No one could have prepared us for the tragedy, injustice, and overall difficulty of recent times. The pandemic has caused many of us realize how instrumental everyday heroes are in our society. It has brought to light the importance of kindness, acceptance, and understanding, things that are often taken for granted. I see the needs of those who are marginalized get swept under the rug on a societal level. I see the anger, pain, and hardship. We all see it. The ancient Romans defined a citizen as someone who leaves the world better than it was when they were brought into it. This is what I aspire to be, and as a freshman in college I am at the beginning of my long and tedious journey.
I plan on pursuing the study of Socially Assistive Robotics, particularly the application of such towards helping those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder gain the skills or therapy they need to reach success. My hope is to one day have my PhD in Biomedical Engineering, as well as adequate degrees/training in autism spectrum disorders so that I may specialize in helping those on the spectrum receive modified Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that is better suited to their individualized needs. Social robots have proven to be monumental in strengthening the social, cognitive, and emotional skills among those on the autism spectrum, particularly children. My first step was to dive deep and learn what this goal entails. When I began looking into the past and current research, I noticed that advocates were voicing strong opposition to current and past forms of ABA and CBT. Upon listening to the voices of the autistic community, I heard many stories of abuse, trauma, and discomfort associated with such therapies. Rather than being taught that individuality is a beautiful gift, as most children are taught, many autistic individuals shared that their childhood experience with therapy taught them to suppress their unique traits. They were pressured into molding themselves into society’s expectation of what they should be. They were taught that they weren’t good enough. As someone who is deeply connected to this community, I was horrified.
Therapy, especially technologically assisted therapy, should be utilized to better the world, not oppress those in it. I remember having a million questions run through my head, making me wonder whether my future would negatively impact those I want to help. It worried me so much that I wanted to give up. Will my work be contributing to abuse? The answer is no. I know the technology I will work with have the potential to modify these therapies to suit the needs of each individual, not just what society deems appropriate. It can be used to help autistic children gain skills and feel comfortable doing so. It can be used to teach children from a young age that they are good enough, and that they can achieve their goals. Disabled individuals need and deserve to know their rights and abilities from a young age. As citizens we should encourage and empower oppressed individuals. We should shine a light on their voices, because no one knows the needs and desires of any person better than that person. I learned that in order to fulfill my duty as a citizen, I need to use my interests and skills to make changes. I can’t give up. It is my dream to contribute to the move to robotically assisted therapy in schools and special education programs so that more children with autism can receive the increased opportunities for success that they deserve. I will work hard, acquire my PhD, and spread my message wherever I can.
I know many others share my dream of changing the world for the better. If you are like me, you probably worry whether what you plan to do will be enough. Many of us feel as though our strive for change isn’t worth it. We worry whether we, as individuals, can truly make a big difference. I would like to point out that every significant change in human history first began with small actions by individuals. No matter how large or small, your actions as a citizen matter. Your dreams and aspirations matter. Your experiences matter. I encourage everyone, no matter what path you choose, to stop and consider how you can change the world. How you do it is up to you to decide, but personally, I will take it one step at a time. Each year of college is but a rung on the ladder of success, which serves as a rest for one foot as we place the other somewhat higher. What awaits at the top will be the better world of your creation.