Speaking out

Poet and motivational speaker Russell Lehmann discusses his life with autism in his new book

Russell Lehmann stands with his book outside Sundance Books and Music.

Russell Lehmann stands with his book outside Sundance Books and Music.

Photo/Matt Bieker

Readers can learn more about On the Inside Looking In and Lehmann’s speaking schedule at www.russell-lehmann.com

Russell Lehmann is a 28-year-old poet and author whose work has earned acclaim from the Los Angeles Times and NY Book Festival, and whose speaking engagements have put him on stages all over the country. Last year, he was awarded the Young Professionals Network’s Reno-Tahoe Most Outstanding Professional Under 40 Award. His success, however, comes at the end of a difficult journey. At the age of 12, Lehmann was diagnosed with autism.

“Autism is a very broad spectrum, meaning that no two people with autism experience it exactly the same way,” Lehmann said. “It’s a neurological disorder, and with that, for me, comes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety, depression and a plethora of other mental disabilities as well.”

Lehmann said he began to show developmental and behavioral symptoms as early as 3 years old, which led his parents to search for answers to what was then, and is still now, a little understood condition. No answers came until 2003, when, after a brief stay in a city psychiatric ward, Lehmann was diagnosed at the University of Washington’s Autism Center.

“These days, I think the average age of diagnosis is around 3 years of age,” Lehmann said. “I dropped out of public school in the fifth grade, age 11, [with] severe OCD and severe social anxiety. I never made eye contact with anybody, never spoke to the outside world. I just spoke to my parents and my family, and I never left the house. Basically, autism, for me, in a nutshell, is being definitely afraid of the outside world.”

Lehmann spent much of his teens and early-20s shuttered from society, too overwhelmed to attend school or hold down a job—or maintain relationships. Taking online classes at Truckee Meadows Community College, he received straight A’s. But it wasn’t until 2011, when he felt compelled to put his thoughts to paper, that Lehmann started to reconnect with the outside world—and found an audience desperate to hear his message.

“I published that book because I didn’t want the world to forget about me,” Lehmann said. “No one really knew I existed, other than my close family. So, I put that out there saying, ’Hey, well, don’t forget about me.’ I wasn’t expecting it to help so many families and individuals with autism, and their struggles. And that was my first taste of advocacy, when I wrote that book.”

At age 21, Lehmann published Inside Out: Stories and Poems from an Autistic Mind, featuring a collection of poems—an art form Lehmann had always been interested in—and a short biography of his life so far. The book received international attention, with commendations from notable authors like Temple Grandin and Mark Haddon. It also won the Award for Literary Excellence from the 2013 International Autistic People’s Awards in Vancouver, an experience that would put him on the path to his current career.

“I went with my mom to accept the award, and I remember giving about a 10-second acceptance speech on stage, and that was the first time I’d ever been on stage,” Lehmann said. “And I felt oddly comfortable, oddly at peace, which you know, is rare for me. So, when I was 24, you know, I took it a step further. I know my first book helped so many people, and if I can take it a step further and use my experiences to help others, why not? And I had nothing to lose, you know, literally nothing to lose. So, I decided to, you know, try, maybe, being a public speaker and see how that goes.”

In the years since, Lehmann’s speaking engagements have taken him all over the United States, and even as far away as London. He speaks at outreach seminars, medical lectures and government functions about the realities of living with autism and advocating for more legal and societal inclusivity. Lehmann also now serves as a board member of both the Autism Society of America and Autism Coalition of Nevada, and as the Youth Ambassador for the City of Reno under Mayor Hillary Schieve.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be doing what I’m doing,” Lehmann said. “I thought I’d be that guy, 35-years-old, living in his mom’s basement and never having a job of his own. And I was that guy until I was 24: On disability, no friends, no girlfriend, no job. I’m 28 now, so that was just four years ago. I don’t know. Again, that’s one of the—I want to say ’ironic,’ but it’s not because I always knew within me, from the get-go, that I had something to give to this world.”

Next chapter

On April 9, Lehmann released his new book On the Outside Looking In: My Life on the Autism Spectrum, as an expansion of his experiences and lessons he’s learned in the seven years since his last book. On the Outside also contains 82 poems, some of which are reprinted from his first book.

“I guess ’raw and transparent’ is the way I’d put it,” Lehmann said. “It’s just me writing a poem, and I’m distraught or angry or depressed or anxious and it’s just totally 100 percent me. … There are some poems in there that made me think twice about publishing them. I was like, ’Russell, do you really want these out there for people to read?’”

Being authentic about his experiences, he said, serves his long-term goal of generalizing his message. While his diagnosis is part of who he is, Lehmann believes his message is valuable to everyone—not solely the autistic community—and he rejects being labeled simply: “a motivational speaker with autism.”

“One of the main tenets of my messages to everybody is to be themselves,” Lehmann said. “I wasn’t really part of society for a large portion of my life, and that’s why I wasn’t societally conditioned to wear a mask. In society, we mask our feelings. We go to work, put on a happy face even though we’re struggling on the inside, and, you know, our fingers are crossed that maybe someone will notice that we’re wearing that mask and take it off for us. I don’t think that should be necessary.”

For now, however, Lehmann’s advocacy is still important, as misconceptions about what autism is or the medical explanations behind it can lead to insensitive, and sometimes dangerous, responses. One that Lehmann touches on briefly in his book is autism’s current erroneous association with vaccination.

“If it wasn’t so serious, I would almost be laughing,” Lehmann said of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children because of the “risk” of “catching autism.” “They’d rather risk their kids’ lives than have them turn out like me, and I think that’s pretty amazing. That’s hard to digest.”

The supposed “link” between vaccinations and autism has been scientifically debunked many times, but to Lehmann, continuing to get onstage and share his story goes beyond just correcting a single erroneous belief. Lehmann’s goal is to destigmatize the condition he was born with, one that still takes a toll on his daily interactions with his friends, family and the audiences he meets. To Lehmann, though, it’s all part of what he was meant to do.

“I think, when I look at the totality of my thoughts and experiences, that has been the recipe for my wisdom,” Lehmann said. “I like to talk about everything, the good, the bad, the positive and negative. [I want to] paint that broad picture of human experience, and that, if we embrace our struggles and run towards them and not away from them—just like when we’re tested in school. When we’re tested in life, it shows us what we can improve on, what we can do better and what we’re already capable of doing. … I’ve learned that, when I face hardships, instead of thinking, ’why me?’ I think, ’why not me?’”