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In This Episode
Dr. Bill Wong, occupational therapist, reveals his unexpected path to being diagnosed as an autistic adult while studying occupational therapy. He also shares the power of finding another adult occupational therapist with autism as a key turning point in his life. Dr. Wong’s motto is Fighting On and he works to mentor autistic adults and fellow occupational therapists around the globe about life with autism.
About Our Guest, Dr. Bill Wong
Born in Hong Kong but raised in the United States, Bill Wong, OTD, OTR/L didn’t speak until he was nearly three. Although he demonstrated unique and repetitive behaviors, his pediatrician refused to diagnose him with autism because of his high IQ. It wasn’t until after obtaining an undergraduate degree in statistics and finding limited job prospects that Bill was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult. And that was only because he was studying occupational therapy.
Since 2010, Bill has completed a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy and received his clinical doctorate. Now an established occupational therapy clinician, sharing his journey as an adult with autism, he is also a well-known presence on social media. An avenue he uses to share his successes and challenges as an autistic adult. Moving forward, Bill plans to use his passion to engage students in Chinese speaking countries with education in their native language, while continuing to establish himself as a leader in OT and autism communities.
Takeaways From This Episode
Using his rare perspective as both an occupational therapist and an person with autism, Bill Wong, OTD, OTR/L presents problems individuals with autism are facing today. Offering community-based solutions, Bill showcases how individuals with autism are capable of success, even if the routes they take in life don’t fit the expected.
I’ve watched Dr. Wong’s talk 3 times in recent weeks, after expressing my gratitude to him personally for participating in the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast. What really struck me was his use of statistics to back up his motivation for being a public figure in this space.
Using the slogan of his alma-mater USC…..
Dr. Bill Wong is Fighting On.
Dr. Wong tuned in to the Sensory Friendly Solutions podcast from the sunny suburbs of East Los Angeles, where he is an avid golfer and figure in the OT community. Beyond COVID, 2020 has been a particularly strange year for Californians.
“…you also have to add too the wildfires that we had. The air quality is so bad that going outside is definitely a challenge as well.”
How has Dr. Wong coped with the many changes the year has brought?
It became clear early that adaptation professionally was not the only challenge. Dr. Wong is also a true hobbyist and is an educator.
“I still work in the nursing home but the routine has definitely changed for sure with daily check ins and then infection protocols, you know? Infection control protocols, so adjusting to different ones from different facilities. That has definitely been the challenge… Then in terms of education because I’m a teacher as well, at least for the lecture based classes, this whole year is all online. Definitely that was a big change…
Then of course, one of my favourite hobbies is to play golf. That has also changed as well, you know?”
Our mass-pivot to the online world for almost everything in our daily lives has been an adjustment for us all. As Dr. Wong points out, there are positives like increased flexibility in our schedules but there is also a sense of uncertainty.
“There are a few factors. One is I think it’s your schedule, but a lot more flexible than before….I think even that there’s a lot of uncertainties, so therefore you’ve got to try to respond to students’ emails.”
Perhaps paradoxically, Dr. Wong has experience an increase in work-load both on the side of the professor and the student.
“Yeah, there’s a lot more work than usual, I would say. Another thing I think is given that the students have a lot of anxiety of what’s happening already..”
What is ‘Zoom Fatigue?’
“Yeah, there is such a good term like that because they’re on video conferencing software programs too long. Sometimes they’ll be on for hours upon hours of the lectures. Sometimes the students just zone out, probably a lot more quickly than say on ground…”
Bill’s experience in post-secondary education was a fascinating discussion as an undiagnosed adult with autism.
He noticed early on that he excelled in mathematics but did not want to pursue the field long-term. He transitioned into the world of statistics and then, a brief foray into the accounting space.
“Then coming out of undergrad with a stats degree, I was unemployed for a year and a half actually and about a year towards that unemployment period, that was when my parents said, “You either could continue to be unemployed or you should start looking at some other careers to continue life, because you shouldn’t be wasting your time like this.” So, we explored a few fields. We explored business school…”
Business school didn’t fit either. Although Dr. Wong was trying his hardest, nothing seemed to stick.
What about the seminary?
