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Finding His Voice Through Art

“When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” -Mr. Rogers.

Like most of us at the start of 2020, 28-year-old Josh Edwards had big plans. He had just graduated from Pittsburg State University in Kansas, secured a promising new job, and most notably, was getting ready to meet his longtime hero Kevin Conroy (iconically the voice of Batman) at Comic-Con.

But as the world shut down for COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders were put into effect, Josh—like billions of others around the world—watched as his plans were put on pause. Unlike most people, Josh has Asperger’s, now recognized as an autism spectrum disorder. For him, some things can be harder to comprehend and express.

“From what I understood, being on the spectrum, the way my mind has worked with Asperger’s syndrome, certain parts are there, but they have to grow into a habit, or I have to see it at a certain age, to truly reach that certain potential or peak,” he explains. 

This applies to everything in Josh’s life, from how he goes about making friends to discovering his true passions (none of which, he assures, have come easy). So naturally, the pandemic caused some confusion in Josh’s life.

“This was right after graduation when you’re supposed to have more access to life!” he emphasizes. 

To Josh, it seemed like he was given two options: hideout and wallow, or take the advice of Mr. Rogers, and learn to manage the anger he felt. Fortunately for Josh, it wasn’t the first time his world had shifted and he needed to figure out a new plan, and fast.

Finding His Footing 

As a child, Josh was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Shortly afterward, his family moved from Pennsylvania to Kansas. He recalls things being a little disorienting, but he mostly just focused on surviving school. Then, just shy of 14 years old, Josh was diagnosed with autism. 

“Getting an autism diagnosis wasn’t really that complicated, but it did feel more confusing. I can’t tell whether or not it was the lack of knowledge I had or the fact that it was happening at the point it did. I was turning 15 and was starting high school. That’s a complicated time for anyone!”

In true John Hughes style, Josh spent his high school years trying to find his purpose.

“I had friends, I’m very grateful for that. But I never had that group. You know, there are cheerleaders, or the theater group, the chess club… I never had that.”

He did have an abundance of charisma and an inkling towards entertainment, which led him to dabble in theater classes throughout middle school and high school. While he found the lessons interesting, he also recalls them being challenging. The roles and performances never completely clicked with him.

“In Kansas, there was no way to express myself, or I didn’t know a way to further pursue that. And I didn’t come from a performing family, so it was a little hard. Even if I had the right people to ask, I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t understand the disability, I lacked social skills, and I had to take a class on that in high school, which I would say definitely made it easier.”

Like Bruce Wayne, Josh had to overcome his own “fear of bats,” so to speak, to reach his full potential. While his origin story didn’t involve a bad night at the opera, he definitely had to overcome his own internal thought processes to fully embrace what he wanted to do: create.

Learning to Create

After high school graduation, Josh recalls his peers going off to school, scholarships in hand, knowing what they wanted to pursue. He decided to attend community college while he looked for his passion.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going for, shy of an education. I learned at this point that life has to be about more. You need passion, you need drive,” he explains.

At first, it seemed like “community” college was a term that could be used loosely. It wasn’t the same environment he’d grown used to in school. Once again, he was struggling to feel like part of a group. 

Luckily, Josh connected with an autism group on campus, and soon after met Austin Myers- a man who he fondly describes as the mentor he wishes everyone had. An animation major, freelancer, and “camera-whiz,” Austin provided access to that creative outlet Josh had struggled for so long to find.

“His work is unprecedented. I don’t know if they’ll remember him as the next Walt Disney, but they’ll definitely remember him as the first Austin Myers,” Josh muses.

Throughout his college years, Josh did a lot of soul-searching. He spent some time considering a career in early education but struggled to see himself sitting in slacks and a button-down shirt at a lunch table again. He pursued broadcasting for a while, thinking it was the closest he’d ever get to doing work in the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until Josh saw a compelling ad for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital that he realized what he really wanted to be involved in: social work.

“I saw an advertisement that changed my life,” Josh recalled. “I saw this ad of a little girl with cancer who couldn’t go out in the world, but they had this video projection of a horse trainer, and it’s so realistic that the girl gets up to pet the horse on the wall. My heart melted. I sent it to my mother and she said ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t consider social work?’” 

Josh was unfamiliar with the full scope of what social workers do and thought their work was related to volunteerism more than anything else. It certainly wouldn’t get him any closer to his entertainment goals. But as he was watching Extreme Makeover Home Edition one night, Josh realized there may be more to it.

“These people were involved with The Muppets and musicians and performers I’ve always wanted to meet! I thought maybe this could be the best of both worlds!”

The following month, he and his mother met with the people in charge of the social work department at Pitt, and three years later, Josh received his degree. 

 

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Josh said. 

This past August, Josh started working as a paraprofessional at a local elementary school. While he admits it has its challenges, he’s certain he’ll become a better caseworker as a result. And as for his entertainment dreams? All of Josh’s experiences during his soul-searching period have helped him grow mentally, emotionally, and creatively. 

