Thoughtful, eloquent and confident, Aaron Allen makes an impression in conversation. The senior at Del Valle High School has been through an experience that powerfully transformed his outlook and his self-image, and he’s happy to talk about it. Allen has autism, a condition that challenges his efforts to master social skills, speech and nonverbal communication.

But challenges aren’t verdicts on our destiny so much as tests of our fortitude. And Allen learned that lesson through his time in the Bank of America Student Leadership program, which included a local summer internship at Communities in Schools and a trip to the program’s summer summit in Washington, D.C. What might have been an exciting adventure to other students required Allen to shed long-held beliefs about what he could do and how others saw him.

In recognition of April as Autism Awareness Month, Allen spoke with us recently about what the student leadership experience taught him and what it’s like to grow up with autism.

AFM: Tell us about your family.

Allen: I am the youngest of two boys. My brother, Andrew, is 12 years older than me. He used to coach at the high school I go to, and my dad, Tom, works as the head trainer there. My mother, Theresa, is a retired first grade teacher from the elementary school I went to. So, we’re very close at Del Valle. It was nice to be around them throughout the educational process.

AFM: How did you find out about the Bank of America Student Leadership program?

Allen: One of my friends was the student council president at the same time that I was our freshman class secretary. She told me she was going on a summer adventure with Bank of America, and she thought when I got older, I should look into it, because it may help me grow my social skills and become a better leader.

AFM: What did you think would happen when you applied?

Allen: I didn’t think I was going to get in, mainly because I don’t see myself as a leader. Growing up, I was bullied a lot in school, and no one – my peers – really stood up for me. In middle school, as a result of being bullied, I became suicidal. I would shut down. The school was worried about me. I finally got over that hurdle when I got my service dog, Roxi.

AFM: How did being in the program change your outlook?

Allen: I learned a lot, but if I had to pick one thing that stood out the most, I learned how to function independently. The summer summit in Washington was the first time I have been away from home, my parents and my service dog. We were put into workshops of kids from around the nation, and my workshop had a lot of strong opinions. They’re very open, very social, and I kept to myself. I tried to keep it secret that I was autistic, that I have suicidal thoughts at times. I just didn’t want anyone to know. But soon, I realized that I couldn’t hide it from them.

So, I just told myself, “You need to try to be as strong as you can.” There was an event we had that gave me flashbacks of being bullied, and I had a really bad panic attack. That was the moment I realized that I cannot hide this from them. I need to do what they’re doing: open up and not be afraid of who I am. If they were going to really get to know me, I would have to tell them.

They were very supportive. They would regularly check in with me, make sure I was doing OK. I was able to have a stronger connection. There’s this passion in my friends from the nationwide program. Without them, I wouldn’t have had as good an experience as I did.

AFM: Were you surprised when your peers selected you to make the student speech at the end of the week?

Allen: Very. When I first heard about the student speech, I thought I wouldn’t mind sharing – I kind of wanted to share. So, I prepared a speech during lunch. It took me 30 minutes. It just came out of my heart. When I let my heart lead, it takes me to better places than my brain does. And I shared the speech with my friends. A lot of them cried. They said, “That’s perfect.” So, I was able to give that speech to the 300-and-some-odd student leaders and Bank of America officials who were there.

AFM: What is it like to live with autism?

Allen: It’s a challenge. I have a hard time socially. I tend to not understand facial cues very well. I often ask people, “Are you upset? Are you sad?” My best friend is on the spectrum, and she has helped me learn to embrace autism and not be afraid of it. It makes you special.

I consider it a blessing in disguise. If you do the research on famous people with autism, like Temple Grandin and Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, they had their challenges. I want to become someone who’s known for being different in a good way. That’s what I feel like autism can help me do. And that’s what I want people to know.

AFM: Do you see yourself as a role model?

Allen: I see myself as a role model to my past self, because I never thought I would get to where I’m at, being in all AP classes, on the homecoming court, a part of the Bank of America program. So many things have happened that I never dreamed would have happened. Nor did I think I’d live to see them happen.

AFM: What are your plans for the future?

Allen: I got accepted into UT Austin. It’s my dream school. I want to pursue computer science – or government, because the Bank of America program really opened my eyes to politics. I met with people like Congressman William Hurd and the staff of Senator Ted Cruz, and they showed us things not many people get to see. We got to go inside the Senate offices and inside the Supreme Court. It makes me feel like I want to be a part of this.

by Sherida Mock, editor, Austin Family Magazine. Photos courtesy of Theresa Allen.

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