Proving I’m Normal: A Look into High-Functioning Autism & Bipolar Disorder

I’m doing an investigation series of sorts here into my own neurodiversity. I hope to write a book that is part memoir and part interviewing other high-functioning autistic people about their lives and work. The book will do for autism what Lizzie Simon’s Detour did for bipolar–normalize it.

A lot of people tell me to just do journalism on here and not to write personal things because of discrimination from my current job and other potential employment. However, I’m a firm believer in claiming one’s own voice in order to change minds and decrease discrimination or stigma (I hate the latter word). For as Virginia Woolf said, “You can’t write about others until you are open about yourself.” Claiming our voices and our stories changes lives and open minds. As speaker, writer and Founder of This is My Brave Jennifer Marshall, says “One day we’ll just call it talking.” That is why I choose to claim my voice as a self-advocate as well as highlight other’s stories of triumph over a system that so often fails us. I don’t care if an employer finds this post someday. Whether I disclose to them formally or not, at some point, they will figure out about my “weirdness” just from working with me.

I’ve been on a quest to prove I am normal since the seventh grade. Or, maybe it was something I’ve been proving all my life. It all started with my seventh-grade school counselor Ms. Lipman. Ms. Lipman told me that I would have limited career options when I grew up. I didn’t understand what she meant nor why. I wanted to be a lawyer; she told me to go into something with computers. 

To understand where I was in seventh grade, you must understand that throughout my early life I have had tremendous difficulty understanding my peers and making friends. I was an excellent student in all subjects except math. I have always had difficulty with math. To this day, I whip out a calculator when I am in a store and need to find a percentage or I ask the salesperson. And, I barely learned fractions. I learned math by drawing a picture of the number problems. It helped me conceptualize it better.

In seventh grade, I tasted a certain freedom. I accidentally auditioned for the school play and surprisingly won one of the leads. Acting was my refuge. It was here that wearing a mask was acceptable, even a way to be funny. I got lots of laughs that year on the stage, especially when I improv-ed. The older theater kids were my haven. But, off the stage, I still got bullied by my peers and I never had many friends. I was the kid who read a book all alone at the lunch table or I simply just ate my lunch in the bathroom. 

When I talk about wearing a mask, I meant that when I was a child and young teenager, I always used to wear a smile on my face in every situation even if it was inappropriate. I simply never learned what facial expressions were and how to make them in different situations. I had a young friend Julien, who I met in the resource room while getting help for math, call me smiley. The label stuck and the other kids would bully me with it. 

I hated to watch television except for the news or 60 Minutes, another reason I had nothing in common with my peers. But sometimes I would watch a fictional show just to understand how to talk to people, how people talked to each other. I loved to do this with the soap opera Young and the Restless and Beverly Hills 90210. I would then mimic what I saw in certain situations in school. This continued throughout my school years and included movies and other media. 

I also created a character in my head who only I heard and saw. His name was Arthur. Arthur looked like Super Mario only in a blue pinstriped suit, with a blue beret. I created Arthur as an objective voice to help me in social situations. Sometimes Arthur got me in trouble by reading a situation wrong or by causing me to act out impulsively. In later years in college, I began seeing psychiatrists who thought Arthur was a symptom of schizoaffective disorder. Many labels were thrown around from bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizoaffective disorder. They gave me meds which seemed to help somewhat to take the edge off my emotional states, but never explained the core of the problem. My current psych practitioner I believe has it right: bipolar type 1 with high-functioning autism tendencies.

As a freshman in high school, I withdrew into my own little high achieving world. I created dramas in my own head to explain how people talked to each other and would enact them with my Barbie dolls alone in my room. That’s when I met Mr. Holdt, a professional writer and the writing instructor at my private school. Everyone had to take a class called Writer’s Workshop. I really, really loved it. I still have his Top 40 rules for Writing in an old notebook. I would write essays and poetry about the people and experiences I had in my young life. Mr. Holdt was impressed by my writing and encouraged me to take more advanced classes. Later, Ms. Davis the guidance counselor, recommended me to write articles on high school for our daily paper the Hartford Courant. I also became the editor of the school paper the Jabberwocky and worked closely with the desktop publishing teacher Ms. Katz. 

