#136 Turning Autism into a Superpower for Advocacy

Today's Guest: Kadin McElwain

Today, I interview Kadin McElwain, who had significant challenges posed by autism. Diagnosed at the age of two, Kadin’s early life was marked by frequent moves due to his father’s job and the need for better educational opportunities. 

Despite these disruptions, Kadin faced severe bullying during middle and high school and the removal of his IEP services, which his parents had to fight to restore. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought further challenges, but Kadin found a silver lining in online schooling, which allowed him to concentrate better without the social distractions and bullying, leading to his early graduation in 2022.

Through perseverance, therapy, and a supportive family, Kadin has learned to view his autism as a superpower rather than a limitation. His extensive research and the encouragement from his parents helped him embrace his condition, inspired by notable figures who were also on the spectrum. Now a college student, Kadin is studying public relations with aspirations to enter the fields of music or political PR.

Kadin’s advocacy work focuses on changing perceptions of autism, emphasizing that individuals with autism are capable of great success and deserve opportunities for employment, relationships, and personal growth. He calls for better understanding and support in schools and workplaces and offers himself as a resource for parents and individuals navigating similar paths. Through his journey, Kadin exemplifies resilience and the belief that with the right support and mindset, anyone can achieve a prosperous and fulfilling life.


Kadin McElwain is an autistic college student, writer, and activist who is on a mission to spread autism awareness around the world. Throughout his life, he was told he wouldn’t amount to anything because he had autism. But time and time again, he proved the naysayers wrong.

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Connect with Kadin McElwain

Transcript of Interview

Transcript of Interview

Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast

Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing

Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com

Episode #136 Kadin McElwain

“Turning Autism into a Superpower for Advocacy”


(00:00) Doreen Downing: Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing, host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. Yes, it is about finding your voice today. I have a cold, but my voice is still with me. I get to introduce you to somebody. Out of 135 episodes I’ve done on this podcast, I’ve never interviewed somebody as fascinating as the story you’re going to hear today, so get prepared. This is Kadin McElwain. Hi, Kadin. 

(00:30) Kadin McElwain: Hi, Dr. Downing. Thanks for having me. 

(00:32) Doreen Downing: Oh, wonderful. I’m going to read the bio that I have here and it says, Kadin McElwain is an autistic college student, writer, and activist who is on a mission. That already gives me some straightening of my spine here where I just say, “Okay, wake up folks.”

He’s on a mission to spread autism awareness around the world. Throughout his life, he was told he wouldn’t amount to anything because he had autism. But time and time again, he proved the naysayers wrong. Ah, this is a really good moment for us to be giving you lots of space to come into view.

People are going to be listening on the podcast, but they’re also going to be able to see you because it’s also on video and I put it up on YouTube. So, if you haven’t tuned in yet on my podcast, you can find it on any podcast channel as well as YouTube. Hello, Kadin. 

(01:45) Kadin McElwain: Hi, Dr. Downing. Thanks for having me.

(01:47) Doreen Downing: Absolutely. I always like to start with early childhood. It doesn’t look like it was too far a long time ago for you. Some people I interviewed around my age who are way into their seventies. That’s the other reason why I’m so excited. I get to have a new generation pop up here on the podcast. Where were you born? 

(02:09) Kadin McElwain: I was born in Kingston, New York, which I believe is just outside the city, but I’ve been all over. When I was 11, my family and I moved to Gilbert, Arizona. Then a year after that, we lived in Tennessee for the rest of my middle school and high school career. And now, I’m in Ohio. I go to Kent State University. 

(02:38) Doreen Downing: Well, what was the reason for all those family changes? 

(02:43) Kadin McElwain: Well, the first one was due to my dad’s job. At the time, he was an IT professional at Tractor Supply Co. And then, the second reason was because the school systems in Arizona were absolute garbage. As in, I literally asked a teacher to change my grade to a B, and they obliged. So, there was that. 

