The first time Cory Mandel heard of autism, his learning support teacher had pulled him out of the classroom to speak with him alone.
“She basically told me that it’s like an umbrella,” Mandel said. “It’s a spectrum. On one end, you have very serious behaviors, and on the other end, it’s almost not noticeable at all. She said that I was split in the middle, where people who don’t know me, they can’t even tell. Whereas people who do, they obviously know that I do have Asperger’s,” one of several autism-spectrum disorders.
He was in sixth grade at the time and studying for his Bar Mitzvah. It was a particularly dark period in Mandel’s life. He was in special support classes but didn’t know why. He had tantrums every other day, in which he screamed and threw things.
“I was so stressed,” Mandel said. “I was so upset.”
Mandel is now 25, and he has used his personal experiences to help others. He works for Special People in Northeast (SPIN), an organization that provides a variety of resources for children and adults with autism and developmental and intellectual disabilities. Last month, he received an Inspiration Award from Jewish Employment and Vocational Service Human Services for his work.
“I hope that what I know, or what I can identify with, can be helpful,” Mandel said. “I definitely have a story to tell. Is that story something I can use to benefit other people?”
His journey to get to this point has been far from easy, but learning his diagnosis allowed Mandel to put a label on some of his behaviors and helped get him through middle and high school.
“I knew that I had to understand myself and my needs so that I could survive,” Mandel said. “If something wasn’t working out for me, if I wasn’t in a homeostatic state, then I would go buck-wild. If I felt like I didn’t need to join any social group of clique in high school, I didn’t. If I felt like I didn’t need to join a club, then I didn’t. If I felt like I needed to develop a better rapport with the teacher because the class was difficult or I had some personal gripe with the teacher, then I brought it up immediately.”
After graduating high school, he attended West Chester University, where he studied liberal arts with minors in special education and psychology.
The summer before his last year of college, he participated in the Franklin C. Ash Summer Internship Program through JEVS Human Services, which places college junior and senior interns at Jewish nonprofits. He was Ash’s first participant on the autism spectrum. Mandel interned at the Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence, a residential care community for those with autism, Fragile X Syndrome or Down syndrome.
As part of Ash, participants also mentor a high school student in the Lasko program. His mentee happened to be on the spectrum as well.
When the summer ended, Mandel continued to work at JCHAI as a social worker assistant.
These experiences helped him figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
“It was the people who made it completely clear to me that this is the general field that I want to get into,” Mandel said. “I had never really thought about social work before or working with people with disabilities.”
After several years at JCHAI, he decided he wanted to transition away from his live-in job there. He started volunteering for SPIN twice a week, where he worked in its preschool program and behavioral health department. When a position for an administrative assistant opened, SPIN offered it to Mandel.
At SPIN, Mandel is learning about the administration side of working in a clinical setting. Many of his colleagues are there for their master’s degrees practicum, which inspired Mandel to pursue graduate school as well.
In May, Mandel started a master’s degree program at Arcadia University, studying applied behavior analysis, a method for treating children on the spectrum.
Mandel said that JEVS’ Inspiration Award provided him with motivation moving forward, though recognition was not the reason he set out on this path.
“It made me feel three parts humble, three parts embarrassed, three parts proud,” Mandel said.
Kristen Rantanen, senior vice president of communication at JEVS Human Services, said this is one thing that inspirational people have in common.
“They have this mission, and they’re just doing it. They’re not out to be recognized,” she said. “I’ve probably heard 50 Inspiration Award winners say that they found it very humbling and that they were a tiny bit embarrassed by it, too, because they were just doing their thing.”
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