This Woman Is Helping People with Autism Have a Voice
When Melissa Diamond was young, she learned a valuable lesson from her grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor: “Never again should anyone be discriminated against based on who they are.” Diamond held these words close throughout her life.
Today, Diamond is executive director and founder of A Global Voice for Autism, an international nonprofit organization that equips conflict-affected communities to support children with autism or with other learning differences in their classrooms, homes, and communities. To date, the organization has served nearly 15,000 individuals in 13 conflict-affected communities worldwide.
According to their website, the organization “brings together teams of autism professionals, trauma specialists, and local community experts to train key community stakeholders in the skills to support and include autistic children and children whose lives have been impacted by trauma in their communities.” These communities then develop self-sustaining programs to support friends, family members, and others long after A Global Voice for Autism has departed.
Helping educate communities about autism abroad comes with its challenges. There are often stigmas associated with disabilities, and cultural barriers such as gender equality, economic status, and religious concerns. Diamond and her team do their best to use “culturally sensitive, evidence-based materials designed for limited-resource communities” so that their techniques, networks, and information can benefit autistic children and their communities for years to come.
Diamond is also a co-founder of MyBeeBee, which was developed by her team at the UNLEASH Social Innovation Labs. MyBeeBee trains and employs refugee women in Jordan to make motor-skills development toys for 2-to-5-year-old children in the U.S. market.
CircleAround caught up with Diamond to learn more about her career path and the incredible work she’s doing today.
CA: What life experiences have shaped your current career and goals?
MD: There have been a few experiences that have shaped my career path to date and which have inspired my broader goals.
Growing up, I had trouble speaking in school. Although I was among the top students in my class, I never spoke up, and I struggled to make eye contact. I remember my sixth-grade parent-teacher conference vividly. My teacher informed my mother that because I couldn’t make eye contact and was “too shy” to speak, I would never succeed in life.
I often reflected on my teacher’s words. It terrified me that this could be true.
In ninth grade, I joined my high school debate team and whispered my name during introductions, to collective laughter from the rest of the team. They wondered how someone who was so quiet could become skilled in debate.
But I attended every practice. I whispered through my first rounds, but by the end of the year, I won a speaker award at a tournament.
Today, that same kid who was told she would fail in life because she couldn’t speak, and couldn’t make eye contact has two (fully-funded) master’s degrees, has established an international organization, and gave two speeches at the United Nations before age 25.
I was lucky to have a strong support system of family, debate coaches, and others who believed in me. But not all children are so lucky. I know how much words like this can hurt and how important it is for children to have people in their lives who believe in them.
CA: What inspired you to focus your work on students with autism, especially in communities outside the U.S.?
MD: When I was 19, I met a mother from a conflict-affected community. The family was Palestinian, from the West Bank. At the time I met them, they were in Jerusalem for three weeks learning about their daughter's autism diagnosis. Originally, they felt the need to keep their autistic daughter in her home because of the autism stigma in their culture.
This family had permission to travel to Jerusalem to visit a center for children with disabilities, but after their permission expired, they returned home to a community that, at the time (things have changed a bit now) had almost no resources.
After meeting this mother and hearing her story, I was sure I had to take action. I had a close friend, Gina, who was autistic, and I couldn't stop thinking about how different her life might have been if she had been born somewhere else. I met Gina in high school when I started volunteering at her group home. She was three years younger than I was and quickly became like a sister to me.
When I met the mother that hid her autistic daughter with autism at home, I immediately thought of Gina and how different her life would have been had she simply been born somewhere else. In her community, she had an abundance of resources and support, and people who valued her for who she was. I have also recently become Gina’s guardian.
CA: Has your work changed at all as a result of COVID-19?
MD: I have been coordinating A Global Voice for Autism’s Include2020 initiative during the COVID-19 outbreak. Include2020 provides emergency in-kind support and coaching services for parents of children with special needs in conflict-affected communities, in addition to a mobile application that employs refugee teachers trained in inclusive education to make virtual inclusive education content for Arabic-speaking learners.
CA: What are the biggest challenges in your field?
MD: With any new idea, one of the biggest challenges is finding the first supporters who are willing to invest time and resources in the early stages. When I started A Global Voice for Autism, I was lucky to find The Resolution Project, an organization that supports undergraduate social entrepreneurs through seed funding and mentorship. They gave A Global Voice for Autism the first vote of confidence, which allowed us to launch our pilot program.
CA: And the biggest rewards?
MD: For me, the biggest rewards that have come from my work have been the opportunities to connect and form relationships with people from around the world. At A Global Voice for Autism, we recently conducted a survey to understand the needs of families in our network during COVID-19. We had a 96 percent response rate from families who joined our community between 2014 and 2018. I think this speaks not only to the value they find in these services but also to the relationships and strong global community we’ve been able to build. Seeing that community support each other and thrive makes all of the challenges worthwhile.
Whether it's working with children with disabilities, supporting refugee families, or doing anything else, I strive to create a world that recognizes every person's ability and potential, and which does not tell people they are destined to fail, but rather, highlights their strengths and provides them with the support they need to succeed.