In Tennessee, not only did COVID kill my family’s vibe for the state, but I was about to start college, and of course they needed to move one, to support my college career. 2, to be closer to family since we had some family in New York. And three because COVID killed the vibe of Tennessee for the family.

(03:35) Doreen Downing: Well, that’s a story, I bet. Killing the vibe. That’s very descriptive and yet also very compelling. I think COVID killed the vibe for a lot of us in a lot of places, and I don’t know exactly how it did for your family. How did it do that? 

(03:58) Kadin McElwain: Well, because people in Tennessee and the South, they weren’t taking the spread of COVID seriously enough. People weren’t wearing masks. People weren’t respecting the guidelines that were in place. Honestly, I was on their side personally, but to be fair, I was a teenager. I was young. I didn’t understand the magnitude of that situation. 

(04:21) Doreen Downing: Thank you for sharing that. Yes, living in a context that felt like it was unsafe actually. I can understand that. I remember, especially in the beginning, just walking outdoors and feeling suspicious of people if they weren’t wearing masks. And that was outdoors where we didn’t know yet if it was airborne or contagious. 

You remind me of those early years. And here we are, what, four years later and society is trying to get back on its feet and is doing a pretty good job of that. Well, and you’re in Kent State studying what? 

(05:00) Kadin McElwain: I’m studying to be a PR major. I’m hoping to do either music PR or politics PR. 

(05:07) Doreen Downing: PR! Oh, yes. Well, that’s part of what you’re doing today is public relations, helping the public understand something and improve the relationships of not only people who have autism, but people, families, and of society in general, awareness of it. 

So can we go back and talk about how did you know. When was a diagnosis —take us back way far back as you can go in your early memories. Am I different or what? What was happening?

(05:43) Kadin McElwain: Absolutely. I was diagnosed when I was two years old. Coincidentally, after getting the smallpox vaccination. Of course, it didn’t cause the autism. It was probably genetics, but I always find that funny since that conspiracy is still floating around to this day.

Well, after a brief stint in special education school, my dad really pushed for me to be mainstream, because he knew I was capable of so much more than some people with autism are. 

So, elementary school, that went smoothly for me. I didn’t experience any bullying. I didn’t experience anything of the sort.

And then, middle school and high school, as with probably anyone, regardless of disability, or race, or gender, or whatever, it was a nightmare of bullying and teasing and the XYZ thing. And in middle school, well, school actually completely cut off my IEP services without my parents’ consent, and they weren’t going to tolerate that. So, my parents wrote to every single autism organization in Tennessee and a state sender regarding the matter stating they knew those IEP services we’re required for me to be successful and to be where I’m at now. 

(07:03) Doreen Downing: Just for people who don’t know. My sister is a special ed teacher, so I know what IEP is, but what is IEP? 

(07:12) Kadin McElwain: It’s an individualized education plan. Basically, if someone requested, they set it up to guarantee their success. And it’s actually illegal, believe it or not, to cut off those services without parental consent. I learned about it on another show I was on and the host was actually a former principal.

Of course, COVID hit after that, during my high school years, and everything settled down, everything had to be online, and at first, I didn’t like online school, but the more I was into it, the more I learned that I can better concentrate in online school. No need for social interactions, no need to experience bullying. It was just me and my school. Worked so well. During that online school period, I was extremely successful, and I actually was able to graduate early in 2022, on Valentine’s Day, to be exact. 

(08:10) Doreen Downing: Well, that’s a very significant day for a lot of people, and it just always has the heart, and so I like the connection that you were able to graduate early on February 14th. Those of us who are listening are always going to associate February 14th with you now and that’s going to be a good thing because it will help us remember that we out here around the autism stigma that it still exists, that we’re able to say we heard somebody, we know somebody who is not shrinking from it, but is bold and out there and talking about it. So, thank you. February 14th, folks. Always remember February 14th. 

(08:59) Kadin McElwain: Yes, absolutely. 

(09:01) Doreen Downing: And bullying. I hate to bring that up, but that’s part of what the show is. To help people get a deeper understanding of what a life experience is. So how did people bully you? What did they say?