“Then we tried seminary because at the time, my parents and I, we were pretty active in the church and we knew some young clergy…but then we looked at the job prospects. I was like, “Nope. That ain’t it either.”
Many of our readers and listeners can relate. We try as we might but when something doesn’t feel right we know we need to move on. Bill knew this instinctively but kept moving forward. He kept fighting on.
“Then we looked at a Master’s program for occupational therapy. We only looked at one school ironically because I guess that school was pretty close to home, so that school is actually University of Southern California.”
Bill knew with hard work and dedication, USC was within his grasp and he started to believe in himself.
“My math skills were pretty strong. They’re still pretty strong, especially considering I had the stats major, so who knows? Maybe I would be able to get in the field because my GPA is about par with the admission requirements and then, hey, if I have a decent day, I probably could meet the requirements for the graduate school examinations score too. It’s like hey, you’ve got this.”
It turned out to be a very difficult transition. How do we get through adversity and come out, better and changed, on the other side. How do we continue fighting on?
“I started beginning to get the hang of the field, beginning to get a hang of what occupational therapy is and as I got to know more about it, I was like, “You know what?” I think at the six months, that was when I finally bought into it. You know what? That was going to be my career.”
Clinical rotations were particularly challenging for Dr. Wong.
“A comment that I got was more eye contact, more reading social cues, not managing the time well. When I heard that the first time, I was sort of put off by it but it’s like, you know what? I was still learning. It was still a transition phase.”
And then the alarm bells went off.
“The second time that happened again, that was when the alarm bells. I was like, “Hey, how come I struggle in this more than my classmates do?”
“Then I think a few weeks later, actually I read a reading in pediatrics about how autistic children play and I remember, I reflected upon my childhood. I was like, “You know what? These descriptions look like me.”
Asperger’s in adults.
The patterns that Bill recognized in his research and occupational therapy studies reminded him instinctively of his childhood. Back to his early classes and his inability to socially interact the same way that other kids were.
When it came to his hands-on placements toward the end of his studies, it really started to hit home.
“I really struggled mightily in that one.
In fact, out of the 12 week placement, I walked out after week seven. Technically, I failed that placement but when my parents learned that I walked out of the placement and I got a fail, I told them, “Well, you know what? This struggle has been continuing for a year now in terms of my clinical internships. I need to find out why I was struggling.’”
Bill wanted answers.
“I was able to get the screening and assessment done pretty quickly. That took me a month to actually get tested and I remember in August of 2010, that was when I found out my diagnosis of Asperger’s.”
I was profoundly curious about how that day played out. What happened next?
“…in terms of my classmates, a lot of them were very shocked and the shock part is not because I was a little bit different socially but was more because I was going through all my education without any kind of accommodations. I think the diagnosis part, that was probably the second thing that they were surprised by because they probably could not have imagined somebody who is autistic amongst them in the classroom.”
Bill was absolutely determined to fight on, but he also wanted autistic adult allies.
“You know what? I’m going to give myself a two year window, get a doctorate done and then start my career that way.” Oh yeah, then in between too, I think just before I resumed my clinical internship, it was summer of 2011 because I started my clinical internships in fall of 2011. In summer 2011, there was a big turning point because I actually vented on Facebook, was like, “Who the heck in the OT community has autism?”
What Bill found on the other side of that question has led to an incredible career and profound mentors that have changed his life.
“…there was a caregiver from the UK. She actually commented and say, “Hey, there is this autistic OT from the UK. He works in adolescent, young adult mental health and he’s autistic. Here’s his website. You might want to contact him to see if he’s willing to talk to you.” Then two to three weeks later, I was able to connect with him and actually.” So, Dr. Wong was able to find not only another autistic adult, but one who was practicing as an occupational therapist too.
“Yeah, that was a big turning point..
…that actually gave me the help that I can be an OT, you know?”
Bill’s experience of being mentored inspired him to become a mentor for other autistic adults.
“I think I sort of made an oath to myself. If I were able to become an occupational therapist, I definitely do not want a repeat of what has happened to me to somebody else.”
He discovered he had unique insight, especially in the field of pediatrics. He was able to communicate and describe his experience as an adult with autism to help others fight on. In situations like childhood play, Dr. Wong’s insights are particularly useful.
