Autism Warrior: Russell Lehmann
Award-winning motivational speaker, poet, author, and advocate, who continues to overcome his personal struggles with autism to travel the world and share his knowledge, compassion, and hope.
In 2003, eleven-year-old Russell was admitted to the psychiatric ward at his local city hospital and stayed for five weeks. Later that fall, he was diagnosed with autism after years of developmental and behavioral symptoms without answers. Despite starting the journey towards proper treatment, Russell still struggled.
He dropped out of public school in the fifth grade and pretty much became a recluse for the next decade, battling incapacitating OCD, tumultuous panic attacks, and severe depressive episodes. He almost lost his life to anorexia and was admitted to two more psychiatric wards at 21 and 25. At the height of his distress, he was practically non-verbal, petrified of speaking to anyone other than his parents.
Any external stimuli was terrifying—the ring of the doorbell, the TV being on, the beep of the microwave. He felt like a prisoner in his own body and was extremely low-functioning.
Now, at 28, Russell is an award-winning and internationally recognized autism advocate. He has written two books, On the Outside Looking In: My Life on the Autism Spectrum and Inside Out: Stories and Poems from an Autistic Mind, the first of which was released in April 2019. His passion to be a voice for the unheard drives him to continue writing and speaking, especially due to his intimate understanding of the frustration of going unnoticed.
He works towards erasing the stigma and stereotypes that come with having a disability, and his efforts have led to being named Reno-Tahoe’s “Most Outstanding Young Professional Under 40” in 2018. He has lectured for the prestigious King’s College of London and his story is archived in the Library of Congress as well.
Russell considers his greatest achievement becoming a functioning member of society, as well as the personal development it required. He’d always been driven to overcome any obstacle in his path, but he’d never expected he would come as far as he did, believing he’d be dependent on his parents forever. Even at 22, he needed his mom’s company to walk to the mailbox.
However, he pushed himself out of his comfort zone over and over to become a more well-rounded and adaptable person. While he greatly appreciates his career success and acknowledgment, nothing compares to looking back on his life and seeing just how much he’s grown.
Russell’s biggest inspiration is his daily struggle. Every day is still a fight. He never wants to portray himself as someone who reached personal and career success and no longer has any problems in terms of mental health or autism. Rather, he wants to emphasize how he found success through his challenges and how his perseverance bolsters his understanding of himself and others.
He sees how much pain and silent suffering is in the world, and it makes him ever more passionate about spreading lasting compassion, understanding, and the importance of broadening one’s sense of perspective. He believes the most valuable of life’s lessons and insights are hidden within its trials.
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Career-wise, Russell has only been in the public eye for about two and a half years, and though he has achieved more in that time than he ever dreamed of, he’s just getting started. He hopes to turn his advocacy into activism at some point in the future. Yet, sometimes he gets too caught up in advancing his career and takes a moment to prioritize his personal goal: to find peace of mind in contentment.
While happiness is a gift of the moment and thus more of a privilege, he believes everyone deserves to be content. He has already won at the game of life and views it as a moral obligation to pass his knowledge on so others may do the same much faster than he did. When he recalls how he was given no resources, interventions, or supports other than the love of his family, he wants ensure others will have more.
Advice for families affected by autism
Russell’s biggest advice is to trust in the journey. “Do not doubt yourself or question if you are on the right path. Rather, have conviction that the path you are on is, and will always be, the only path, therefore making it impossible to step foot on the wrong path,” he said. Living with autism can be brutal, but he believes the heaviest burdens are only given to those with the strength to carry them.
For parents, he believes if you do something out of love, you can never go wrong no matter the outcome, so lead with your heart and parental instinct. “You know your child better than anyone else; this makes you the professional, not a doctor or therapist.” Embrace your loved ones and embrace the ups and downs of life. He also recommends remembering this comforting quote from an anonymous author: “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.”
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This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life