Finding joy in the little things: BYU student makes autism shine

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Natalia Poland visits Walt Disney World Resort. (Natalia Poland)

Natalia Poland burst into tears when she tore away the wrapping paper and saw the brand-new KitchenAid.

“Oh my gosh,” she sobbed, pressing her tear-stained face to the box, hugging it as if it were a family member or a puppy and not a kitchen appliance. She was breathless, wheezing with excitement. “I love you all so much.”

With her friends laughing at her joyful reaction, Poland read a birthday card with messages like, “Happy birthday to the queen of awesome.” It was signed by 30 of her friends who had each chipped in $10 to buy her the mixer for her birthday in September of this year.

Poland, a 23-year-old BYU student studying geography tourism, has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. But friends said that doesn’t stop her from reaching out in love and kindness to everyone around her.

“She has the best chocolate chip cookies in the whole world,” said Rachel Keeler, who had the idea to surprise Natalia with the KitchenAid. She said Natalia makes cookies every week to share with friends or people in her ward, and the KitchenAid was a small way to show love for her in return.

Keeler said she messaged between 70-100 friends to see who would be willing to pitch in on a group gift, emphasizing they would only have a week to raise the needed $300 to buy the KitchenAid.

“In 72 hours, I had all the money and more so. It was too much,” Keeler said. “Every single person wrote a message with it. ‘We love Natalia.’ ‘Give our best regards.’ It was so neat. This explains how loved Natalia is by people, because of how loving she is to people.”

Natalia Poland (back center) with her friends who gifted her a KitchenAid. Her friends said the gift was a thank-you for the many times Poland made them cookies. (Natalia Poland)

Overcoming Adversity

Poland’s ability to look past her own challenges and take on the burdens of others is something Keeler said impresses her. “Natalia has had a lot of things that have happened in her life, but she will never talk bad about it when she looks back,” Keeler said.

Because of her autism, friendships were difficult for Poland to navigate in grade school, said Poland’s mother Evelyn Hughes. She said when Poland was 16, someone had picked her to be their partner for an activity in class, and it was the first time Poland could remember being picked for something.

Poland said she tried to fit in at public school by masking, or hiding, her autistic behaviors and imitating the behaviors of her peers. “It’s really exhausting to do for long periods because you’re trying to make sure, ‘Pick up that social cue, this social cue’ and sometimes we still miss them and it’s kind of awkward,” Poland explained.

In a recent BYU study of 58 women with symptoms of autism, the majority reported masking their autistic behaviors. Researchers found that women’s attempts to camouflage these traits were linked to psychological distress, suicidal thoughts and difficulties in day-to-day activities.

Hughes said she thinks autism is one of the hardest disabilities someone could have because it isn’t readily apparent, and when someone has autism, they seem to just be difficult to get along with. “They might be forceful or they might stand too close or talk funny,” Hughes explained. “There are things about it that don’t make people sympathetic because they are relational things.”

Natalia Poland and her mom, Evelyn Hughes, visit Walt Disney World. (Natalia Poland)

Despite the setbacks, Poland said attending public school was one of the greatest blessings in her life and she’s glad she had to learn how to interact with other kids.

“It was a long process because I feel the need to control things and be like ‘No you have to do it this way and there’s only one right way’ which is something that I still struggle with,” Poland said.

At college, Hughes said Poland faces the challenge of balancing feelings of anxiety with doing homework and taking tests. She said tests are especially difficult for Poland when test questions have more than one correct answer. “That kind of precision is kind of nightmarish for someone on the spectrum,” Hughes said.

Students with disabilities can receive accommodations through the University Accessibility Center by submitting an online request for an accommodations letter, which can be forwarded to professors to inform them of the student’s needs.

Hughes said Poland has used the University Accessibility Center to get extended time on assignments, as well as a private room in the testing center. While acknowledging that autism varies from student to student, Hughes said for Poland, the accommodations have been sufficient, and ultimately Poland is responsible for her own success.

Poland works as a teaching assistant for BYU geography professor Daniel Olsen, who said Poland’s autism has not kept her from being an effective TA. Olsen said Poland’s detail-oriented nature, something he said is common in people with autism, is a benefit because she asks good questions and finds plagiarism he otherwise would have missed.

“I think that it is easy to stigmatize a person with autism and assume that they have limited cognitive abilities. However, this is not the case. Natalia is a living testament to this,” Olsen said.

Natalia Poland (third from left) works at the Disney College Program at Walt Disney World. Poland said she enjoys helping others make magical moments and find joy in the little things. (Natalia Poland)

Making Dreams Come True

Poland said a strength that comes with her autism is her enthusiasm.

“I’ve always been surprised that more people are not willing to put up with some of the difficulties that come with someone having autism to have the privilege of her unadulterated joy,” Hughes said.

Keeler said on one occasion, there was a girl in Poland’s student ward who wanted to spontaneously wear a onesie and go to Walmart but didn’t want to go alone. Poland dressed up in her own onesie and went with her.

Poland’s friend and fellow BYU student Alyssa Rose suffered multiple concussions while both were serving missions in Texas. She said Poland and her companion brought her ice cream, which helped her remember she was not alone.

“Even though as a missionary, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t doing my job, and as a human being I didn’t feel like I was doing my job, she was so loving and kind and helped me understand that I was a daughter of God even though I didn’t feel like I was living up to the potential I could. That’s what it’s like being her friend in hard times and the impact she makes on the world,” Rose said.

Poland said wearing her love of Texas on her sleeve helped her connect easily with strangers she taught on her mission and her fervor for all things Disney helped her create magical experiences for families when she interned with the Disney College Program in 2019.

While working in one of the food courts at Disney, Poland met a little girl who had just turned 6 wearing one of the trademark “Happy Birthday” pins. No one was in line, so Poland brought out one of the complimentary “Magical Moment” cupcakes, lit a candle and sang the happy birthday song. The girl’s mom was in tears during the song. Poland found out later that she was a single parent who had been saving all year to take her daughter to Disney World, and her daughter kept asking her if she was going to get a cake with a candle for her birthday.

“That was my ability to show my love for someone else, to be able to make this magical moment for them, and it makes me cry,” Poland said. “That’s what I want.”

After graduating from BYU, Poland said her dream is to attend Baylor University and study applied behaviors. She said she hopes to combine what she learns about children with disabilities with her love of tourism to help kids with disabilities have better experiences on vacation.

For now, Poland said she finds happiness in small moments, like chatting on the phone with her mom or eating a mini almond Snickers. “Find joy in the little things, because that is the best way to be able to see the good when it seems like everything is bad,” she said.

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