Art and soul: How Danielle Long faced autism diagnosis

April 14, 2014

By Ethan Brady

Sitting in a classroom in Anchorage, Alaska, a young Danielle Long realized there was something different about her learning style, but couldn't pinpoint what it was.

Since she was three-years-old, Long loved to draw. She couldn't stop, especially in the classroom. Long drew on everything, doodling pictures of horses, equestrian events and anything flowing through her creative mind. It was her way of focusing.

When Long arrived at Auburn as a young equestrian rider, she knew she couldn't get by while doodling in class. The last few years she had been home schooled in order to focus on her equestrian career. Getting back into a conventional classroom proved to be a challenge.

"It was just so different from home," Long said. "It was an entirely new culture and I had to get used to a school schedule again."

Knowing she had to focus extra hard to be successful in her new classes, Long stopped drawing during lectures and her learning ability surprisingly suffered.

"I actually felt like I learned more when I was doodling than when I tried to take notes as the teacher was lecturing," Long said. "I was just trying to take notes freshman year and my grades suffered. Something was definitely wrong."

Long went to her equestrian coaches and told them about her issues in the classroom. Head equestrian coach Greg Williams told her they would do whatever they could to fix her troubles in school.

The coaches immediately recommended she seek help from Auburn's psychology department. After extensive testing it became clear she was not only an extremely visual learner, but was actually autistic.

"It was really stressful that first semester, I had no idea that taking the drawing away was actually hurting me in the classroom," Long said. "When I was diagnosed it was kind of a relief. It was nice to say `oh that's why I do things differently.'"

In March, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released an extensive study on autism. The research cited 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many children affected by ASD are diagnosed at the age of 4 with the majority diagnosed by age 10.

"Of course once I was diagnosed my Mom and I did a lot of research on the disorder wondering how we missed it and discovered more and more adults are being diagnosed," Long said. "The pieces started coming together especially with the constant drawing."

For most children, symptoms of ASD include a lack of social interaction, no interest in sharing enjoyments and an overall sense of shyness.

For Long, most of these symptoms were never present or noticed when she was growing up. In high school, Long said she was quiet and shy, rarely talking to other people, but never to the point of questioning herself or considering it a symptom of something bigger.

Talking with Long now, it's easy to see a young woman who is completely comfortable in her own skin. Her constant smile radiates confidence and openness when discussing her autism diagnosis. Long says she has actually used her diagnosis to find herself as a person, something she credits the equestrian team for.

"I would have never done an interview like this a few years ago," Long said. "But now it's nothing. Equestrian really brought out my personality when I came to Auburn and as I've gotten older its transferred into other parts of my life away from the team."

With the help of her coaches and teammates, Long discovered how to use her diagnosis and talents to fuel new passions within her life. Originally a business major, Long now uses her creative side and is working toward a fine arts major focusing on sculpture and drawing.

"I'm taking a lot of art classes and I absolutely love it," Long said. "It's definitely where I belong and what I'm good at."

Now that Long has identified her distinct learning style and passion for art, she's even having success in her non-art core classes. She no longer goes to class without her sketchbook. She recently was named to the National Collegiate Equestrian Association's All-Academic first team, which honors those students with a cumulative GPA of 3.5.

"I've done so much better in school," Long said. "I'm really thinking about going into advertising with my art degree."

Recently, Long did a series of paintings that were auctioned off for charity benefitting Storybook Farms. The foundation based in Opelika helps children challenged with life-threatening illnesses, disabilities and grief by providing therapeutic programs using the farm's horses.

Throughout the past year Long has also become enthralled with sports photography. She says she loves taking photographs of her teammates competing and once again it's drawn the attention of Coach Williams and his staff.

"After they saw some of the work I was doing, Coach Williams suggested I put some of the photos on our team Facebook and I can't get enough of it," Long said.

Long says because of her experience taking photographs for the equestrian team and, she began researching photography internships around campus.

"It's been great having people reach out to me to take photographs for them," Long said. "I get to do what I love and people want me to do it. Without my coaches and teammates, none of this would be possible."

Since her diagnosis with autism, Long says her life hasn't changed much. If anything, she says, it's brought her awareness of who she really is into perspective. With the help of Auburn equestrian and her coaches, Long has found her passion in art and photography.

"I'm just really happy with how everything has worked out," Long said. "It's just been easier to understand myself and being around this team has really made an impact on my life."