ON SALE NOW: Russell’s NEW book “On the Outside Looking In”

ON SALE NOW: Russell’s NEW book “On the Outside Looking In”

ON SALE NOW: Russell’s NEW book 

“On the Outside Looking In”

‘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.


Cheap, common drug may improve autism symptoms in children

A novel clinical trial from an international team of researchers has found a cheap, generic drug may effectively moderate the severity of symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. Most importantly, the new study suggests ASD symptoms could be improved via alterations to levels of two key neurotransmitters, pointing researchers to novel future drug treatments.
One of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain is called GABA. During fetal development and early postnatal periods, GABA functions in an excitatory role but pretty quickly its role shifts to an inhibitory one as the brain grows. This is referred to as the GABA switch and some researchers hypothesize an unsuccessful switch can lead to atypical brain development, and symptoms of ASD.
Over the last few years, several human clinical trials have demonstrated a drug called bumetanide successfully reducing the severity of symptoms in a variety of children diagnosed with ASD. Bumetanide is a cheap drug, medically approved for the treatment of swelling and high blood pressure for over 50 years.
This new research set out to better understand how bumetanide affects ASD symptoms in young children. And, more importantly, whether these symptomatic improvements are related to improved GABA function in a developing brain.
The trial examined 83 children, between the ages of three and six. All the children recruited were diagnosed with ASD using what is called the Children Autism Rating Scale (CARS). A CARS evaluation is used by clinicians to objectively rate a number of behaviors associated with ASD. A CARS score of more than 30 is used to classify a child with ASD.
The cohort was split into two groups, one receiving a small bumetanide dose twice a day for three months, and the other acting as a control receiving no treatment. After three months the children were again assessed for a CARS score by clinicians who were unaware whether the individual children were part of the active group or the control.
Reflecting prior clinical studies, the researchers saw symptomatic improvements in the group receiving bumetanide. The mean total CARS score in the active group was 34.51 compared to the mean score of 37.27 in the untreated group.
But more significantly, the researchers used brain imaging to examine changes in the children’s GABA and glutamate neurotransmitter concentrations. In the insular cortex and the visual cortex of children taking bumetanide the researchers detected changes in the ratio of GABA to glutamate. The change in this ratio correlated with the symptomatic improvements detected in the children, suggesting the drug may be helping rebalance key neurotransmitter levels in the brains of children with developing ASD.
"This is the first demonstration that bumetanide improves brain function and reduces symptoms by reducing the amount of the brain chemical GABA,” explains Ching-Po Lin, one of the researchers working on the study. “Understanding this mechanism is a major step towards developing new and more effective drug treatments.”
This new study isn’t necessarily about establishing bumetanide as a new drug treatment for ASD, although larger trials will certainly investigate that outcome. Perhaps the more significant outcome is the direct link between the progression of ASD symptoms and dysfunction in the GABA switch neurodevelopment process.
The research suggests neuroimaging the ratio of GABA to glutamate in a young child’s brain could be a potential objective biomarker for ASD development. Plus, the biomarker could offer an objective measure for researchers investigating the efficacy of new ASD treatments.
"This study is important and exciting, because it means that there is a drug that can improve social learning and reduce ASD symptoms during the time when the brains of these children are still developing,” says Barbara Sahakian, a University of Cambridge researchers working on the project. “We know that GABA and glutamate are key chemicals in the brain for plasticity and learning and so these children should have an opportunity for better quality of life and wellbeing."
The new study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Source: University of Cambridge

Kobe Bryant advocated for mental health, especially for children

Kobe Bryant Mental Health

Kobe Bryant fought anxiety and obesity with a children's podcast called 'The Punies' and a campaign to keep kids in sports

  • NBA star Kobe Bryant died Sunday, January 26, in a helicopter crash. He was 41 years old. 
  • The sports legend was a vocal advocate for mental health awareness, spoke about his own fears and insecurities, and inspired all athletes, from schoolkids to pros in basketball and beyond.
  • He also worked to improve youth sports participation, with a campaign called "Don't Retire, Kid" that encouraged young people to stay active. 
  • A leadership psychologist told Insider that Bryant was the perfect blend of mentor, encouraging competitiveness but also to acknowledge your role models and pay it forward.

Basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who died January 26 in a helicopter crash at age 41, has been memorialized for his stellar career in sports, including 5 NBA championship wins.

