Autism & the Peace Corps

The lens in which I view South Africa (and the world in general)

You might be autistic when you force your friends to pull over during a South Africa road trip, to take a picture of a flag bridge (one of your fixations). True story: Credit to my friend near Winterton, March 2013

You might be autistic when you instigate a stop during a road trip, just to pose with a flag bridge (one of your fixations).
 Near Winterton, Kwa-Zulu Natal, March 2013 by my talented friend.

I hesitated to include this information as I want this blog to remain focused on South Africa. However after struggling to find blogs of other volunteers with medical holds, hearing other applicants’ struggles, and being cognizant that as Peace Corps expands its diversity efforts more people will encounter medical pre-clearance, I decided to share my perspective in a Potentially Asked Questions Format (PAQ). I am aware about the length,  but most life experiences (like autism) are too complicated for social media character limits. I hope my words are helpful to the next applicant who is frantically googling “Autism and the Peace Corps” or anyone who stumbles on this blog.

Note: Every applicant’s medical case is taken on an individual basis and my experience does not reflect Peace Corps’ general policy. I also do not represent all experiences with autism.

What is my diagnosis?
Under the DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and a Generalized Anxiety Disorder at the age of 5, but my initial behaviors emerged at age of 18 months. However I support the recent changes to DSM V which made Asperger’s individual diagnosis more irrelevant (and unflattering name thank goodness) and placed it under Autism Spectrum Disorder. I identify as someone on the autistic spectrum or autistic for short.

Are there other autistics serving in Peace Corps?
I know of at least one; this is a fantastic article of how one individual used his fixation to teach science in Uganda. I would not be shocked if there other PCVs on the spectrum and I hope there are many more in the future.

How did this impact my application/placement?
In my initial interview, the recruiter said that through previous volunteer and international experiences I qualified for a number of African health extension programs. Due to my mental health history (I was on behavioral medication for most of my childhood and voluntarily attended counseling in college) I had to go through a Pre-Medical Clearance before I could receive an invitation to serve.  Peace Corps had an independent psychologist review my case and their assessment was that I would be successful based on my past experiences, but because of my autism diagnosis they wanted me to have access to psychiatric support. This psychiatric support designation combined with my random allergy induced wheezing that generated a mild asthma hold (I have yet to receive an official asthma diagnosis) created a list of 10 countries where Peace Corps felt comfortable placing me. Out of those 10 countries, 5 had health extension programs and 1 (South Africa) had no language requirements (the others required 4 years of Spanish and I had 3).

Do you regret telling the medical office all of that information?
No. All countries that Peace Corps serves in have different medical standards that the United States and ideas about mental health. Peace Corps is challenging experience and no one can say how autism (or the need for infrequent inhaler puffs) will impact my service. However it is common courtesy to let people know that I am prone to meltdowns before one occurs. Moreover, that information could be important in an emergency and not sharing it could place me in danger.

Besides, there is nothing to be ashamed about being autistic (or having any diagnosis), accessing counseling (and really it is not treatment, but a great way to practice interacting with others in a humane manner), and using any medication if that is what helps (or helped) you thrive.

Do you have any hard feelings toward the medical office?
Absolutely not, I wish called the nurse hotline earlier in the process because it is easy to get upset with the responses on the online medical portal where exchanges can be misconstrued. The pre-service nurses are on your side and their goal is not to bar you from Peace Corps. However they have an idea of what the medical infrastructure is like in each of the countries where Peace Corps serves. Considering the fact that they process 1,000s of applications each year, it is nice to know pre-service nurses cared about my well-being to give my case attention. While the restrictions were initially frustrating, Peace Corps is not to blame and honestly there is no blame. It was the way the world worked at the time.

I am Autistic (or any medical label) and I want to join Peace Corps. Advice?
I  do not excel at giving advice (ask my three younger siblings) but here is a tiny bit of my perspective. Please bear in mind that one volunteer’s perspective will never be relevant to every single applicant (every country offers a different Peace Corps experience)

Unfortunately there are medical conditions that  host countries are unable to accommodate at this time, and a list  is outlined on their website. Peace Corps may not be a reality right now, but I must stress no medical or mental need prohibits people from being a positive influence (my purposely broad definition of helping). There is always a need for volunteers from all perspectives in the States.

If your condition is not on the-cannot-accommodate-list but you are still unsure (my case), research. I devoured every blog and talked to every returned volunteer I encountered. The Peace Corps website is a great resource for general questions and ways to contact returned volunteers in your local area. Look at the types of volunteer opportunities on the PC website and then find organizations that work in those areas. Also, learning new languages is never a bad idea! It is great for your cognition and helps if you ever want to work in an international context.

I can relate to the anxiety involved with volunteering internationally when you have a medical label. The best way to test your abilities is to immerse them into the experience that you want. Study abroad and student organizations through college was how I gained my confidence in international situations but there are many methods. Finally there is a reason why Peace Corps’ has a core expectation of flexibility. Remember in the end, you make any experience fulfilling whether that is with Peace Corps or other opportunities. Spending time and actively participating in a community for 2 years is an incredible experience in itself.

Why are you mentioning this?
I realize that my application process has a happy ending. I went through the bumpy medical clearance process and got to serve in the one country that accommodated the restrictions. More importantly, I was able to obtain international service experience before I applied for Peace Corps. However, I know that there are people with disabilities who want to serve abroad who do not have that opportunity. That has little to do with Peace Corps, the US Government, and host country governments. In my experience it is how the world population views medical and mental needs that feeds this doubt. I still encounter people who think that disability and other diagnostic labels are synonyms for “incapable” when in reality it is another form of diversity.

The Peace Corps and other organizations have made great strides to provide safe infrastructures for service and enabling volunteers with a variety of medical needs to participate in Peace Corps. I want to continue to move towards a world where everyone regardless of their abilities, adds value to their communities as a dedicated volunteer in a setting similar to Peace Corps or in their own special way. Through sharing my background, I hope to open and maintain the conversation so that more people have options to serve regardless of their medical or mental circumstances. Honestly, If this was just a concern related to Peace Corps Headquarters, I would not be dedicating page on this blog about this issue.

Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.- Marie Curie

Thanks for reading. Now back to our scheduled programing on South Africa!


6 thoughts on “Autism & the Peace Corps

  1. I stumbled across your blog while looking up if people who have an open diagnosis of autism would be able to serve as PCVs. I actually just completed my service in Mozambique, right next door. I was never diagnosed with autism but I do share many of the same traits people with Aspergers have. It’s a relief to see someone else being a successful volunteer in spite of ( or maybe because of) their condition. Hope you’re enjoying SA, I spent some time there and was glad I got to explore some. It’s a beautiful country!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chad, I have been meaning to respond to your kind note…that I received an hour before PC told me I had to leave my first site. Thank you it meant a lot at a low point in my service. In my case it is “because of my condition” but in spite of stereotypes I am able to serve…that and I sincerely love the PC experience enough to keep going! Congratulations on completing service and I am glad you had a positive experience in South Africa…it truly is an incredible country( it is impossible to be bored here)! I have a friend currently in Mozambique for her PST so I hope to experience your former host country a bit as well. Thank you again, my hope is that more autistics (and more medical/mental identities in general) come forward and openly add to PC’s diversity.

      All the best,
      Katey (sorry for any typos I am doing this from my dinky phone)


  2. Pingback: Autism & the Peace Corps | The Vulnerable Traveler

  3. Hi Katey! I meant to send you an email about this but couldn’t find it, so here I am.mi think you should submit this to the peace corps official blog!


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