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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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 youdo not see is much more important than what you do see”.
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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.
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."
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.
"Being a great leader in the sports world is like being a great parent. Parents wants what's best for the children and want them to do better," he said. "Leaders in sports are really concerned about the people they mentor, and Kobe was a very good mentor."
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.
Companies seek a competitive edge by hiring talented people, yet many capable workers are overlooked because they have autism.
People with autismare unemployed at disproportionate levels. As a result, companies are missing out on employees able to make valuable contributions. And society at large is affected since the situation creates inequities and financial dependence.
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.
Common symptoms include trouble "reading" social/emotional cues and difficulties with conventional language and communication skills. Some autistic people are non-verbal and use assistive technologies, making it important to remember that being non-verbal does not mean being incapable.
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.
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.
If it is one thing all of humankind has in common, it’s that we all struggle. Within this profound commonality of the human race lies the key to personal growth and development.
Diagnosed with autism at 12, I have been admitted to 3 different psychiatric wards at the ages of 11, 21 and 25. I dropped out of public school in the 5th grade and subsequently became somewhat of societal recluse for the next decade. I have battled incapacitating OCD, tumultuous panic attacks, severe depressive episodes and almost lost my life to anorexia.
Now? I am 28 and an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, author, poet and advocate. My story is archived in the Library of Congress.
Through my strife I have learned to run towards, and not away, from my obstacles. To not turn my back on my challenges, but rather to stare back at them. To kiss the feet of adversity, for it has given me the opportunity to learn my most cherished lessons and gain my greatest insights.
I am strong because I have been weak. I’m fearless because I’ve been afraid and I succeed because I have failed.
A large portion of life’s struggles are unfortunately exacerbated by societal conditions such as judgement, expectations, prejudices and biases, comparisons, peer pressure, so on and so forth. To protect ourselves from this, each of us has a mask we wear in certain situations to protect the fragility of our true selves.
It is behind our masks where we find the true essence of life and where we can experience the totality of what it means to be human. What Novalis stated centuries ago turns out to be true: “The path of mystery leads inward”.
I used to shun my trials and tribulations. Now, however, I embrace them with open arms. I have found my success through my struggle. You can, too.
Oftentimes we fight so hard against the things we don't want in our lives that it's akin to playing a game of tug-of-war: we pull and pull with all our might, yet whatever opposes us seems to only pull back stronger and harder.
There are times, however, when we must learn to let go of our end of the rope, to not resist. In doing so, our opponent in the battle we are fighting loses its power, and when it goes to pull its end of the rope harder than ever before, it justly falls on its back.
Life is not a fight. It is not a destination. Rather, life is a journey, an at-times tumultuous venture that no one has ever quite mapped out.
Respect the path before you. Spin wildly into the chaos that is the unknown and have faith that everything is for a reason, even if you never find out what the reason may be.
How liberating it is to at times be at the mercy of the immensely powerful universe that surrounds us. To just simply be, and to take breaks on whatever route you may be on to admire all that you come to encounter.
If there ever was a key to existential freedom, it would be to simply not resist.
P.S. Have you checked out my new book? Powerful poetry and emotional stories shed raw, transparent insight into life on the spectrum. Find it here!
Interested in working together? Shoot me an email here!
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