This is a guest post written by Rev. Allie Knofczynski. Allie (she/they) is a neurodiversity advocate and native South Dakotan who loves good vegan food and her dog Olive. As a recently ordained interfaith minister, Allie will begin seminary online this fall to work toward her Master of Divinity.
As a child, I wanted to be a million-and-one different things. Everything from being a veterinarian, to a writer, to an English teacher, journalist...the only thing I didn't want to do was make a decision. I never could have pictured who I am and where I am now, but it's exactly correct for this moment.
I started getting really interested in activism, advocacy, and general non-profit work toward the end of my college career. I had written articles online for The Borgen Project, and then started getting more involved in mental health awareness, since I struggled most of my life with depression, anxiety, and anorexia. I also went to YEA Camp for Adults to learn even more about activism work. Simply put, anything you could advocate for--climate justice, social justice, global poverty, mental health, animal rights, equal education, and more--I've been deep in the thickets of supporting the cause.
The funny thing is, I didn't go to school for any sort of activism work. I graduated with my Bachelor's in Media & Journalism and International Studies in 2018. After graduation, I spent a year in American Samoa teaching a fifth-grade classroom, to some degree putting off decisions on what to do with my life. It was on my heart to go into some form of ministry, so without visiting anyone or anything in-person, halfway around the world, I decided I would move to Berkeley, California, and study at the Chaplaincy Institute there to become an ordained interfaith minister. I finished that program just last month, and I see ministry as an important way to reach people and advocate for equality, justice, and, ultimately, love.
The particular advocacy I do now had never crossed my mind prior to August 2019. It was then that, after some research and self-exploration, I realized I'm autistic. It gave me immense clarity I never had before, and I essentially had to go through the whole coming-of-age process all over again. It explained why I had always struggled to fully connect with others, why I always felt like an outsider wherever I went, why it seemed like everyone had an unspoken secret they kept from me. The challenges that have and continue to face, I would have really appreciated someone speaking to me and really understanding what I had not yet known myself. I want to be that voice for others in my position, and I want the world to become more accepting of all the unique gifts that neurodiverse people give the world. I've mostly focused on advocacy on social media, a territory I know very well, but I'd love to continue expanding.
I put my autism and ADHD in as positive of a light as I can, because there's so much to be grateful for. My passion, empathy, and creativity make me who I am, and yet neurodiversity has been made to be a detriment. A disease to cure. A condition confined to young, white, privileged, cisgender men. The representation we see for neurodiversity (Sheldon Cooper, Rain Man) do not reflect the realities of neurodiversity in our world: a vast majority of us are unemployed, suffer from mental illness, become victims of abuse and crime, and have a very high rate of suicide. This world, as it stands right now, hasn't been made to accept and welcome us. In just over a year, the time I have been professionally diagnosed with autism and ADHD and have been completely open about that, I have been disregarded, belittled, infantilized, called names like the r-word, disbelieved by a family doctor, and rejected. You cannot help but feel like a burden, a failure. We, as neurodiverse people, need more representation, a larger space for us to occupy and speak up for ourselves, and the accommodations and resources available so we can truly thrive. I put myself in a very vulnerable position, but it's what I need to do, for myself and those like me.
I'm always surprised by the feedback I get from those I don't know and may never personally know. I don't have a large outreach right now, but I still receive comments and messages telling me how much I have helped them, how they relate well to what I speak about, and even use my videos/images to help explain their neurodiversity to loved ones. It's hard to even comprehend what that means to me. If I make even a tiny positive impact on someone else, that's what fuels me to keep pushing forward. I'm definitely not the stereotype of autism--I'm an adult woman who's terrible at math but has endless compassion--and I'm happy to put myself out there if it means that our general perception of autism and neurodiversity changes.
I don't recommend this work for everyone. It's difficult to be as open as I am about being autistic and disabled. I know my life would probably be a lot easier if I didn't disclose my neurodiversity. I might be taken more seriously, or seen as more capable and intelligent. Being open is the healthiest thing for me; a lot of disabled folks don't have that luxury. You don't have to be outspoken to make a difference. You don't have to be like me or any other person you see online or on TV to represent neurodiversity. Simply living and doing your best each day is always enough.
I make YouTube videos on my channel Autistic Allie, and I'm on Instagram (@autisticallie) and Twitter (@autistic_allie)! I also sell neurodiverse merch on RedBubble for those interested. I'm always looking toward doing more, so follow me in all the places to see what's next!
I think it might be an odd connection: neurodiversity/disability advocacy and ministry. I'll begin working toward my Master of Divinity online this fall, and my passion for ministry and spirituality is a unique space for greater awareness and compassion. Most people wouldn't think an autistic person would make a good spiritual leader. Of course I have that great desire to prove that assumption and stereotype wrong, but I also think it's so important to have diversity in all forms of leadership, including in worship settings. My hope is to become a congregational minister, one that uplifts everyone who may not otherwise feel seen or heard. And I'm more than certain I'll be doing additional advocacy on the side.