But while I had a burning desire to prove myself in the journalism world, I had this secret interest in psychology. I read books by Mary McCraken and Temple Grandin about teachers who helped special needs students or books written by people with special needs themselves, in the case of Temple Grandin. In sophomore year, I worked at the early childhood center of my local JCC. That summer, I worked with a little boy who was having trouble with peers in preschool. At the end of the summer, he had made a little progress and his mother saw it. She gave me and the other girl who had worked with him a box filled with candy as a thank you. 

The next year my mother signed me up to work at a camp at the Elmwood Community Center in the next town over for special needs kids. I did mainly photo copying that summer but I got to see how the adults worked and nurtured these kids. At the end of the summer, the campers performed a play Beauty and the Beast. I can still remember how Jordon, who I had no idea of her disability, sung Tale as Old as Time. To this day, whenever I hear that song, I can hear her voice. 

I briefly entertained studying drama therapy and special education in college, but the old voice telling me that I would amount to nothing pushed me back to journalism where I could prove myself that I could ask hard-hitting questions, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I raced into journalism with the thought of maybe going to law school or even a graduate program in journalism. 

I pushed myself to pay my dues in journalism always taking on more and more stories for my college paper and doing internships at major newspapers. I really liked writing about science and technology and social advocacy journalism. I became the science and tech editor in college. But I could see myself using writing as a tool, a sort of weapon, to advocate for people with disabilities and mental illness. 

My interest in mental health became unlike my other high school interests in McCarthyism, GLBT rights, the Holocaust, the psychology of Nazis and haters, social injustices throughout history, Connecticut politics. It became all-consuming. As many of my interests, it became all I talked about and all I studied. Today, through therapy, I have learned to broaden my interests in order to small talk with people. Though, small talk is not exactly my specialty.

I don’t like labels so read what you must from this post. I just thought I should be transparent about my disabilities. They, in no way, shape the person I am or the work I do. I am a competent, competitive, compassionate writer, journalist, and substitute teacher. Someday, I hope to use my experiences to write nonfiction books on my experience in college as well as novels about young adults with disabilities and mental illness. I also hope my teaching experience will make me a better public speaker to offer talks on these issues to other groups and organizations. And, as always, I plan to continue over here on A Mile a Minute. 

New Book Highlights Witnessing Mental Illness from a Child’s Perspective written by an 8th Grader

There aren’t too many books written by children who witnessed their parents’ mental illness and chose to write about it while they were still kids. 

Owen Marshall, now an eighth grader living in Virginia near Washington, D.C., is your typical teen playing video games and participating in sports like swim team and basketball. However, a few years ago, he and his younger sister Vivian, witnessed something traumatic. 

“I was in shock,” he said.

His mother, Jennifer Marshall, founder and creator of This is My Brave, a storytelling organization which helps people share their stories and talk about mental illness, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 in 2006 a few short years before Owen was born. 

After the sudden death of her co-founder of This is My Brave of a heart attack a few years ago, Jennifer began experiencing mania and psychosis, and ultimately had to be hospitalized. Her children, then tweens, witnessed the beginning of her episode. It confused and frightened them.

So, when Jennifer was stable again, she had both her kids talk to a therapist about what they saw in order to process it. The therapist, who wrote the forward in Owen’s book, wanted them to write about what they experienced. They both wrote books about it.

So, after much editing, Owen wrote a version for his seventh grade English project. 

“I learned about how I thought as a person, and especially how I deal with trauma,” he said. “I wanted to run from trauma, but I learned the way to deal with it is to confront it.”

He received an A for his assignment and his teacher said it was the only nonfiction/memoir turned in to her. However, he wanted to take his project much further to combat the stigma of mental illness and help other children to deal with similar experiences. So, he worked with an illustrator to publish his work to Amazon. 

His mother, Jennifer, was extremely supportive throughout the process, helping him decide which details to include that would be helpful to others. 

