to follow doesn’t do you justice.

I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am today without you. You have always been my shelter during the toughest of storms, as well as the one steady constant in my life. Every single day you are there for me, whether that’s watching proudly from the sidelines or embracing me during my darkest moments. Whether I'm succeeding or failing, happy or sad, functioning or not, your love and support is limitless, which in turn makes my own potential limitless.

From your love and affection I learned to never be ashamed of who I am. From your words of wisdom I found out that there was a reason behind why I was here. From your ability to listen I found my voice, and from you just simply being there for me, you have helped me to see the beauty during the darkest of days, and to always, always remain positive.

You are my idol, my mentor, my role model, my hero. But most importantly, I am lucky enough to call you my mother.

You believed in me when no one else did. You fought for me when I was too weak to fight for myself. You sat next to me during times when I felt completely alone, and you loved me when I was too bitter and angry to love myself.

It’s hard to fathom how far I have come, and how much I’ve been through. It has been a hell of a long road thus far, and I am beyond thankful that you’ve been with me every step of the way.

As I begin to create my own life, I know that you will still be ready to catch me when I fall, whether I’m at your house or halfway around the world. You have instilled within me the strength to persevere, the ambition to overcome and the tenacity to push through.

Remember how many times I wanted to end my life? I chose not to because of you. I couldn’t let everything you’ve ever done for me be in vain. I choose to live because of you, and everyday you motivate me to make this world a little bit more compassionate, understanding and sincere.

Simply put, I love you mom. More than you will ever be able to comprehend. I know with all my heart and soul that when we meet again after this life, you will understand how much you mean to me.

In the meantime, I will live my life with the utmost virtue, integrity and nobility. I will strive to better myself in all aspects and will carry forth the torch of kindness and compassion you lit the day that I was born.

You have dedicated your life to me, and I find it to be the epitome of beauty that I dedicate my future to you.

Most Sincerely, with Love, Gratitude and Appreciation,

Your Son,





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