Embrace your Differences

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, Motormorphosis

Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez is an Autistic Deaf author, educator, Occupational Therapist, and international speaker. She was also the first openly Autistic person elected to serve in the United States government at any level. Sarah is passionate about occupational science, sensory processing and mental wellness, and positive disability identity. Her vision remains centered on the creation of identity-affirming contexts to support neurodivergent development. She runs the popular social media site The Autistic OT and is currently joining the autistic community’s effort to #StopTheShock used as aversives at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, MA.

Sarah’s professional experience includes headteacher at Head Start in Bristol, assistant professor at Bay Path University, early intervention therapist in Springfield, MA, and Occupational Therapist at Solnit North in East Windsor, CT.  Sarah and her husband, Jeremy, also served as a therapeutic foster family for the State of Connecticut for nearly twenty years and continue to provide therapeutic respite care for autistic children.  Sarah also serves on the advisory council of Disability Rights CT  Sarah can be found happy-flapping with her family in Enfield, CT.

Please enjoy this interview that gives you a bit of a peek into Sarah’s life!

Sterling: You have so many different titles, and you serve the world in so many different ways. Tell us a little bit about your career journey and how you got to where you are now?

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, MotormorphosisSarah: I actually cannot remember a time when I was not helping somebody with something, and that became a life-long passion. I would say that almost all of my life, I have been in a role specifically focused on supporting people around me and serving my community. My first job at 16 was as a personal care assistant for a middle schooler with cerebral palsy, who I still count as one of my dearest friends today. I continued my career in various roles, including bus monitor and head teacher for our local Head Start preschool. I have been a paraprofessional at my alma mater High School. I have been a therapeutic foster parent for almost 20 years. Probably my favorite position was being a nanny. 

At some point in my 30s, I decided that I needed to make money in order to be able to afford to take my family on vacation, so I decided to focus my higher education efforts on becoming a high school biology teacher. After adopting my first child, I found out that I was pregnant. I also welcomed my second adopted child into my home. I decided that I really was going to need to be able to afford vacations with all these kids, so I looked at professions that were similar but paid higher than public education and found Occupational Therapy. So at the age of 31, I went back to school full-time and earned my occupational therapy degree.  As an occupational therapist, I have worked in early intervention and also in a psychiatric residential treatment facility for adolescent males.  I then became a professor of pediatrics and mental health and returned to school for my Ph.D. which I am still working towards today. I am an entrepreneur and dedicate my time to autistic advocacy work.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, Motormorphosis

Sterling: Being in so many different roles must be difficult. How do you determine what takes precedence? What is your top priority?

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, MotormorphosisSarah: This is going to sound a little cheesy, but honestly, my top priority is my family. I am a very intense person and can handle everything I decide to do, but I make sure that my partner consents to co-regulating and partnering with me.  I also am incredibly protective of my children and realize they need me to be a regulated mother and so I prioritize making sure that I meet their authentic needs and supporting exploration for future needs. We parent very differently than we were parented and I think that paradigm shift has allowed us to redefine how to ebb and flow as a family. 

I am also learning to give myself Grace and separate from situations where the other person or entity, or system is not willing to be a partner or co-regulate with me. I had found myself in many places in positions that were very willing to receive the benefits of my intensely neurodivergent drive but not willing/able to support my restorative needs. I end up figuring out that the only person who can really meet my restorative needs is me, and I have been better able to learn how to negotiate boundaries during my self-advocacy work which I then turn and share to my public advocacy work.

Sterling: Do you have a person or an experience that has inspired you to be who you are today?

Sarah: I’m going to give another cheesy answer and say, my parents. I have a very interesting set of parents, and they created a wildly interesting context to support my divergent development. I don’t agree with many of the things that happened to me and around me as a child, but they really have shown me how to disagree and still come back together and work and partner in unity. To me, this is the definition of interdependence. I am grateful for my parents giving me the opportunity to learn how to set, maintain, and reinforce my boundaries. My upbringing was incredibly complicated. I’m very grateful that my adult relationship with them includes learning about their experiences growing up and parenting, but from a more appropriate place because I can set boundaries and support myself. That’s probably more complicated of an answer than I intended, but I think that it’s important we have these kinds of conversations.

