When Haley Moss was 3 years old, her parents worried about her delayed speech. She spent hours finishing massive jigsaw puzzles and she seemed to be reading, but she wouldn't, or couldn't, say words like “mom” or “dad.” They took Haley to the doctor where they learned why: Haley had autism.
“My parents were told I would be lucky to have friends or even hold a minimum-wage job,” Moss, now 24, of Miami, told TODAY.
Despite the challenges, her family was undeterred. Haley was enrolled in early intervention programs, including speech and occupational therapy. By 4, she began speaking and joined mainstream classes.
Since then, Haley has turned autism into her strength.
After graduating from the University of Miami with a law degree, she passed the Florida bar and works as an associate at Zumpano Patricios. She is the first openly autistic lawyer working in the state, according to her law firm. This past weekend she won the Occhigrossi Family Youth in Service Award from Unicorn Children’s Foundation for her work as an advocate for neurodiversity.
“I was always interested in making a difference and wanted to make a difference in the disability community,” she said.
Though Moss excelled at school, she struggled to make friends. In elementary school, she often hung out with boys because they enjoyed Pokémon and video games like she did. But still, understanding social situations never felt natural.
“It is the behind-the-scenes stuff,” she explained. “Someone had to tell me if another person rolls their eyes, they are bored with what you are saying and you should change the conversation; normal kids, you don’t have to be told.”
Yet, she never let that stop her. When people told her she couldn’t go to a big university, she applied to the University of Florida anyway.
“(I thought) if it doesn’t work, I could always say that I tried and I knew it wasn’t for me. But I would know it wasn’t for me — not because someone said it wasn’t for me — but because I tried.”
She graduated from the University of Florida with both a psychology and criminology degree, and applied to law schools. When she first went to college, she thought she wanted to be a psychiatrist to help other people with autism, but she struggled with chemistry. She realized that law fit perfectly with her interests: reading, writing and talking to large groups.
By her first year in college, Moss had already written two books, including “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders: the Stuff Nobody Tells You About.” She also paints and enjoys creating bright characters inspired by anime.
“It definitely wasn’t easy. There was a lot of work. There are still things that are very difficult for me,” she said.
When her parents first told her about the diagnosis, they said it made her special like Harry Potter’s scar made him exceptional. Understanding that she was like the famous wizard helped her understand autism.
“Harry Potter lived with the Muggles and he was different from them, and that wasn’t a bad thing,” she said. “I was able to see it through the lens of Harry Potter, and it really connected with me that it was a positive thing.”
She tries sharing this view when she meets new people. Often she is the first person with autism people have encountered.
“I have an opportunity to change the conversation for the better. I can really shape things,” she said.
Moss also believes she’s a role model for families who might have a child with an autism diagnosis.
“They see me and think, ‘This is what my kid might be like,’” she said. “People on the spectrum are so talented and diverse.”