The Art of Autism: Growing Up

By Tom Iland, with Keri Bowers

special needs

Autism advocate and presenter Tom Iland, pictured here with his younger sister, Lisa, was supported in a career change by his family. PHOTO COURTESY TOM ILAND

From Tom Iland: Growing up with autism is not easy. Social challenges, family dynamics, academics, employment opportunities and many other issues need to be addressed over the course of one’s life. In my experience, in having the right mindset and an effective, loving support system made these obstacles more manageable.

Shortly after my diagnosis at 13 years old, I was taught that using autism as an excuse or as a crutch to justify inappropriate behavior was not all right. My parents told me I had the power to think happy thoughts and do good things just as much as I had the power to think and act self-destructively. Realizing I had at least some control over my life (rather than being a victim) and that my parents would always fight forme (rather than with me) to live the best life possible gave me much-needed hope for a brighter future for myself.

My siblings also played a major role in my development and evolution. Since before my diagnosis, I’d wanted a girlfriend, but my hygiene, behavior, etc. hurt my chances rather than helped. My younger sister offered me a young woman’s perspective, showing me that girls like a guy that brushes his teeth, showers, knows how to cook, can dance, treats the women in his family well, etc. Having a better idea of what girls wanted and needed, I subsequently bettered myself.

My family supported me in my decisions all the way up to a recent major change in my life’s direction. I had been working as a certified public accountant for five years, but was not happy crunching numbers all day. I wanted something more. I wanted to touch people on a more personal level and make a greater difference in their lives, particularly those affected by autism. When I told my parents I was leaving accounting for good, they thought I was nuts. So much went into college and the struggle to find secure, permanent, gainful employment only to say, “No, thank you.” Really?

By being aware of my diagnosis, not letting it hold me back and with family and friends’ support, I now embrace life more fully. I continue to struggle to make a name for myself in my new career, but remind myself: I have the power to think happy thoughts and do good things. I now help myself and others come to life rather than waiting for life to happen to us. I am the creator of my own reality. Happily, my parents have come around to support my decisions, made as the adult son they raised.

Commentary by Keri Bowers: I met Tom 10 years ago on the set of our film, “Normal People Scare Me; a film about autism.” Recently, I saw him again when he took center stage at the premier of our new sequel, “Normal People Scare Me Too.” I was floored. Commanding everyone’s attention, he made an indelible impression when he shared, “Be the person you want to be – it won’t be easy – but it’s worth the hard work.”

So what makes one person boldly confident, while another is unsure? There are many factors, yet one in particular stands out. As parents of kids with disabilities, our job is to teach them how to make good choices. Regardless of their ability, with love, we must raise the bar of expectations. In doing so, we will watch our kids fall many times. Yet, with focus and repeated efforts, we will also see many successes as they learn to get back up.

With guilt and/or misguided instincts, some parents do too much to coddle their kids. Fearful of real and sometimes imagined harm, our instinct is to save our kids from the world. This also holds them back from learning how to make good choices, and from learning from outcomes – good or bad. It was painful to watch my son, Taylor, “fall down” while growing up under this, my rule of parenting. Yet, mother-to-mother, it was worth it to see him become a man, living semi-independently with limited supports.

All kids need to grow – in their own special, unique ways – beyond the appearances and realities of autism’s limitations. No matter where your child is at within disabilities’ paradigm, raising the bar of expectations – with love – is your gift to your child’s future.

Tom Iland is a graduate of Cal State Northridge, a Certified Public Accountant, and an autism advocate, presenter and consultant. He has worked with student groups, Regional Center staffs and police departments and can address a range of autism-related topics. Learn more at

Keri Bowers, an advocate, filmmaker, writer and artist, is always a mother first. She works with children and adults to uncover, grow and sharetheirvoices through art, poetry, music and writing. Co-founder of The Art of Autism, an international collaborative of autistic artists, her mission is to show how the arts positively impact life, social skills, language, academics and

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