My most pure inspirational source would be Anne Shirley from Anne of Green gables. As a child, I was extremely fascinated with the series and have continued my fascination well into it to include the new Netflix series Anne with an E.  I suppose many people would call this my special interest, and I did end up going to Prince Edward Island when I was 14 and saving all of my money to purchase a first-edition Anne of Avonlea. I really enjoy unrelenting compassion and feel that is a common thread of humanity that I share with her. 

Sterling: What was it like being the first openly autistic individual to be elected to serve in the US government? 

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, MotormorphosisSarah: Oh my gosh, it was so wonderful to claim that space only because I knew it needed to be claimed. I am well aware that the very best politicians in all time and space must have been neurodivergent. I actually grew up in the DC area because my father was a Korean cryptologist at the NSA, so I grew up with a very autistic level of love for governments. I learned everything that I could about our government and the governments around the countries. I never saw myself being elected but always saw myself being in a supporting role, so running for office was always a potential for me.  I never really thought it would be a possibility for me because of my upbringing.

I think there comes a point in any system where someone just says hey, I believe that I represent something diverse and different and that diversity and difference is not only important but essential to this process. The reason it is important for me was that I didn’t have any autistic representation in government, and yet I knew that there were autistic people and always have been autistic people in government.  When I realized that, I actually felt a little emotional because I wondered why they weren’t able to claim their neurodivergence and specifically why they didn’t feel safe enough to claim it. The reality is that the medical diagnosis of autism is so stigmatized that people actually do miss and are denied opportunities because of people’s implicit and explicit bias. Because of this, I was not really excited to be the first. It was more about claiming it as important so that other people might feel more supported and also claiming the importance of being included in their government.  I used to recite popular speeches like the Gettysburg address to help me calm down and it’s because I genuinely believe the words that I was told.  As an adult, I’ve learned to analyze critically and have come to the unfortunate conclusion that not everyone in government deserves my trust. I feel it is my obligation as a citizen to make sure that I elect people that I can trust.  To be honest, I have had the most trust and respect for other neurodivergent politicians and have found them to be incredibly fair and just.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, MotormorphosisI often imagine what our world might be like if our autistic elders were safe enough to claim their divergence and feel humbled to protect space for those who come after me to claim their authentic identity and take as many seats at the political table as they want to take.

I really appreciate this question, and I know I’m rambling, but many people gave me feedback like it was vain or undeserving to claim, which is okay, and I do understand their point. But I also feel like someone just needed to say it because not claiming it felt like internalized ableism, and that’s gross. I don’t want to feel it once I know it’s there.

Sterling: If you could go back in time and give 10-year-old you one piece of advice, what would it be?

Sarah: I love this question, and I think about this all the time. If I could hold baby Sarah’s 10-year-old face in my hands, I would tell her to learn sign language because communication is valid, communication is valid, communication is valid, and it does not matter what it looks like, how it sounds, the form it takes, the fight, and right to be heard is common humanity. I would also tell my sweet baby face that you’re not misunderstanding anything and that the “mean kids” really are mean to you, but it is not your fault.  They probably need help and a hug, but it’s really okay for you not to turn the other cheek but walk away.  I would tell her that she is gorgeous and that she is beautiful and that her body is exactly right. I would tell her that adult Sarah’s heart is the very same as 10-year-old Sarah’s heart, but with more taxes. I would also tell her that she is queer and autistic and both of those things are so rad.

Sterling: What is a fun fact about you?

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, S2C, MotormorphosisSarah: I used to be a game master in a multi-player online role-playing game. In addition to playing and working for the game for over 20 years, I met my very best friend and my husband because of the game.  My best friend’s name is Jani and she is an autistic therapist in North Carolina. My husband is a neurodivergent electro-mechanical maintenance instructor at our local Community college. Online relationships are not weird; in fact, I think they are best, so don’t get so concerned about your kid’s quote-unquote not having real friends because virtual friendships are valid.

Interestingly I credit the time that I spent as a game master with helping me to write really good speeches and create and build inclusive contacts. I can directly relate my work as a virtual game master to my ability to prepare and plan a successful protest at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts.


Learning more about Sarah’s life was extremely inspiring. I love how she embraces her neurodivergence and encourages others to do the same. Her words are uplifting and they remind us that everything we go through in life serves a purpose. All of her circumstances served to make her into the strong and successful individual that she is today.


The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through trainingeducationadvocacy, and research.  I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C)with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association

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