(09:17) Kadin McElwain: We could probably go all day. One significant memory I have was the time I called the school to report a spider being stepped on by a student. And one of the kids said—he was a close friend of mine—Brace yourself for some insults, dude. Spider lives matter or spider boy.

Another time, I called someone out for having food on the bus and they clogged me in the face. I’ve had, of course, the standard, “R” word that most people with disabilities often get hurled with, had F bombs thrown my way for telling on people. 

To be fair, in high school, I honestly put myself in those situations by not minding my business and being concerned about other people, but I’m working on not having control over people and minding my business because I still have those problems in a way, but those were some of the big ones I remember. 

(10:21) Doreen Downing: Yes, they do live on in our memories, don’t they? And it’s important for us to be able to give them back to the people who gave them to us and to not carry them in a bag on our own shoulders so that we’re able to release what people have said about us negatively.

I have so many questions for you. I feel like I’ve got a real live person who’s had a life experience and something that’s so foreign to so many of us, and I want to know more about it. When you think about your strengths, how do you define yourself in terms of your strengths?

(11:07) Kadin McElwain: I would say I have incredible intelligence. I have straight A’s, and I’m very passionate about my academics. I despise spring breaks and fall breaks and winter breaks because I believe the number one focus should be school, because that guarantees success. 

I have a really deep fascination and talent in music and writing. I have this overall stubbornness that pushes me to never give up on things until I get the success I desire. 

In terms of weakness, I would say that I’m socially awkward. I don’t understand social cues as often as I said. I don’t understand facial expressions. I take things too literally.

(11:56) Doreen Downing: Okay, so you see me in front of you and I have this wide smile. What does that mean to you? 

(12:05) Kadin McElwain: It means you’re probably happy and you’re intrigued with my story. 

(12:11) Doreen Downing: Yes. Do you feel you are absolutely fascinating? 

(12:17) Kadin McElwain: Well, I try not to have an ego, but I think we’re all fascinating in my own way. There was a time in my life where I had a hard time embracing that for who knows why, but I’ve been really working on that this year. And I’ve learned so much about autism and how so many of these successful people, many of which I admire here, were on the spectrum.

Isaac Newton was on the spectrum. Albert Einstein, he was on the spectrum. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tim Burton were on the spectrum. All these amazing people were on the spectrum, and they still had major successes in music and art and science and technology. 

(13:02) Doreen Downing: Thank you for pointing that out to folks and also giving those very specifics that people have paved the way for others like you who say it is possible. 

When you say autism and you really spelled it down to how you don’t read cues perhaps. Do you learn better how to read cues or is it always just like a blind spot for you? 

(13:30) Kadin McElwain: I’ve been working on it. I’ve gone to therapy since September of last year. I actually got to call tomorrow to see if Medicaid can cover that because the bill is becoming very expensive. Those sessions actually cost 65 bucks a session in here, and I’ve had about 15 to 20 of them so far, not counting the free one, so that’s most likely about 600 bucks that I got to come up with but it’s worth it. Truly. 

It’s helped me learn not to control people, learn not to hold grudges against people, and to not be hard on myself, and in a way, it’s been helping me learn all these complicated social cues of life.

(14:17) Doreen Downing: Well, you’ve done an amazing job so far and there’s still so much more to learn. I’m going to take a brief break because I need to do a commercial break and we will be right back.

Hi, we’re back with Kadin McElwain, who is telling us all about his life experience having been diagnosed with autism. He’s not accepting it as such a bad thing. In fact, it’s true, so he’s living with it. Not only is he living with it, but he’s learning about the value of it and the potential in it and all the changes that are still possible to make, even though you might have that diagnosis. Welcome back.

(15:02) Kadin McElwain: Thank you, Dr. Doreen. 

(15:05) Doreen Downing: Yes, well you’re saying that it’s almost like you woke up to autism being a certain superpower. What happened and how did you come to realize that? 

