Recently, I interviewed Michael Buckholtz, founder of Aid for Autistic Children Foundation and an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome and OCD. Michael is a songwriter, performer, multi-platinum record producer and among other things, has worked with M.C. Hammer during the course of his music career. He also served our country in the United States Navy.
After experiencing first-hand the financial toll autism takes on families, Michael wanted to make sure that the poor and underprivileged dealing with autism were given a fighting chance. Since 2007, he has been on a full-time mission in finding a solution to the financial disparity families and individuals coping with autism face.
I love the work Michael is doing for the autism community and my exchange with him was both motivational and inspirational. Here are some excerpts:
Q: Tell me about yourself, your family and your advocacy for autism.
A: I was an obedient, high-strung child. I loved music and started composing songs by 8-years-old. I have two brothers, both on the spectrum — the oldest is a Desert Storm Army vet. My father is also on the spectrum. He’s a genius and an Air Force veteran. Also an Air Force veteran, my mom held us all together. She always felt like the odd person out, not really understanding our “language” or “behaviors.” I was in my late twenties when she made the discovery that we were all on the spectrum. That day I will never forget. No one was there to help our family when tough times hit us. When our wives left us, when employers and business owners released us because we were not catering to enough of the politics that permeates the workplace, times were very hard. I became a single parent because of my autistic quirks. No one fully understood us or really cared, especially in the black community. We did not look like the faces of autism the public had been made used to, so we often felt like we didn’t matter. As a result of my experiences, I started Aid for Autistic Children Foundation, Inc. using a large portion of my music royalties and with the help of my family.
Q: What do you see as "mission critical" for the autism community?
A: Educating autistic children without prejudice. As parents and educators, you have to drop literally everything you see or believe and start from a blank slate. If one’s child was blind, the first consideration isn’t to start looking for ways to “fix” them or ship them off somewhere. Autistic children are no different. These are human beings, first. Kindness and compassion should be the superior treatment these children receive. I know this will be difficult. Everyone needs to participate in this effort. Looking for ways to improve the lives of autistic children, rather than “fixing” them for personal comfort or convenience should be the focus.
Q: What are some of the issues adults with autism are dealing
A: Many autistic adults, like me, wherever they fit on the spectrum, have felt systematically shut out of the broader national conversation about what our real needs are. In an effort to counteract this mainstream media misdirect, more autistic adults seem to have found a voice through social media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. We feel abandoned. The primary focus is on the children, which is a good thing, but it should not be to the exclusion of adults on the spectrum who really need their community to understand the struggles they are having.
Q: Several years ago, you went on a hunger strike. What did you want to accomplish and did you accomplish it?
A: I wanted to bring attention to the financial disparity many families raising autistic children are experiencing and not just families with young children. I’m talking about elderly parents with autistic adults still living with them. Many cannot retire and all face certain poverty without some type of comprehensive debt relief program. I think I’ve done that.
Q: What is your vision going forward?
A: I want to duplicate the efforts of Aid for Autistic Children Foundation to meet the needs of everyone across the United States. I eventually want to bring this empowerment program to countries in South America, S.E. Asia, China, Africa, Middle East and Australia. I see a debt free and empowered autistic community around the world re-engaged and participating in our modern 21st century economy. Aid for Autistic Children Foundation will also be a chief employer of the autistic and of parents who advocate for them.
Q: What keeps you going?
A: Knowing how much my mom sacrificed emotionally and physically. She suffered many
emotional setbacks and even a stroke, brought on by emotional stress, while continuing to help me, my brothers and father. I owe her and I owe no less to myself and the autistic community. I just want to make things better for a lot of people who remain forgotten or purposefully dismissed. I’m also looking forward to marrying, again. I have to work extraordinarily hard to make a life possible for us. I will not quit until I do.
Q: Why is it so difficult for adults with autism to find jobs?
A: Firstly, we are already adults. That means we need to be working, productive members of society right now. The corporate perception is that adults (in general) are NOT the innovative
thinkers. It’s the young people. That already leaves adults, as a whole, out of job-seeking contention. So, the first big issue is the perception that adults in the workplace are no longer useful, therefore, ineligible for job placement. If you are autistic, well, there’s a whole other more socially entrenched problem of office politics that keeps many adults on the spectrum out of contention for employment or regularly terminated from employment. The good news is that in other countries many American’s consider “Third World,” they are doing
amazing well in hiring autistic adults. Many of us have the ability to work independently of others doing tedious and rigidly repetitive work. For example, we make great software systems testers (I’d REALLY enjoy doing that, myself!). We can be quite precise in our attention to detail. There are plenty of reasons to hire autistic adults, but because of the demonization leveled at people who are considered ‘disabled’, it’s going be tough to convince a skeptical corporate elite that a mass-hiring of autistic adults may raise their level of efficiency, while improving quality control.
Q: What is the next step for your organization?
A: We’re gearing up for a national Aid for Autistic Children Foundation sponsored capital campaign event called The H.A.P.P.Y.™ Project (Helping Autistic People Progress Yearly). We will begin in our headquarters in Macon, Georgia, focusing on those families raising autistic children and autistic adults that need financial relief the most. The capital campaign will eventually make its way to other states and we will make those dates and locations known as soon as we have them.
Q: How did you get to meet and work with M.C. Hammer?
A: When in the Navy, I was assigned to bunk in a room with a fella by the name of Stanley Kirk Burrell while deployed in Japan. His nickname was Hammer or “Hamm,” for short. I
purchased a lot of music equipment in Japan, where we were stationed and from there, we
started to really connect. After our tour of duty, we kept in touch. A few years and $45 million
dollars later (not my dollars!), I was in the middle of working for the most popular rap artist in
the world. I was 19-years-old at the time we met.
Q: What would you like your legacy to be when it comes to autism?
A: I just want to leave a legacy of music, kindness and compassion for all types of people. I love people — not in a "customer service" kind of way. I’m deeply fascinated by how we are made. Human beings are amazing and are capable of so much that is positive and wonderful and I’d like to see us one day tap into that awesomeness. I’m an autistic person and hope that just being the person I am will be enough of a legacy for the cause.