When Li DiJulia, of Langhorne, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 6, most assumed that she wouldn’t accomplish much in life.
“I had many people, teachers and guidance counselors, doubt my capabilities, say I would never go to college, never live alone,” she said.
However, nearly 20 years later, DiJulia is a recent graduate of Penn State University with big plans to earn her master’s in mental health from Johns Hopkins University this fall. Her ultimate goal is to complete a doctoral degree in mental health or epidemiology and become an advocate for autism research.
Helping others on the spectrum has been a goal of DiJulia’s since her diagnosis. She vividly remembers asking her mother, “Will you come see me get the Nobel Prize? I’m gonna find a cure for autism and breast cancer.”
Her mom happily agreed.
“It definitely affects your life,” she said of her diagnosis. “I remember back then I was passionate about finding a cure. That was close to 20 years ago. Now, I’m still passionate about helping people on the spectrum and maybe finding out what causes it and how to prevent it, this way parents don’t have to go through that with their children.”
DiJulia shared some striking statistics. According to the CDC, in 2016, the number of children diagnosed with autism was 1 in 59. In the mid-’80s and years prior, it was 1 in 150. Additionally, the annual cost for behavioral intervention therapy ranges from $40,000 to $60,000, which many parents – especially those who have multiple children on the spectrum – cannot afford.
“I want to find out what we can do to help these people,” said DiJulia. “I want to find out how to lessen their symptoms, what causes it, what are the risk factors associated with it, and what can we do as a society to help individuals live their life to the fullest.”
Though DiJulia was accepted into the Johns Hopkins program and intends to take out a federal loan, that won’t come close to covering tuition. She has been hosting fundraisers around town, including at On the Border, and reaching out to community organizations to help her achieve her dream.
Recently, the Feasterville-Trevose Lions Club donated $500 to DiJulia after she connected with president Sahil Saif on social media.
“We invited Li to one of our club meetings at Playwicki Farm,” said Saif. “That’s what Lions Club is all about, stepping up to help neighbors in need.”
Also, DiJulia launched a GoFundMe campaign, which is inching close to $2,000 of the $65,000 goal. A common question for DiJulia is, “Why don’t you get a job to pay for it?”
“I have a learning disability so it’s impossible for me to work and go to school. It’s a nine-month accelerated program. I’m getting a master’s in nine months instead of two years,” she explained. “And it’s not like I sit around and do nothing. For undergrad, I did have a job. I did work part-time and go to school and I was able to pay my way through school from many scholarships and grants. I am an extremely hard worker and this is what I want to do.”
As DiJulia prepares for her next educational chapter, she hopes that her successes serve as inspiration for other individuals with autism.
“Being on the spectrum, I can relate to these kids and I want to help them. There’s a lot of need for them,” she said. “I’ve come a long way. I really proved them wrong. I really want to tell them that, just because you have a disability does not mean that you can’t do great things in life. Don’t let your disability define you.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org