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Local nonprofit wants to shift belief systems so people see that 'autistic traits are human traits'

San Diego Union-Tribune - 6/1/2024

Jenny Palmiotto calls the idea for the nonprofit she founded, Love & Autism, born from "a professional procrastination." She was working on her dissertation back in 2013 when it just came to her.

"I was taking a shower and dreading making my way to my writing spot and the words 'love and autism' just jumped into my mind. I exited the shower and started the nonprofit," she says.

The organization is meant to challenge the false idea that autistic people don't want or need love and relationships. Her work as a licensed marriage and family therapist has focused on parent-child relationships and couples therapy, where she's had thousands of interactions in autistic relationships.

"I could see the damages and barriers that people faced when the general population believed contrary to what I know, so I just decided I would create Love & Autism to shift the status quo."

Palmiotto, 44, lives in San Diego'sLoma Portal neighborhood with her daughter, Grace, her son, Oliver, and their dog, Brucie. She's also the owner and clinical director of her mental health group practice, The Family Guidance and Therapy Center of Southern California. She took some time to talk about her efforts to help dismantle systemic ableism, particularly as it relates to autistic people, and her organization's recent hosting of the Los Angeles premiere of "Ezra," a film about a father co-parenting his autistic son and the road trip they take together.

Q: Tell us about Love & Autism.

A: The purpose of Love & Autism is simple — everything we do, whether it be a big movie premiere or a private therapy session, is related to creating a world where autistic people are able to experience love and belonging and be heard and understood as their authentic, autistic selves. We do this through bottom-up and top-down change. The bottom-up is creating this with, and for, autistic people and their families. The top-down is doing events where those without autistic lived experiences can shift their belief systems.

What I love about Loma Portal...

I love driving on Warden Street, which I travel several times a day. We live, work, and play in Loma Portal, so when I'm traveling on our family's well-traveled road, I'm showing up for the people that I love. This road takes us to my children's schools, to Cleator field for Little League, and my daughter swims at the YMCA, too. I love living and working in Loma Portal.

Q: For people who may misunderstand, can you help us understand how autism is generally defined?

A: Being autistic has basically two definitions: there is a disability and a social framework where both are valid and not contrasting worldviews. Being autistic is a disabling condition and it is also a valid and worthy way of being human. I'm not a person who likes to spout statistics or diagnostic definitions because people can Google that. I think it's important to understand that being autistic is a varied human experience. There are autists who have what would be described as an invisible disability, where maybe others don't see or know about the difficulties and differences that they experience. There are other autists who have higher support needs, which generally means that this person's communication and regulation differences may be better served through more external support, such as augmentative communication systems, therapeutic care, financial support, and the like. Sadly, higher support needs individuals can be represented as the "bad version of being autistic" where the quirky nerd guy is the "good" type. This is not a welcome thought, in my book. Higher support needs are just that, and people should be given the level of support that is personalized to their needs, fits their values, and improves quality life on their own terms.

Q: Your organization hosted a film screening in Los Angeles earlier this month for the film, "Ezra," (starring Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rainn Wilson). What was your impression of the film when you saw it?

A: I was nervous because lots of movies kind of miss the mark when they have any version of an autistic storyline. There are common disability tropes in film that make it hard to watch content that has autistic characters. I knew immediately that this movie was different. As I watched the film, my anxiety was still high. I was waiting for the common themes to emerge. I was waiting for the autistic kid to save the day. I was waiting to see parents that we are supposed to feel bad for just because they are tasked with raising their autistic kid. I was waiting for an overly acted version of being autistic where the character basically checks off each of the hallmark traits (lining things up, etc). I was waiting for it to have the feel-good message the moviegoers like, but in the end add to the heaping pile of film examples where autistic people are portrayed as broken versions of normal. "Ezra" didn't do that. This wasn't by happenstance. "Ezra" got it right because they found an autistic actor to play the role. The story was, in part, based on the lived experiences of the screenwriter. Even one of the producers has lived experiences with his own family life. I'm not a person that loves all things autism just because. I think a lot of times, the film industry gets lost in a feel-good disability narrative. This isn't that. "Ezra" pushes the status quo in autistic representation in film.

Q: What are some ideal examples that come to mind for you when you think of what it would look like to live in a neurodivergent-affirming world?

A: Dismantling ableism is not just the work of autistic people and their families. "Neurodivergent affirming" is not just a buzz word, it's a way of thinking, being, and acting for all of us. If we each contend with our own internalized ableism and then act upon this word in ways that are neurodivergent affirming, we have a better world, not just for autistic people but for non-autistic people, too. A neurodivergent-affirming world is a world where sharing that you are autistic isn't a risk in a job interview. A neurodivergent-affirming world is a world where my children don't come home and say, "they were calling him weird again" about an autistic student. This world would include far more resources at every age and stage to eliminate access barriers, developing humanistic practices as the norm, and a common practice would become to listen to autistic people.

Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?

A: I'm a Swiftie, I just love Taylor Swift and her Grammy speech for Album of the Year for "1989" has become a sort of mantra for working hard and trusting in one's self: "There are going to be people along the way who try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments … but if you just focus on the work and you don't let those people sidetrack you, someday, when you get where you're going, you will look around and you will know — it was you, and the people who love you, who put you there."

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I am not autistic, my children are not autistic, nor do I have close relatives who are autistic. This surprises people. It is disheartening when it happens because what it means to me is that there is an automatic assumption that people like me wouldn't be involved in dismantling ableism and creating a neurodivergent-affirming world if I didn't have a specific person or persons that I love who are autistic. For me, autistic rights are human rights. I don't need to have a family member or be autistic myself to want to be part of creating this change.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: An ideal weekend is getting up and doing a thing called "team clean" where we all work collaboratively on the list to clean our home. This puts us in the right space to have a day of fun. Ocean Beach is our favorite place to go during any given weekend. We take boogie boards, surf boards, football, paddle ball, and all kinds of snacks so that we can stay all day. We like to do all kinds of things. On a recent Sunday, we found ourselves bowling, then to the driving range, to the beach, and ended our night with fireworks and rides at SeaWorld.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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