“It can tell other kids that there are ways to recover if they go through something like this, that there is always hope,” he said.

Owen had difficulty writing about his mom’s actual episode, but he persisted through the pain and blocks to write eloquently. 

“I realized that it wasn’t her, that she was acting differently because of the mania,” he said. “Writing my book helped me process it a lot more, now it’s become a part of me rather than something I’m afraid of.”

He hopes to reach other children who are processing and dealing with similar issues with their parents or caregivers. 

Although, Owen has no plans in the immediate future to write another book, his mom told me that he has written drafts of sci fi/fantasy books. 

Writing is a cathartic way of dealing with the trauma of mental illness in yourself and others. For someone so young, to be able to write fluently and eloquently about it, is a testament to the next generation being open about talking about mental illness and erasing the stigma. As his mom Jennifer always says in her talks, “Someday, we’ll just call it talking.”

You can purchase Owen’s book by heading here Mom’s Mental Illness. Jennifer Marshall, Owen’s mother, is the founder and creator of This is My Brave as well as the blog BipolarMomLife

Feeling Good during the Holiday Season Might Mean Practicing Intentional Gratitude

Deborah Hawkins intentional gratitude practice is different from making a gratitude list of things and experiences life brings you. It’s about knowing what you value and practicing it daily, seeing things you love in different situations.

“Intentional gratitude changed my life because I don’t feel like a victim. We can’t control what happens to us but we can control how we view what happens to us. We take control of our own mind,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins appreciates big windfalls, but showing up for her practice involves being grateful for the small things that happen in her daily life. 

A Grateful Dozen

“The core of my practice is personal gratitude themes. Everyone will have their own themes. I believe gratitude is a way to celebrate yourself. What you are grateful for reflects what you value.”

Hawkins developed her practice as a way to recover from depression and anxiety many years ago, and she uses intentional gratitude to this day. She suggests you make a list of twelve things you value, more if you want. Then, you look for things in your daily experience that fall into those twelve categories. 

Some of her themes are beauty, belonging, good fortune, neighborhood discoveries, and seeing things with tourist eyes. 

Hawkins has written two books Mindful Meditations, a collection of moments of gratitude from her own life that she compiled from her blog, and Practice Gratitude Transform Your Life, a workbook that brings you closer to your own intentional gratitude practice.

During the pandemic lockdown, rather than being upset about being stuck in her home, Hawkins looked around her home at her clothes, her music, her exercise equipment, her dog, her full fridge and felt good that if she was going to be stuck there at least she took pleasure in her home. 

“I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished or put together myself,” she said. “Every time I see a good moment and get a good feeling, I take pause. I ask myself what is at the heart of the good feeling?”

This leads her to one of her themes. She calls this her pro-active self-inquiry asking herself how her themes (values) are showing up in this situation.

She was once impatient while driving. She looked over at the car next to her at a light and saw a dog sticking its head out the window. She found this funny and then remembered one of her values that she loved to be surprised. 

Hawkins shares more on her web site and in her books on how you too can practice intentional gratitude. She also will coach you in creating your own practice. You can find her at

Temple Grandin Talks about Different Kinds of Thinkers in her new book Visual Thinking

Temple Grandin, animal scientist and Associate Professor at Colorado State University, does not believe in labels.

In her new book Visual Thinking: Hidden Gifts of People who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions, Grandin expounds upon the mysteries of genius and neurodiversity, how the American educational system favors verbal thinkers rather than “object visualizers” as she coined, and how the American workforce needs to offer more apprenticeships to give people who think in pictures like her more opportunities to create and make things.

“I’m a visual thinker not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google images,” Grandin said.

During childhood and adolescence, Grandin struggled with behaviors that today would be labeled autism. Today she is regarded as one of the highest functioning people with autism in the world. She gives talks on neurodiversity and how parents and educators can look at their child’s strengths instead of the label and foster these strengths into work skills. 

Focusing on a child’s strengths not the label

“Parents and teachers should focus on a child’s strengths rather than what they can’t do,” said Grandin. Educators need to expose students to a lot of different things and build on what the child’s strengths are toward. 

