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My Summer on the Hill with Autism Speaks

September 7, 2010 7 comments

This guest post is by Emily Walters, second year law student at George Washington University and summer intern for the Government Relations Department at Autism Speaks.

Every law student who begins a summer internship expects the usual: a lot of work and long hours in exchange for an experience to put on your resume. So when I was given the opportunity to intern in the Government Relations Department of Autism Speaks my expectations were those of any internship – another step on the staircase to my legal career.  But what I received from this summer far surpassed what I could have expected.

It started with a crash course in healthcare reform, disability rights, housing and transportation concerns, equal protection, biomedical research, and just about every area of law one can possibly think of.  It seemed daunting at first – who knew autism was such a crosscutting issue? But each day I learned more, and with the help and support of the Autism Speaks staff, the material fell into place.  Before I knew it, I was joining the advocacy efforts on the Hill – a both thrilling and terrifying notion for someone without prior Hill experience.

Throughout the summer I kept my family and friends laughing as I told them of my adventures at the Capitol (ranging from almost breaking a shoe as I climbed the steps for an important meeting, to nearly walking right into a Senator).  However, the reality of our work on the Hill was much more serious.  Each day was riddled with triumphs, disappointments, and unexpected compromises.  I quickly learned that the classroom theories of legislation and implementing change at the congressional level are nothing like the real life political world.  Lawmaking on behalf of those with autism is nearly impossible without people who are willing to pound the pavement and navigate the intricate networks of the Hill.  Under the leadership and talent of the Government Relations Department, some incredible strides were made for the autism community as we found ways through that web.

Although being on the Hill was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, the most memorable moment of the summer came towards the end of my internship. I awoke with a message from a close family friend whose son has autism: “Being involved like you are, is just too painful for me. Thanks for doing it for the moms who are too busy fixing their kids, and can’t face anything else. Xo.”

I was completely overcome with emotion.  No, I didn’t singlehandedly convince every lawmaker to join our cause, or pass a bill on my own, but I was part of something bigger than me – the greater effort to change the lives of individuals with autism and their families.  And in those 90 days of a summer internship, I realized my life was changed in return.  I saw unwavering strength from Army moms fighting at home for the needs of their children with autism, while their husbands are fighting abroad.  I heard what integrity and eloquence really sound like, as I listened to individuals varying on the autism spectrum speak on a stakeholder panel before members of Congress and their staffs.  This summer with Autism Speaks, I saw true compassion and understanding, from every single person I met with who is involved in the effort to better the lives of individuals with autism.

To learn more about Autism Votes, take action today on autism insurance reform legislation in your state, or find out about Autism Speaks’ federal legislative advocacy agenda, please visit www.autismvotes.org.

Emily with Autism Speaks' employee, Shawnie Keenan, at this summer's Autism Speaks 5K

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