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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

He's a young influencer who uses his platform for autism advocacy

young boy smiles into a phone camera, we see the shot on the phone in focus and the boy blurry behind.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Shaiden Pinkney is fascinated with technology, cameras, cars. He likes to explore and learn how things work.

At the end of the lunch rush at Cleveland’s Carl B. Stokes Public Utilities Building, employees often stop by the ground-level canteen, The Break Room Cafe, on the way to their desks. Everyone seems to know everyone, especially the proprietor, Melanie Pinkney, and her 12-year-old son, Shaiden.

Shaiden lives with autism and shares his experiences with over 50,000 followers on his Instagram channel, @BreakwithShaiden.

"I am an autistic advocate. I like to play with random things and have fun because I’m just a fun person," said Shaiden. "I'm building an online community so I can build a physical community soon. So everyone on my Instagram, just any autistic person, is going to be able to come there."

Shaiden is earnest, forthright and finds joy everywhere. He spends most days being homeschooled and hanging out at his parents' cafes, one in the Public Utilities Building, another nearby in the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building.

He also spends time on his beloved hobby, being a social media influencer. His videos, which he crafts with the help of his mother, feature Shaiden looking directly into the camera and advising other autistic kids on how to handle the unique challenges life presents.

"I think I was one year old and I got a diagnosis," said Shaiden.

His mother Melanie then cut in to correct him.

"No, actually, you were misdiagnosed at one year old," she said.

woman sits next to her son and talks while he looks at phone
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Melanie Pinkney describes Shaiden's autism journey while he looks at his Instagram numbers at one of the family's two cafes.

Pinkney says her son was originally diagnosed with ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It's on the spectrum of conduct disorders. Melanie said the ODD diagnosis didn't factor in the possibility that Shaiden could have autism and assumed that there was a traumatic cause for his behavior issues.

"The diagnosis process was kind of traumatic. The criteria for ODD states that the child went through some type of traumatic experience and traumatic meaning physically, the child does not trust adults," said Melanie, who noted that this did not apply to Shaiden.

Melanie said that the ODD diagnosis is often quickly assumed in children from Black families. Research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders shows that Black children are diagnosed with a conduct disorder before autism almost twice as often as white children.

"A lot of doctors will give that diagnosis first before even trying to discover what other underlying circumstances might be going on," Melanie said.

boy holds up camera showing his instagram profile
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Shaiden loves to talk about his Instagram profile, @breakwithshaiden, which has over 50,000 followers.

Shaiden wasn't diagnosed with autism stage II until he was nine years old. This was after he had already been removed from several daycares and schools due to his behavior issues.

"I was kind of kicked out of daycare. Another daycare. School. Daycare. School. Daycare. School," Shaiden said. He kept repeating these words until Melanie stepped in to stop him. This word repetition is one of the many unique ways that Shaiden's autism manifests.

"I wanted to become an Instagram influencer because I wanted to show my differences with autism," said Shaiden.

One of these differences is that Shaiden goes selectively mute, not responding verbally for extended periods. He also has an issue with knowing when he needs to use the bathroom, so he now goes on a fixed schedule. It's a topic he’s spoken about at length on his Instagram.

"It's normal for me now. But when I first started my bathroom schedule, it was a little hard," said Shaiden.

boy takes a picture with a camera
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Shaiden takes the opportunity to play with the journalist's camera. He immediately wants to see inside and begins firing away.

While spending time with him at one of his parents' cafes, Shaiden becomes transfixed with my camera, obsessing over every detail of it and wanting to see inside. His interest in machinery isn’t limited to cameras.

Shaiden is a big fan of cars, and he lists off the ones he hopes to one day drive. He recounts how his uncle, who lives in the family's hometown in Michigan, would take him out driving.

"I don’t like cars... I love cars," said Shaiden. "Well, I just like engine noise. I just like how the engine sounds."

Melanie says her son's fascination with cars and cameras betrays the depth of his social understanding.

"He's always been very emotionally intelligent. I know we talked about the intellectual disability, which kind of confuses a lot of people," said Melanine.

"He quit football at five years old, told the coach, I believe I'm just not mature enough to keep up with the group the way that they need me to. So I'm just going to sit out and wait and wait for my maturity to kick in," said Melanie. "If that's not maturity, I don't know what is."

Shaiden has big plans for his budding social media empire, but at his core, he posts on social media for the same reason he does everything else.

"I want you to tell my story because I could just talk and talk and talk and talk and talk until I ran out of breath because of how fun it is," said Shaiden. "What I want to tell other kids with autism is: Just be you. Just show how you like to show something. Just be you."

man looks at camera with one eye turned in, holding a microphone
Shaiden Pinkney
Ideastream Public Media
Shaiden took control of the journalist's camera and became comfortable shooting with it almost immediately, as shown here with a candid shot of Ygal Kaufman.

Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.