(15:20) Kadin McElwain: I would owe it to all the research I’ve done regarding autism—my advocacy work, and I would definitely owe it to my parents. They’ve been the major people in my court who have supported me through this journey of self-discovery and they told me that I ought to embrace autism and not think of it as a curse or a disease. 

(15:41) Doreen Downing: I’ve been a psychologist for 40 years. I think that, yes, as I learned and did my studies, we did talk about autism on the spectrum, but now, in a lot of the research and a lot of the articles that are coming through psychology today, are calling it neurodiversity. What do you think about that? Have you thought about that as a new description? 

(16:07) Kadin McElwain: I’ve only heard it a few times, but I think that’s a really good description because there’s so many disabilities and disorders out there. There’s ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, Down syndrome, X, Y, and Z things that you can’t categorize one and the other. There’s basically a whole range of things. 

(16:31) Doreen Downing: Yes, that’s what I’ve been learning from the articles that are coming in. That’s why I said for you, superpower. That you’re not less than. In fact, maybe you have way more than a lot of us.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s way more than a lot of us. We all are so unique and your uniqueness is obviously different than my uniqueness, but your uniqueness isn’t going to stop you. That’s what I think the message is that you’re giving to people today on the show is not only living example, but you are out there.

So, when you say you’re out there advocating for autism and awareness around the world. What do you want people to know or realize about autism? 

(17:24) Kadin McElwain: I mainly want people to realize that people with autism aren’t all a functional thing. They might just need a little bit of help. And you should try to give them the chance they deserve at employment and love and friends and X, Y, and Z thing.

For schools, I would tell them to do your job and not cut off IEP services without parental consent and maybe help students better understand autism. If someone in the class is diagnosed as being of the spectrum or Neurodiverse, I would urge teachers to tell the class. That way they can better understand autism.

For parents, I would say, teach your child kindness and respect, because it’s my firm belief that everything starts at home. It truly is. If the parent is mean and rude and hates a certain group, the child’s going to go out and hate a certain group as well. 

(18:26) Doreen Downing: That’s true. The prejudice, in fact, is what you’re talking about and how that gets passed on down to the children and then the children go out into society.

Well, I like this whole idea that you’re talking about being an advocate and a social activist for autism and being a spokesperson. If somebody, if a parent had a child with autism, would you be somebody like a resource that they could send their child to or talk to you about that?

(18:58) Kadin McElwain: Well, I’m not a therapist. I don’t have a license, but I would say absolutely. You don’t need a license if you have that because certain people go through certain things and you don’t need a license if you’re going through it, you’re already an expert. I would definitely urge any parent or person with autism or who has a child on the spectrum, who isn’t sure what to do, to DM me on Facebook, follow me on Instagram, where I could definitely be an amazing resource.

(19:29) Doreen Downing: Fabulous. I love that. You can be an amazing resource. So, you said follow you on Facebook. What would they need to look up? Your name only or is there a group you’ve got going? 

(19:45) Kadin McElwain: Yes, my profile name on Facebook is K-A-D-I-N R-O-N-A-L-D. 

(19:53) Doreen Downing: Okay, R-O-N-A-L-D, Ronald. All right. It will be in the show notes, so people could also just read whatever you’ve given me for the links.

As we’re coming to the end today, let’s open up to ask you a question that is more bringing this together. You’ve—already, to me—feel like you’ve given your message, and you want to inspire people, and you want to make your life be an example for others. What would you say? In closing, what would you want people here who happen to be listening or tuning in, what would you want to leave them with? What message? 

(20:38) Kadin McElwain: Exactly what you just said. I’m going to give an example that no matter the ailments or what you’re going through, you can still have success and an amazing, prosperous life. 

(20:51) Doreen Downing: Oh, it’s like a star out in front of us—an amazing, prosperous life.

Thank you so much, Kadin, for taking time and sharing your life, your experience, and your power. Thank you. 

(21:06) Kadin McElwain: Thanks for having me, Dr. Downing. 

Also listen on…

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.