But his legacy also included advocacy and mentorship off the court, offering one-on-one support to teammates, advice for newer athletes, and even inspiration to athletes in other sports. His contributions took many forms, from video campaigns to articles to podcasts.

At a time when children's lack of physical activity is reaching crisis levels, Bryant was a vocal advocate for youth sports participation, helping to launch the "Don't Retire, Kid" campaign to fight against an epidemic of anxiety and physical inactivity pushing children away from athletics.

Bryant also tackled mental health issues, and the rising rates of anxiety, spearheading a children's podcast called "The Punies" to share important life lessons like how to manage anger and fear of not fitting in, how to work with other people on a team, and how to learn from failure.

He also worked with Why We Rise, a campaign from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, on the importance of being open about mental health and reducing the stigma of depression, anxiety and other issues.

Most kids "retire" from sports at 11, but Bryant was determined to change that

Bryant was the lead spokesperson for the Don't Retire, Kid campaign, which he launched with the Aspen Institute in August 2019.

The campaign commissioned research that showed most US children spend just three years playing sports, and poor kids drop out of group activities even earlier — a concern as fewer and fewer kids and adults are getting enough exercise, according to government data.

Working alongside other sports stars (Wayne Gretzky, Sue Bird, Mookie Betts), Bryant advocated for giving children freedom and creativity in sports, and keeping the game fun

"Today's kids are the least active in history and, dropping out of sports at alarming rates," Bryant said in a 2014 interview alongside Bill Clinton.

"I think we tend to overlook the significance coaches have on children – their emotional development, their ability to imagine, dream and hope," Bryant said in a separate interview on the initiative.

Tom Farey, leader of the Aspen Institute's Project Play which launched the campaign, said Bryant's "legendary competitor's mindset" inspired young people in sports to "own their ambition."

He encouraged his fans to open up about their insecurities, because 'ignoring it is the worst thing we can do'

Bryant has also spoken out about the difficulties in discussing mental health. He was upfront about the importance of sharing experiences, and moving beyond the stigma of viewing mental health struggles as "weakness."

"Ignoring it is the worst thing we can do, because then it festers," he said in a video collaboration with Why We Rise.

His podcast, The Punies, also deals with emotional strength and discusses issues important to mental wellbeing, like relying on trusted friends for help and support.

"For younger kids, The Punies is just fun," Bryant said, as reported by Sports Illustrated Kids. "As they get older, we hope they'll start to understand the meanings and messages, and the show will teach them things like perseverance, commitment, hard work, compassion, and empathy. Those are things that sports naturally teach."

Kobe Bryant - Mental Health

A leadership psychologist said Bryant was the perfect blend, teaching kids to be competitive but also acknowledge their role models

According to leadership psychologist Ronald Riggio, Bryant's influence was more than just drive and skill: it was his graciousness. He was not only quick to acknowledge his own role models and people he learned from, but made an effort to pay it forward by mentoring others, Riggio told Insider.

"Clearly Kobe had very, very high self-confidence, or he wouldn't have performed at the level he did, but people can have that and realize they learned from other people," Riggio, who previously wrote about Bryant's retirement, said.

Riggio, an expert in sports psychology, explained that research shows the relationship between sports and leadership skills is complex. Athletics can be great opportunity for young people to learn good leadership skills, he said, but only if they have positive experiences and role models. The wrong kind of sports experience can lead to more selfish behavior, he said.

Bryant's legacy was also complex, including a 2003 accusation of sexual assault followed him through the rest of his career, and he was fined in 2011 for using an anti-gay slur against a referee, both incidents for which he later apologized.

In spite of that, Bryant's exceptional work ethic was uncontested, and part of his hard-earned legacy as a leader on and off the court. Bryant was legendary for early-morning practices and his relentless drive to become better.

"That behavior sets the standard, making people realize how hard he worked to make himself the player he was, and it sets a great example for other players and for kids who want to excel in athletics," Riggio said.

Bryant was a father figure who mentored all players, including his daughter, Gigi

Riggio also noted parallels between leadership and parenting.

Bryant had previous acknowledged that his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna "Gigi" Bryant would carry on his legacy. Tragically, she died in the same helicopter accident.

Riggio said that relationship exemplifies Bryant as both a role model and a parent, even in his last moments.

"It's bittersweet that he was parenting, developing other people, when he died. He was doing what he loved," Riggio said.

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.