By Kimberly Gerry-Tucker
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Oswald, a self-described nomad with wanderlust. She is a world traveler, full of heart and purpose. Katie approached me via social media and I couldn’t help but think…I want to be Katie when I grow up!
As Executive Director of a nonprofit called “Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults,” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, her organization’s vision of acceptance and inclusion, aligns with Art of Autism’s values. Involved with study abroad programs and the Peace Corps Masters International program, this young woman really is going places. Believing strongly in support and autistic-led community, Katie’s nonprofit’s main goal is “meaningful opportunities for autistics” with “acceptance, respect, and open hearts and minds.” Meet Katie Oswald! Here is our interview:
KIM: Hi Katie. You have been so busy. You’ve traveled to 18 countries on all seven continents, done a podcast with JR Reed at ”not weird, just autistic,” and given talks at Autism Conferences. What is your background?
KATIE: In high school I played in a band and worked in the service industry. I have a BS in statistics from Michigan State University. I did three study abroad programs – two in Russia and one in Antarctica and Argentina. I ended up going to Clemson University for an MS in Applied Economics and Statistics. During my degree, I went to Uganda for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
KIM: You have some one-of-a-kind photos, what an experience!
KATIE: It changed my life beyond words. I lived by myself in a rural village called Kiziranfumbi. There was one other volunteer in our village for the first six months, but after he left, it was just me and the villagers. I had to integrate and adapt to the culture to learn the trust of the people in my village before I could create programs. This took a few months, after which I started a variety of programs, including a village savings and loan association for women and a computer skills training program.
KIM: Now that is a life changing experience, both for you, and for the people you helped in Kiziranfumbi. Savings and loan and computer training are invaluable skills for us all, for those of us who are autistic, like myself, and also for people in general. I am sure you encountered many undiagnosed autistic people in your travels but I suspect autism isn’t on the radar in many of the countries you visited.
KATIE: It’s true that autism isn’t on the radar there. In most developing countries I think you’ll find little to no awareness of autism. For many people in developing countries, they are just trying to survive from day to day, make sure they know where their meals are coming from today, and if they have anything extra, maybe get medications for the kids or pay school fees so they can keep going to school. In a situation like that, there is no time to think about much else.
KIM: The smiles! Was it easy for you to absorb the differences in cultures?
KATIE: It is a real challenge to integrate into a new culture, but it’s a challenge I enjoyed for the most part. Life in a developing country might sound terrible to some westerners, but you’ll find happy people everywhere. In some ways this simple way of living is liberating. I think we don’t fully understand how detrimental it is for our brains to be constantly processing mass amounts of information and data, as we always are in western culture. In this respect, I like Ugandan culture more than U.S.
KIM: That statement is powerful and a reminder to all of us to be not only grateful and humble but aware that the world is a bigger place than what we see around us. The other day I saw a pop-up ad on social media for adhesive strips that are applied to the top of one’s eyelids to combat “droopy” eyelids. When I saw this ad, I thought of what you said about Ugandan culture, about priorities and about being happy. Are many westerners really so concerned, I thought, about whether their eyelids droop, and willing to pay money so they are ‘lifted,’ when in fact so much of the world is making do with issues like having no plumbing and little to eat. These are some of the cultural differences I imagine must have been difficult for you when you were living there.
KATIE: The things you think are going to be hard are relatively easy to get used to – no running water, intermittent electricity, no entertainment options, and little variety of food, for example. These end up being no big deal. Using a latrine is easy, bucket bathing is really enjoyable, and having time to think was, for me, a welcome change from the fast pace and constant overwhelm of the U.S.
KIM: Bucket bathing! I’ve done a little of that myself. I come from a humble background and often I was instructed to “save the water for your father. He’ll need a good soak when he gets home from work.” We had well water that ran dry rather quickly and then had to build back up. I often “bathed” from a cache of warm water in the bathroom sink. And yet, as poor as we were at times, I had access to caring teachers in a public school educational system, which is so easy to take for granted, and I did. What is your take-away on some of the deeper cultural issues you encountered?
KATIE: These are more challenging to accept. Like the poor treatment of animals, the fatalist attitude that makes everyone seem so apathetic at times, and the mob justice due to lack of public law enforcement. I came to terms with each of these over time to some extent. The people are competing with the animals for food, so the presence of too many stray dogs can literally be a life and death situation. Having no voice in civic issues and government forces people to take matters into their own hands in terms of law enforcement. This is also a survival issue. It takes a long time to truly understand and accept this, and of course, it made me really angry at times. I would say it takes a year or more to start understanding the deeper cultural issues, so this depth of understanding didn’t happen until I was over half way through my service. But like I said, you will find happy people in any country you visit.
KIM: What is the arts scene there, because for me, and so many people, art serves as a therapeutic outlet and an important way to express oneself.
KATIE: There is not an arts scene in the way we think of an arts scene, but music is a part of every day life.
KIM: That is good to hear. I believe that all human beings need art in some way, and music is an art unto itself.
KATIE: You will hear Ugandans singing while they work as you walk through the village. It is common to see people singing and dancing, whether it is to hip hop or traditional Ugandan music. It is often part of nonprofit programming. For example, in my village, music was used extensively in an HIV prevention program that used improv to teach young people about HIV.
KIM: That’s fascinating. You are making a difference in the world.
KATIE: My experience in Peace Corps made me realize how capable I really am, and it sparked my passion for helping others through nonprofit work. When I returned to the states, I worked for a nonprofit in Detroit as the Manager of Programs and Operations for a women’s entrepreneurship initiative. Later I worked as a Senior Analyst & Evaluator for a small consulting firm, where I worked on evaluation for a large funder of nonprofit programs in Southeast Michigan. I learned a lot about nonprofit management, program evaluation, and grant writing, but I also learned that I don’t thrive at all in a typical 9-5 work setting.
KIM: Many of us do not thrive in that setting, which is one of the reasons I work from home in software. Let’s talk about how you are helping autistic adults, because so many of us, once we “age out” of autism support geared toward children…we don’t know what to do or where to turn. Travel truly is a life-changing and perspective-altering experience and yet so many people don’t have that experience and don’t know where to begin or how to go about planning trips abroad. You’ve started your own consulting company,Katie, to help autistic adults learn how to travel and being location independent as you are, you have been to 18 countries on all seven continents.
KATIE: Yes, I have a travel company to help other autistic travelers to change their lives through travel, and I recently launched my own nonprofit for autistic adults. So, I’m not using my degree much at all, but I wouldn’t have reached this point in my life without it, so I’m grateful for the experience.
KIM: As an autistic person myself, I can think of so many ways a travel coach would come in handy. What kinds of things do you help people with? Let’s say I am planning a trip to Greece. In what ways would you be of help?
KATIE: So, it varies from client to client. If you are planning a trip to Greece and you aren’t an experienced traveler or you don’t want to do all the planning yourself, I would help you find flights, lodging, activities, etc. and help you plan your experience.
KIM: I have no clue about that stuff so I may be seeking your help at some point.