“Schools screen out talented people because they can’t do algebra. Kids with hidden talents who think in pictures often get shunted into special education.”

When Grandin struggled as a child, her mother fostered her love of art and horses by encouraging her to work. She worked on her aunt’s horse ranch and making signs for local shops in her town. Grandin believes that parents and teachers must go with the child’s interests and broaden them so they can develop work skills for later life. In her new book, Visual Thinking, Grandin suggested that more companies and craftsmen offer apprenticeships and internships to students so they can learn a trade. College isn’t for everyone. 

She wrote that people who think differently are often written off and many people who worked with her building livestock chutes and agriculture equipment had minds that would be labeled with autism or Attention Deficit Disorder ADHD. She knew people with these traits that went on to own successful international metal shops. She named quite a few successful people such as Thomas Edison and Elon Musk who became successful despite these traits.

A new future for kids who think differently

Hew writing changes the way we think about intelligence and the way people think. Grandin said there are different types of thinkers. There are verbal thinkers, who see in language and words, and there are the object-visualizers who can see in pictures and patterns. The object-visualizers are most likely your engineers and innovators in science and technology. 

“Kids who think differently can have challenging careers and do something positive,” she said. 

What others say about her

I talked with Grandin’s agent and editor. They have worked together for over 25 years on many books Grandin has written. 

“Temple is easy to work with. She’s clear about what she wants, direct and collaborative,” said Betsy Lerner, of the Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. “She’s brilliant, an original thinker and highly motivated.”

Lerner said that Grandin’s work is research-based and more technical than narratively driven. She likes to write about ideas and research and stay current on the scientific discoveries.

“With Temple, she’s brilliant and articulate but there is never a lot of socializing or small-talk,” she said. Grandin focuses on the work at hand which is a characteristic of writers that Lerner likes.

Written during COVID, her book Visual Thinking, took 1 and ½ years to write. “It motivates me to work with her because I believe in her mission to educate people on neurodiversity and to make life better for livestock,” said Lerner.

Industrial design and object-visualizers

Grandin said that people who think in pictures often can see mistakes in design that other types of thinkers cannot fathom. “We need to foster the collaboration of object visualizers and spatial visualizers, especially when public safety is concerned,” she wrote in her new book. 

To learn more about Temple Grandin, visit her web site at

Human Power Project an Innovative Program in Teaching Mental Health to Students

Picture Courtesy of Ross Szabo

When Ross Szabo, wellness director at the Geffen Academy at UCLA and CEO of the Human Power Project, a curriculum designed for students focusing on mental health, tried to end his life at age 17, he didn’t know it would be a turning point toward a career helping students and adults find their own mental wellness. Actually, that turning point came at 22 after years of struggling with his own mental health dropping in and out of colleges. 

Szabo eventually graduated from American University and after learning to manage his bipolar disorder effectively began speaking to others about mental health. He authored the book Behind Happy Faces highlighting his own stories with tips to help others achieve lasting mental health. The book became an evidence-based, award-winning nation-wide curriculum for college, high school, and middle school students. 

His program highlights the following: a definition of mental health, a new vocabulary for mental health, how to build effective coping skills, descriptions of the most common mental health disorders, the importance of sympathy, empathy and compassion, the difference between good stress and bad stress and how to use good stress effectively, brain development and risk taking, upstander intervention, and how to help a friend. 

“We teach that good mental health is the same as taking care of physical health like the flu or a broken leg,” he said.

He earned the Didi Hirsch Removing the Stigma Leadership Award, and his work was entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Recently, I learned on Instagram, that he was featured on Dr. Phil’s show about his educational program on mental health. 

“I created the Human Power Project to help people move past mental health awareness and start teaching people skills about their mental health,” Szabo said. Some of the Human Power Project’s studies showed that students could now take care of their own mental health and manage their lives better.

The program gets results too. “Students report that they have more mental health literacy, understand how to frame mental health, and look at it differently than before,” he said. 

Szabo said the concept of putting mental health on a spectrum of people who have severe disorders versus everyone else is dangerous.

