Thrive by IU Health

October 21, 2021

Mother, son: ‘With disabilities you’ve got to navigate and advocate’

Mother, son: ‘With disabilities you’ve got to navigate and advocate’

One mother and son – both IU Health employees - are speaking out during Disability Awareness Month in hopes of educating others.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

It hasn’t always been easy, but Sammy Thomas likes to think he’s not alone. Everyone has challenges, he says. His focus is how he overcomes those challenges.

Thomas, who turns 23 on October 31st, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. Throughout preschool and into high school, he received accommodations in speech and occupational therapy. There were resource teachers who assisted with organization and communication. Thomas also worked with music therapists and a behavioral consultant.

But what he remembers most is that his parents never made him feel like he couldn’t do something.

“I’ve noticed that some parents of autistic kids don’t foster their independence. My mom and dad were always trying to make it so that I was capable of doing things for myself,” said Thomas, the son of Danielle Dwenger and Wayne Thomas. “I think it’s important to recognize that every human being has the potential to offer something to society,” he added.

A 2017 graduate of Hamilton Southeastern High School, Thomas recently moved into an apartment with his older sister. He also has a younger brother. In addition to moving out on his own, Thomas says he feels good about taking a recent trip to California – booking his ticket, packing his luggage, and staying with friends.

“It’s something I wanted to do. It’s some place I wanted to see and I planned it on my own,” he said. “I hope to do more traveling too. I’ve always wanted to go abroad – possibly to Europe or Asia.”

Another milestone was starting what he calls his “first grown up job” with IU Health four months ago.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is being able to relate to people who aren’t my peers. A behavior coach helped me with job skills and I applied, interviewed and secured employment all on my own – everything from completing paperwork to gathering references,” said Thomas. “Some of it was about overcoming my own self doubt and some of it was learning about professionalism in the workplace,” he said. His job as a courier has him driving long distances from Richmond, to Frankfort and Danville, transporting specimens. When he’s not working, he’s taking courses to improve his IT skills.

“I’ve realized that having a disability doesn’t put you at a static level. You can be aware and work to improve yourself,” said Thomas. In some instances he has shared with employers his diagnosis. “It’s a way of recognizing why I sometimes do boneheaded things like wandering off when I should be working,” he said.

His mom, an oncology nurse with IU Health, has also learned through experience the importance of self-advocacy.

“I think the more people who know about your individual needs, the more willing they are to understand and help meet those needs,” said Dwenger. “When you leave school, you’re navigating the world on your own and you have to be your own advocate. The measure of a successful life is accomplishing what the individual finds is important and the champion efforts of people around them to recognize their strengths,” she said.

Outside of work, Thomas enjoys drawing, playing video games, running, writing, and learning about physics – especially outer space.

“I think it’s important to speak out. For people to know about your disability just means you have different abilities. We all have different abilities,” said Thomas. “The main thing is being tolerant of each other and to realize that not everybody’s disability is something you can see.”

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