“I’m a visual thinker, so I think I have to see the character to get into it. Now I’m at the point where I can use some more inspiration and influence. I’m using influence to bring my own characters to life. I’m looking where inspiration comes from. I’ve learned that’s nothing more than what acting and creating and imagination are. It’s not really reinventing the wheel, it’s making the wheel with your own style.”

Managing the Wheel 

While superheroes may have taught Josh how to have courage, his friend Austin taught him how to develop that into a creative platform.

“After seeing one of the movies and working with children who needed help, I felt like I was put on this earth to help reach both perspectives of the people with autism and their peers. I could be the bridge between the neurotypical and neurodevelopmental,” Josh explained.

The best way to create this bridge? Creating a YouTube channel.

With the help of Austin, Josh created multiple YouTube channels and has published over 60 videos to date. Some of the topics include self-acceptance, emotion management, and tie-in his favorite cultural heroes. 

In his latest video, Josh talks about how Mr. Rogers’ advice has helped him not only grow as a person but manage his anxiety and stress during the pandemic. At one point in his life, being a recent graduate with a ticket to meet Kevin Conroy and having everything shut down may have sent him reeling. But now, he has Mr. Rogers’ words in his ear.

“He talked a lot about how there’s always something you can do with the mad that you feel. Mr. Rogers was human, like anyone else in the world, he got upset, he had a temper. But he would choose how he responded. I tried to adapt what I’d hope to do or my plans to this situation,” Josh explains.

“As life gets more complicated, you see more diversity, variety, and recognize certain aspects of things. When you see some things that remind you of an idea that you had or stuff you don’t know how to take, and then you recognize what’s missing. When the important parts of your life are in place, then everything else just works like magic. It’s all about contentment and self-acceptance. When you have that, almost everything else falls into place.”

Despite being caught in a whirlwind situation during the pandemic, Josh continued to find contentment and self-acceptance through his art. He started drawing more, created DC fan art, and now has started his own comic book. Along with his growing YouTube channel, Josh is utilizing all the parts of life that have come his way to inspire his creative process. 

No matter what, Josh continues to put himself out there because he wholeheartedly believes that you have to be willing to try. 

“It doesn’t help to just hideout. You have to be willing to let yourself in the world. If you don’t then you’re never going to feel whole. You have to be willing to at least try, no matter how hard it is. Always make yourself available to the world, it’s the only way you’re going to be part of it.”

Epilogue

There was just one more dream Josh needed to accomplish: meeting Kevin Conroy.

As we know, Comic-Con was forced to cancel as a result of COVID-19. But Josh has never been one to let a bad situation dictate his life. He persevered to make friends, find his dream job, and create his own media channels. This was no different. 

“When Comic-Con got canceled, as you can imagine, I felt ripped-off by the universe. I wanted to meet him for years. I was frustrated. I saw it coming, but it did hurt. But as discouraged as I was, I took advantage. I thought since I couldn’t go to Comic-Con, I could at least give him my fan art,” Josh shares.

In no time, Josh whipped up a piece of art featuring Gotham’s most notable crime fighters (Batman, Nightwing, Robin, etc). He sent it to Kevin Conroy’s Twitter account and after a week… he heard nothing. 

“I felt like ‘What difference did it make?’ I felt so vulnerable and everything I tried for or worked for, what did it matter? And then, as subtle as it was, truly at least renewed my faith. I had gotten nine likes on this drawing, and one was from… MR. KEVIN CONROY! It was big! Still not the same as meeting him in person, but the man who inspired you, drove you to find courage, Batman himself taught me what it means to be courageous! That was amazing.”


If you want to keep up with Josh’s latest events, be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel

ECHO Autism is a community of autism experts dedicated to bringing high-quality specialty care to local communities through telehealth. Through guidance, knowledge, and training, ECHO Autism is helping providers all over the world learn more about autism spectrum disorder by connecting specialist teams with local care to benefit and empower autistic people and their advocates. Join our community of providers today at echoautism.org.

2 Comments

  • Sally Garibay
    Posted May 16, 2021 4:14 pm 0Likes

    Great article Josh – and thank you for sharing your story! Your positivity and creativity has always impressed me and I think it’s wonderful that you have navigated your life in such a positive way and are providing such a strong and positive message for so many others with similar situations.

    ~Sally G.

  • Sherry Danner
    Posted May 18, 2021 12:58 pm 0Likes

    Josh, this article is excellent and truly captures what I know to be true: You are an amazing person and an inspiration! I have the good fortune of knowing you and I continue to be impressed by your wisdom, faith, and willingness to keep trying no matter what. I love this line so much: “Always make yourself available to the world, it’s the only way you’re going to be part of it.”
    Thank you for being you and for making yourself available to the world! The world needs more of you for sure.

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