“The dangerous thing that this promotes is everyone with a diagnosis needs help, and people without one doesn’t,” he said.

Everyone has triggers and stress. For some, it may mean treatment and therapy. For others, it might mean listening to soothing music, meditating, talking to a friend, going for a walk, or anything to balance your mental health. For Szabo, that means lots of meditating and he recently started incorporating Breathwork into his wellness practices.

In the age of school shootings where students know they are happening by picking up their phone and with social media so pervasive and the pressures to get good grades and get into a top college, students are being pushed to the brinks of bad mental health. 

Szabo is impressed with this generation’s openness about the topic of mental health.

“When I got out of the psych ward in 1996 and first began speaking about mental health, there was nervous laughter in the classroom. This generation is more open than the one before it.”

Like many mental health advocates, including myself, Szabo took a break from mental health. He joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Argentina and Botswana. In Botswana, he worked at a center for people with disabilities.

Szabo stated that the biggest most common window for people to seek help is ten years. It is important to understand mental health and how it impacts your life. 

To reach Ross, click on, or check out the Human Power Project.

Two Crusaders Dedicated to Ending Bullying and Teaching a More Compassionate World

Jodee Blanco has always championed and defended the underdog from the time she was very young. The other kids in school didn’t like this and bullied her mercilessly for it. 

Blanco, formerly in publishing and the author of many books including Please Stop Laughing at Me, a memoir of her experiences as a child and teen with bullying by her classmates, has toured both private, parochial and public schools speaking about bullying and trying to help the bullied, the bullies and the bystanders. She offers a two-part program “It’s Not Just Joking Around,” in schools to share her story and techniques for students, teachers and administrators to understand why students bully and how bullying makes people feel. 

In adulthood, Blanco reconnected with the classmates who bullied her in high school at a reunion. Some reacted with shock to her newly published memoir, but others were wildly supportive. At the reunion, she even connected with a man, who later became her husband. Having survived vicious and cruel bullying herself, she decided it was now her mission to tell other kids that they are not alone, that there is help and another world on the other side of high school. 

In her last book, Bullied Kids Speak Out, Blanco turns the lens off of her own experience and focuses on the experiences of present-day youth who are still bullied for their beliefs, their disabilities, the choices they made, and who they are in this world. The fact is bullying still exists today; it’s just gotten worse with the advent of screens and cell phones.

I spoke with Blanco, as well as another expert in how children use screen technology, Nicole Dreiske, Founder and Director of the International Children’s Media Center, to uncover this pernicious problem and how two programs are trying to reform it. 

Dreiske offers a program for Pre-K through grammar school called Screen Smart which helps students use screens to learn empathy and healthy tech habits that contribute to positive learning. As a digital media expert, author, and educational innovator, she has 40 years of experience developing advanced educational strategies surrounding screens. Her program trains teachers and students healthy screen habits using brain and body exercises. Screen Smart’s proven techniques improve literacy skills, critical thinking, and social-emotional learning for children of all backgrounds, including ESL students, diverse learners, and autistic children. Her books the Upside of Digital Devices: How to Make Your Child More Screen Smart and Mindful Viewing emphasizes the work she does with her programs. Formerly, as Founder & Artistic Director of Facets Multi-Media, she launched the first and largest international children’s film festival in the Americas, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. She even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize children’s films at the Oscars. At one of her film festivals, a few pediatricians came up to her and told her that she was changing the way kids view screens. This inspired her research and founding the International Children’s Media Center, based in Chicago, with crusading programs to teach kids empathetic screen use and to make better choices with the media they consume.

Mean Screens

As much of bullying today hides behind screens, Dreiske’s research adds to the conversation. Dreiske said that screens make children overly-sensitive to getting their way when it comes to media and de-sensitizes them to the content of what they are viewing overtime. 

“If children watch violence at 3, by the time they are 5 they want more violence,” Dreiske said. “Screen viewing affects over time sleep patterns, obesity, and elevated levels of aggression.” 

