From Awareness To Action Isabel Josephs '18

For nine years, the month of April has been recognized as National Autism Awareness Month, and for nearly as long Cornell junior field hockey player Isabel Josephs has volunteered her time working with autistic children and for autistic causes.

Josephs was exposed to autism early in her life. She grew up on a street that had three families with autistic children, and her interactions with those families laid the groundwork for future volunteerism and advocacy.

When Josephs reached South County Secondary School, her PE class took place in a split gym at the same time as a gym class for students with special needs. Shortly after the school year began, it became evident to her teacher that it would benefit everyone for Josephs to work with the special needs class.

“I just fell in love with the kids in that PE class,” says Josephs. “Sport is something I’m passionate about, and it was wonderful to see the enjoyment that sports brought to kids that don’t have the same experiences as general education students. It just brought so much joy to my heart.”

Once she reached ninth grade Josephs became heavily involved in the school’s Partner Club, which is dedicated to working with the special needs students. As a member and eventual club president, Josephs tutored and helped organize after-school activities in order to provide its members with experiences similar to that of the general school population.

Isabel with Tedric, a member of Partners Club. Isabel tutored Tedric for three years.

It was also at this time that Josephs first picked up a field hockey stick.

She came to the sport late after spending nearly her entire life playing soccer, which in her part of Virginia is considered a spring sport. When she decided to go out for a fall sport, her mother Lynn, a former field hockey player herself, encouraged her to give the sport a try.

Field hockey was “a refreshing change” and Josephs had the athleticism and natural instincts to excel right away. After a season of playing “for fun” she joined a club team during her sophomore year in high school and began playing field hockey year-round. The following season, she began getting recruited by Division I programs like William & Mary and the University of Richmond. But as the daughter of Brown alumni, she hoped to go to an Ivy League school and was excited when the Big Red coaching staff gave her a call.

In the end, Josephs narrowed her choices to Richmond and Cornell. Both universities had offered her a spot on the team and she was in the process of making her final decision when she awoke one night out of a solid sleep and thought, “I’m going to Cornell.”

“Something just compelled me to come here,” she says. “It got me out of my comfort zone by getting me farther from home than Richmond would have been. I really liked how much the coaching staff wanted me, and I knew they’d take care of me here.”

The summer before she left home for Cornell, Josephs continued to build on her experience with autism by taking a job as an aide for an autistic girl with a sensory neuron disorder.

“Haynah was pretty low functioning on the spectrum,” says Josephs. “She was classified as non-verbal, but I worked with her behavioral therapist and I actually got certified to administer her therapy myself while I was taking care of her.”

A human development major with a concentration in neuroscience, Josephs relished the opportunity to gain some real world experience.

“It was very interactive, and I had a lot of freedom to do different stuff with her,” says Joseph. “So we did pool therapy and horseback riding therapy, and we worked on vocabulary. I worked with her the summer before and after my freshman year at Cornell, and her language improved so much in those two summers that they actually removed the non-verbal diagnosis. It was really nice to be a part of it and to see that growth.”

Isabel with Haynah

In between her summers working with Haynah, Josephs was experiencing personal growth of her own as she entered Cornell and worked to find a role on her new team. One of the Big Red’s hardest workers, she is in constant motion. She spends her days running from class, to lab, to drift lift, to practice. Like so many Cornell students, she is intense and driven with a clear focus on her goal of becoming a doctor.

“The balance between field hockey and school has improved every year,” says Joseph. “I’ve always been a work horse and having the resilience to not give up is something I’ve learned through sports that has helped me in pre-med. I’m not the top of my class in raw intelligence. I started playing field hockey late so I don’t have the most amazing skill set. What I’ve always had is the drive to put my head down and work hard.”

That drive and hard work has made Josephs one of the most consistent contributors on the team. She has played in all but two games in her career with the Big Red and has started 45 of 48 contests. Josephs has also played nearly every positon on the field, moving from forward to midfield to defense over the course of her career. She has also continued to develop other parts of her game and this past season took on a specialized role as the inserter on Cornell’s penalty corner unit.

Just as she has developed on the field hockey pitch, Josephs has evolved in her work with autism. Over the past two years, she has shifted her focus from the personal to the clinical.

During Josephs’ sophomore year at Cornell, she began an internship with Dr. Theresa Lyons, founder of Navigating AWEtism and Eat To Heal AWEtism. Lyons writes a blog for the Huffington Post and hired Josephs to help her edit the entries from a “less scientific perspective.”

“She wanted parents to be able to understand what she was saying,” says Josephs. “So she would send her blogs to me to make sure that parents could take something away from it. I would give her my thoughts, or offer suggestions on blog posts I thought she should write.”

From there, Josephs went on to take a summer internship with Autism Speaks, which is dedicated to advancing research into causes and better treatments for autism spectrum disorders and related conditions.

Initially, she considered drawing on her vast experience of working with autistic kids to intern with the Family Services wing of the organization, but she eventually decided that working with the Science Department would give her new opportunities for growth while preparing her for medical school.

Working under Dr. Mathew Pletcher, Head of Genomic Discovery, Josephs spent the summer researching the genes and environmental factors that contribute to autism. She did that by working with the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), which is one of the world’s largest databases providing researchers with genetic and medical information on people with autism and their family members. Josephs helped organize the genomes and assisted with maintaining the AGRE website while also writing a blog entry on the role AGRE has had in new research that is improving healthcare for people with autism. She also did research on the current medications and therapies used to treat autism and studied how they worked based on the statistical evidence.

“It was a great experience to work with Autism Speaks,” says Josephs. “I really loved it. They gave me a lot of freedom to research what I was interested in, and there are so many fascinating elements to study. It will definitely help me as I move forward with med school.”

Before heading off to medical school, Josephs will wrap up her final year at Cornell and with the Big Red field hockey team. She will take on another new role as a senior leader on a squad that will feature a large rookie class. But based on past evidence, there is little doubt that she will put in the work necessary to excel.

“Isabel has emerged as a strong leader for our program,” says Cornell field hockey coach Donna Hornibrook. “She brings her best every day. Over the years, I have been so impressed with what Isabel has done, not only on the field, but also in the classroom and with her work with autism. She works incredibly hard and puts her heart into everything she does. It’s evident from the first moment you meet her that she’s a special young woman and she’s going to go on to do amazing things.”

The ninth annual World Autism Awareness Day is Sunday, April 2, 2017. For more information, visit:

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Pictures courtesy: Patrick Shanahan; Isabel Josephs.

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