She sees her autism as a gift and coaches people who aren't 'neurotypical'
On one of the warm nights of summer, Carly Millis Jalowiec and her friends get together at Señorita Bonita's Mexican Grill and Cantina in Solon, a suburb of Cleveland.
It's a special gathering of friends who, later in life, are coming to terms with the realization they are autistic. Something Millis Jalowiec herself realized just a few years ago. Over dinner, they share stories.
“There are so many things that I do that either I've been told my entire life, 'That's adorable. That's a cute little quirk,'" said Alicia Evans, one of the diners. "But then there's other times where I have a very clear system for something and to find somebody else that does the exact same thing. I'm like, 'Oh!'”
That's a common experience for people with autism, especially those diagnosed in adulthood, Millis Jalowiec said.
“There's nothing in our society that validates the way that autistic people feel and think about things because we're constantly told our way is wrong," she said. "You go through your life going, 'What the hell is wrong with me?'”
For Millis Jalowiec and her friends, social media, online quizzes and talking to each other helped them understand their feelings and experiences.
A bumpy path to diagnosis
Millis Jalowiec owns a home, is married and is the proud owner of four rescue cats. She now works in autism advocacy. But it was a long journey to find her success.
For years, Millis Jalowiec had trouble holding down a job. She seemed to excel at a lot of things but always came home from work exhausted. Her mental health deteriorated and she burned out quickly.
“I have been an accounting clerk. I've been a veterinary receptionist and vet assistant. I've been a real estate agent," Millis Jalowiec said. "The common denominator there is me and the struggles that I was having in all of those environments.”
Looking back, she now sees she was dealing with sensory overload. Bright lights and uncomfortable clothing, having to make small talk in the office — things that might annoy some people, but leave her feeling sick and disoriented.
After talking to a therapist about her dad and his autism, Millis Jalowiec began the process of recognizing her own autistic traits. Her family quickly recognized her condition after she told them, she said. They didn’t have much choice.
“I didn't just go to them and say, 'I think I'm autistic,'" she said. "I was like, 'I think I'm autistic because here's 12 pages of information.'”
Fitting into a non-autistic world
Today, Millis Jalowiec said she feels happier and more in control of her life. She wakes up around 10:30 a.m. most mornings. Her workplace allows her to work hours when she feels the best, from her home office — where she can dim the lights and block out noise.
At other workplaces, “I would have to take sick days on a regular basis just to step away and cope for a day," said Millis Jalowiec. "I have not taken a sick day, for a mental health day, actually not even a sick day for, I don’t even know the last time.”
Millis Jalowiec's using her experience to coach autistic people to identify their sticking points and find ways around them. And she’s promoting a message that autism isn’t just a disability, but also an asset.
“It's not just the quote-unquote, high-functioning autistic people that are happy and like their autism," said Millis Jalowiec. "There's a lot of benefits."
It’s a label she said she and many people on the spectrum are proud to wear.