“I guess it means I just could not imagine. Some other occupational pediatric therapists I observe, they’re so playful. I am not, so to speak.”
After finishing his education and having been navigating the landscape of OT jobs on offer in L.A, Bill settled on the nursing home environment.
“I was trying to figure out what my next direction was and through some soul searching, I settled on the nursing home setting which I have now been working for six years.”
Bill was then invited to give his TEDx talk about his journey and fighting on. He is a champion of change to the education and employment systems when it comes to autistic adults.
Bill introduced a fascinating term: Camouflaging by adults with autism.
“For camouflaging and masking, that actually means right now when I’m talking to you, I definitely am masking in a sense. Pretending I’m very socially competent, you know, than I think. It’s like wearing a mask. Sometimes you’ve got to be socially competent so you can keep your job or keep your relationships or keep rapport with friends, that kind of stuff. I heard from other autistic individuals on Twitter, that can get very tiring.”
What is Dr. Bill Wong’s strategy for reducing the noise of the current era as an autistic adult?
One word: Education
“I think we can talk about solutions, right? The social skills training in the workplace, I think that’s very important but at the same time on the flip side, I think the people who are neurotypical, I think it’s also very important for them to understand the autistic individuals.”
“I’m an occupational therapist myself. I have followed Bill for years on Twitter and really appreciate what he shares as an occupational therapist but also as an autistic person. He’s very forthcoming about his experiences and what he shared on our podcast. Yeah, just the value of that is incredibly important.”
Christel was particularly interested in the period of Bill’s life where he was diagnosed. Dr. Wong talks about Asperger’s in adults and some of his personal experiences.
“I highlighted just a couple of quotes of what he said and one of them was that response. Literally, how can you have autism? I think it was possibly his parents and that initial response of them. You’re going through university, right? He said later going through the education system without any accommodation whatsoever.”
“He ended up with a diagnosis that was very informative and very helpful for him to have but that seeking to understand as adults and we have an opportunity to do that, right? To understand our problems and look for solutions.”
Christel was profoundly moved by Bill’s dedication to finding solutions, a commitment she shares everyday while working to grow Sensory Friendly Solutions.
“…he wants to make sure along these lines, “what happened to me doesn’t happen to someone else”. That pivotal moment, he talked about several turning points and that pivotal moment where he found another occupational therapist who identified and publicly identified as having autism. As we bring the community, that diverse community, together of people who experience sensory sensitivities for many different ways, just feeling not alone, feeling like there’s someone else who shares a little bit of what happens in daily life.”
What was Christel’s final reflection for our listeners?
“I’m going to leave you with something that Bill shared very much towards the end of his interview. Two words that I think really encapsulate his mission and his passion and what we’re all trying to do in these conversations as we strive to make people comfortable. That really just is be you.”
Throughout the course of the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast, we want to ensure that you take action. Moreover, we hope we have, in some way, improve your quality of life.
We’re going to stick with the great Dr. Bill Wong for this innovation segment. You’ve heard it more than once throughout the course of this podcast episode. We’re going to point you to his TED talk. This was at TEDx Grand Forks and the title is Fighting On: Overcoming Autism Diagnosis. Dr. Wong is very forthcoming about his experience of the world as an autistic adult. This is a person first podcast, so we really love him for that, talking to us about Aspergers in adulthood. We thank him for that, for walking us through his journey, backing it up with some hard statistics like that 35% figure that you’ll hear about in the podcast with dismay.
You’ll also hear why it resonated with almost 23,000 people. We’ve heard already throughout the course of this podcast your listener feedback and we thank you for it. That you want to hear the real world experiences of the people that we’re talking to and this innovation segment is no different. Please go to YouTube or directly to TEDx. They have a TEDx talks channel on YouTube, with 27 million subscribers. There’s lots of people paying attention. Go to Fighting On: Overcoming Autism Diagnosis with the great Dr. Bill Wong at the TEDx Grand Forks.
Dr. Bill Wong, thank you for your leadership and for your participation in the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast.
We look forward to seeing you back next week for Episode #5 of the Sensory Friendly Solutions Podcast with the author of the Out-of-Sync Child, Carol Stock Kranowitz.
Thank you for being on this journey with us.