By Michelle DeVos, Esq.
“Everyone has a story to tell, a lesson to teach, and wisdom to share. Life is a beautiful masterpiece bound together by your experiences. Open up share your story, become an inspiration to others. You were created with a purpose, live your life intention, go out there make a difference by being the difference.” – Melanie Moushigian Koulouris
If our lives were to be defined by our past experiences, failures, and/or differences, then Bill Gates would not have created Microsoft, Steve Jobs would not have created Apple, and I would not be an attorney sharing my story today.
I have a superpower called Asperger’s, which is a neurological disability.
I do not view it as a disability, rather I view it as an ability to see the world differently. I grew up in a world where I felt I did not belong. I did not know how to communicate with others, nor did I desire to. People thought of me as a robot because of my quirky movements, monotone voice, and inability to express my feelings. That inability to express my feelings caused me to be more susceptible to abuse, because people thought I did not care. But I did care, I just did not know how to express how I felt.
As such, I was an easy target for bullying. In middle and high school, I was bullied both verbally and physically because I was different. I was made fun of for the way I looked, the way I walked, the way I talked, and the shoes I wore. Girls my age normally looked forward to putting on makeup, but not me. I dreaded it because I only put on makeup to conceal the cuts and bruises that I had suffered from the physical bullying.
Everyone has heard the saying, ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ That saying could not be more flawed because words do hurt, break, and can inflict permanent scars. I was called many derogatory names and told to go kill myself on multiple occasions.
During that time, I did not know how to deal with the pain I felt.
I blamed myself for being bullied because of the abuse around me at school. I used to ask why I could not be normal and would physically hurt myself to numb the pain I felt. Whenever I looked into a mirror, I saw a person that epitomized all the names she was called. It got to a point where I could not stand looking at the person being reflected back at me, so I punched and broke the mirror.
My self-esteem was also at an all-time low during middle and high school. Aside from the bullying, I struggled with my weight since kindergarten and developed bulimia. After my first semester in high school, I started online school and I got my health back on track. However, the scars from the bullying remained. I still suffered from nightmares and woke up in cold sweats. I still self-injured because I felt pain was the only feeling I knew in life. I still did not know how to communicate or express myself.
During that time, music found me.
When I actually listened to the lyrics in a song, the chord progression, etc., I understood and related to the emotions being expressed and the messages being conveyed. I finally felt serenity when I listened to music; the opposite of the anxiety I felt in every social situation. I did not need to worry about misreading social cues or misunderstanding whether another person felt happy or sad. Music became the way I coped with my anxiety in social situations.
I taught myself the piano and guitar by ear because I became obsessed with learning the distinctions in sound between every key played on a piano, every string played along different frets of the guitar. Through composing music, I finally found an outlet where I could convey my messages with ease rather than difficulty, which had been something that I had struggled with growing up. As such, I consider music my first language.
I turned (their) can’t into, I can, I will, and I did.
I derived most of my motivation to go to college from all those people who told me I can’t. I turned that can’t into, I can, I will, and I did. Some of my teachers and principals doubted my ability to graduate from high school because they thought I was intellectually impaired. Not only I did graduate from high school, I received college scholarships. I graduated summa cum laude from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in Finance and certification in Risk Management and Insurance.
I later decided to go to law school. However, I was told that it would be impossible for someone like me to go to law school because it would involve me having to stand up in a courtroom, speaking and arguing in front of a judge. This didn’t stop me because there are transactional attorneys who do not go to court. I also acknowledged that I have difficulties with communicating, reading, and writing, but I asked myself why should I shy away from something if it involves me facing possible failure. I decided to go to law school and prove people wrong, as well as become a voice for those who did not have a voice of their own. And I did prove them wrong; I recently graduated with honors.
When I started law school, I failed to realize I did not have a voice of my own.
I lived life not knowing who I was as a person for 22 years because I was closed off from the world and I never felt comfortable opening up to anyone. My discomfort stemmed from being ignored, judged, and/or misunderstood by adults in my life when I was bullied.
A little over a year ago, someone that I finally felt comfortable opening up to simply asked me, “what high school did you go to?” This question showed me that someone actually cared about what I went through. It was the first time I had ever told anyone I was bullied.
By answering the question, I realized my past does not define or limit me. It strengthens and empowers me because I choose to be a survivor rather than a victim.
Now when I look into a mirror, I do not see a person who lacks an identity. Rather I see a person who exudes self-worth and has a strong identity and confidence, so long as her Converse match her outfit.
I used my newfound confidence while in law school through the Street Law program.
In the Street Law program, I teach a lesson on bullying at schools that participate in the program. In the lesson, I shared my story with the students. As such, the students felt comfortable opening up about their struggles, whether it be about autism, bullying, home issues, self-esteem issues, or suicide. This initiated a healing process for the students because they know their voices do matter and they are not alone.
When I started the program, I was willing to share my story in hopes of inspiring at least one person. The response has been incredible and far exceeded my expectations. The Street Law program has been an invaluable experience for me because it has helped me become a stronger and better person. I finally conquered one of my biggest fears, which was public speaking.
Asperger’s is truly my superpower, and I am using my newly found voice to be a positive role model to high school students through inspiring them to not have their past experiences, differences, and/or failures define them. I am truly grateful.
Michelle DeVos was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and is defying the odds. Now 23 years old, she passed the Florida Bar Exam after graduating with honors from the University of Miami School of Law, where she received her Juris Doctor and an LL.M in Entertainment, Art, & Sports Law. She is currently pursuing an LL.M in Taxation at the University of Miami and is involved in Street Law, a legal outreach program where she is able to teach high school students about the law and current issues in today’s world.
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Big Question: What Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Self?
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