My Eyes were Open but I was asleep

This is what Dreiske hears teachers tell her what their students often say when viewing screens. Dreiske’s program changes brain chemistry around screentime by using physical exercises and self-regulation skills to help students make better choices and understand how people feel on what they are viewing. She uses the Pause and Question method where the screen is paused and she asks students how the character in the film is feeling right now. 

“Screens are creating how early childhood memories are coated in the brain,” she said. She quoted a South African study which correlated how when television was first made available murders skyrocketed. “The minute a screen goes on in a home all the foundations of love you taught a child goes out the window. We’ve created a moral abyss that children cannot cross,” she said. “There is a gap on what they see on screens and no one is talking about it.” 

It’s all about Empathy

So how does this all relate to bullying? Television and other screen use has made kids more aggressive and less empathetic. The advent of cell phones has given kids a new, more disturbing way to torment the peers they don’t understand. Today’s bullies have an arsenal of tech to choose from to cause pain on their school’s underdogs.

Blanco said that because Facebook, TikTok and social media leaves a lasting imprint on the internet it’s often impossible for the bullied to escape from their past. Bullies now have the opportunity to create cruelty from their finger-tips. 

Blanco talked a lot about how her bullies made her feel. “The worst part about it wasn’t the friendship I was being denied, but that I was denied the opportunity to give friendship,” she said.

Finding another outlet for friendship

Blanco wrote a lot of poetry and in journals in high school and joined the local theatre group as an outlet away from the bullying she experienced in the classroom. She recommends that parents and kids find interests and activities outside of town to give a child another opportunity to make friends outside of their school district. “This saved my life,” she said.

Blanco’s work and lived experience has taught her that the bully and the bullied are both struggling and that teachers and students need to be sensitive to the issues their peers bring to the classroom. “One of the biggest reasons kids don’t turn to adults when they have problems is they feel they are going to be judged. Adults need to be upfront and candid with kids their care, addressing these challenges together as a team,” Blanco said.

The use of Compassionate Discipline

Blanco shared a story about how some students in her middle school, held her down and pushed snow into her mouth because she ratted a peer out. She couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. The ringleader who instigated this was suspended for a few weeks. They later learned that this student’s mother had left and his father was an alcoholic. He had to steal cafeteria food to feed six younger siblings. 

“The answer is compassionate discipline. There is no such thing as a “bad” kid. The bully is someone in pain who is acting out. Traditional punishment only makes the child even more angry and insensitive,” she said. “We need to supplement our approach with more compassionate, restorative forms of discipline.”

Blanco doesn’t want students to get away with cruelty, but she does wish she could go back and wrap her arms round that kid and say “It’s okay. We can help you.”

“Traditional punishment exposes kids to the consequences of doing the wrong thing, but doesn’t show them the joy of doing the right thing,” she said.

Parents need to be attuned to changes in their child. The sudden change of a preppie who goes goth, decreased grades, feigning illnesses to get out of going to school, and increased aggression are all signs that children may be bullied or are crying for help. Parents should talk with their children about more than just how was your day. Without being too nosy, they should show an interest in a child’s life. 

Dreiske believes that children need to start a conversation with their parents and other trusted adults about what they watch on screens. Thinking about what a child watches will help them gain empathy and understanding of peers who are different. 

“Parents need to talk to kids about what they are experiencing with screens,” said Dreiske.

Dreiske initiated her program in jails and shelters where many people experience bullying and violence. One young tough girl in her program viewed a film about a boy who wanted to be a girl. After the film was over, this tough girl had tears in her eyes and said she had to call her baby brother because she had bullied him over his coming out. 

There’s a power in teaching students’ empathy with what they view, and when the viewing is just nonsense. 

“Kids in my program often turn off that wrestling program, and choose other media programs that are less violent,” Dreiske said.

If you were or are being bullied, let’s not let the conversation stop with this article. Write me and share about your lived experience. I might include it in another segment on this blog. 

Please feel free to contact Jodee on her web site, and feel free to check out Nicole’s International Children’s Media Center at where you can watch her TED Talk and learn more about her programs.