Diego Pena was meeting all of his developmental milestones until the age of 18 months, when he suddenly stopped speaking, pointing, or responding to his own name. The family took Diego to their pediatrician for his regular checkup, where he received an official diagnosis of autism.
After the diagnosis, Diego’s parents worked hard to ensure their son was able to have everything he needed to succeed and have the best quality life in a world that wasn’t quite made for his needs. They researched methods to help Diego communicate with others, and by the age of four Diego was communicating on an iPad.
This tale is a common narrative for those diagnosed with autism, but there was something additional to Diego’s story. At the age of six, Diego had quickly learned to spell out his responses on a letter board and type on a keyboard. Through these communications, his parents soon realized Diego was incredibly intelligent for his age.
With clarity and insightful detail, Diego discussed social justice, peace, and autism rights. His second-grade scores at his school indicated he read and wrote at the level of a high school junior, and solved math problems at the level of a twelve-year-old.
Today, accompanied by supporter Amanda Johnson, Diego works fully integrated into his school system at Rancho Rosal Elementary, communicating via an iPad, letter board, and whiteboard interchangeably. Though Diego’s responses are slow, it is clear this is due solely to motor control issues.
He also participates in his district’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. Through this program, he and a group of his peers received a $150 grant to develop a poster and class video to educate other kids about autism. This project and his other life experiences with the educational system would later inspire his book Anatomy of Autism: A Pocket Gude for Educators, Parents, and Students. Diego’s teacher, Amy Wood, originally encouraged Diego to turn the well-researched project into a book to help anyone involved in educating a child with autism.
While enjoying a lunch at Chili’s, one of his favorite restaurants, I had the fantastic chance to get to know this remarkable and mindful third grader. We communicated via his letter board for the interview. From what I saw, the letter board served as an efficient method of communication which in no way masked Diego’s witty personality.
I soon discovered how much Diego loves partaking in outdoor adventures and, like many kids his age, theme parks. So while Diego’s book mainly deals with the educational side of autism, he had plenty to share in regards to his own travel preferences and tips for other kids with autism.
What is Your Biggest Travel Challenge?
It is hard in new places because I’m curious about things but sometimes autism takes over, and I struggle not to stand out. I try to use my coping skills to keep it together.
How Do You Tackle Sensory Overload During Travel?
I’ve been thinking the best way is to only stay in 5-star hotels.
What Special Items Do You Bring from Home?
I bring food because of my allergies. I bring cookies, banana chips, kale chips, and tangerines.
What Electronic Devices do You Travel With?
My iPad for communication. People can find it stifling for them to communicate with me, so I need augmentative and alternative communication.
What Are Your Strategies for Feeling Less Overwhelmed on a Plane?
I use my iPad to keep me comfortable. I also eat so my mom says yes to as many Diet Cokes as I want.
Do You Have a Must Do ritual when you travel?
I try steak and fries at as many restaurants as possible. I’m always curious if [any food] tastes better in a new place.
Do You Have Any Foods You Refuse to Eat?
Any gross vegetables. That is, of course, all of them.
What is your Favorite Hotel amenity?
It must have a swimming pool!
What Are Your Top Five Places to Visit You Haven’t Been Yet?
I want to go to Spain, France, Scotland, Russia, and the Bahamas. I have already been to the Bahamas, but I was little.
What is a Place You Can’t Get Enough of and Why?
I love Disneyland because it is so magical. Even though it can be autism’s nightmare, I’m still a kid who loves Disney.
If You Could Travel to Any Time Period, When Would You Go?
I would want to meet Martin Luther King and pick his brain about civil rights. I feel that trying civil rights practices would be terrific.
You can purchase Diego’s book on Amazon! The book is $4.99 for the ebook and $9.99 for the paperback. The book is a short but excellent read that emphasizes a very important point – the true autism experts are the one with autism themselves, and educators would do well to listen.