Meet Phil M., 30
I guess you could say it’s perseverance at its finest."
Though the average age of diagnosis is between 3 and 4 years old, the Washington, D.C., native was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 17. Throughout his life, he’s persevered through eight years of high school, crippling social anxiety, the loss of his mother to cancer, and 79 rejection letters from his dream job. Today, Phil, 30, is the proud father of a 3-year-old boy, is a confident self-advocate for autism awareness and access to care, and has two thriving careers that he manifested through positive thought and hard work.
“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” No philosophy sums up Phil’s life better than this quote from inspirational writer William Arthur Ward.
Since as far back as Phil can remember, he has had one passion in life: trains. He became infatuated after taking his first ride on the D.C. Metro during a surprise after-school trip with his mom to see his grandmother. From then on, Phil would spend almost every waking moment learning about trains and memorizing the inner workings of the railroad system as he awaited his next opportunity to ride the rails.
Later, he also developed a strong love of photography. Phil, who finds it difficult to make eye contact, said he was drawn to the craft because focusing on faces from behind the lens enabled him to develop personal connections and forced him to exit his comfort zone. Thanks to his unrelenting drive, Phil transformed his aspirations into achievements. Today, he works as a professional portrait and lifestyle photographer, and just recently landed his dream job as a passenger conductor with a national railroad company.
But Phil’s path hasn’t been a smooth one. He spent most of his childhood struggling with social anxiety, which eventually led to poor attendance and failing marks in high school. It took him eight years and a transfer of schools to finally earn his diploma – an accomplishment he never thought he’d achieve at the time.
“School was particularly difficult. I had hard times going into the school and I hard times walking into the classroom. I would have panic attacks. I would get physically ill. I would cry, scream, fuss and refuse to get out of the car. That lasted all through high school,” Phil said as he addressed the audience at the congressional briefing on “Autism and Disparities: Addressing the Needs of Underserved Communities.”
“High school was a horrible hurdle for me. I was lucky enough to be in the largest school in my district, meaning it was pure torture. There are about 180 days in the school year and in my first year of high school I was probably present 25 days. That only progressed as the years went on.”
As for achieving his lifelong goal of being a train conductor, Phil persevered through rejection 79 times over eight years before finally being hired after submitting his 80th application in 2019.
“I guess you could say it’s perseverance at its finest,” Phil said with a laugh.
When Phil was first diagnosed with autism at 17, he thought an official diagnosis would bring about answers to the many questions he faced throughout his life, but that didn’t happen. He said it it wasn’t until his introduction to Autism Speaks that he began learning about what it meant to be on the spectrum and the resources that were available to him and others just like him.
“From the time I graduated high school until the time I got introduced to Autism Speaks, which was only about four years ago, I had no resources whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even tell anyone I was autistic because I didn’t think it was okay to be on the autism spectrum. So, I kept that hidden from employers, from friends, from relationships. I didn’t want people to know I had autism because I didn’t know what it was and how it affected me as a person."