In her well-traveled 1995 Toyota Camry, Brianna Pezon, 26, navigated the Twin Cities doing what she enjoys most—serving as a mental health practitioner, providing in-home therapy for people living with such serious mental health issues as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Pezon’s car—which she just retired and swapped for a Ford Focus—doubles as her mode of transportation and her desk as she goes from client to client, teaching them the skills for independent living and finding them the resources they need to survive.
The Eden Prairie native has been with Associated Clinic of Psychology—in its in-home division—for more than a year, after finishing her master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “It’s challenging but also very rewarding,” she says. “If I can help the person sitting in front of me without making them go through too many hoops, [that’s] super successful.”
Pezon’s journey to social work seems driven by fate. She relishes helping people win their battles, as she’s had her share, too. Diagnosed as a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism, Pezon is vigilant not to let it define her. She comes first, not the conditions.
According to the Autism Society, Asperger’s is being phased out as a diagnosis and now part of a broader category called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Symptoms of Asperger’s—such as difficulty with social interactions, making eye contact and showing slightly obsessive interest in certain objects—vary from person to person. Pezon has had trouble picking up on social cues, as well as heightened sensitivities to light and noise, especially during thunderstorms and fireworks. “What I’ve gone through helps me as a social worker,” she says. “I try to look beyond the diagnosis they have. Inside, that’s still a person.”
Growing up, her “quirks” made it hard to make friends. As a teen, she was bullied, to the point of contemplating suicide. In the midst of those struggles, Pezon faced a choice in high school—let hate consume her or love and appreciate people even when some are cruel. She chose to love. “When I began that journey is when I realized that everyone has a story, and everyone deserves a helping hand,” she says.
Pezon is writing Autism Is Not My Name, a collection of stories from people on the autism spectrum, highlighting “the beauty in our differences instead of the inferiority of a lifelong disability.” The process is slower than she hoped. “I wanted to get it done in a shorter time frame,” she says. “But, I also want it to be amazing. So, I’m willing to put in the time and the effort to get those stories and make it something that’s not going to be tossed aside.”
Kimberly Rowland, a parent of a child with Asperger's, calls Pezon a “beacon of hope,” who is a “perfect example” that people on the spectrum can lead full lives. They met as members of Eden Prairie Women of Today. “How can you not be impressed by her?” Rowland says. “She could have let a lot of things get her down. She holds on to the littlest of sparks and nurtures it until it gets better.”
Pezon chose to publicly tell her story for the first time during a TEDx speech as a student at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. To about 100 people, she presented The Power of Hope and Inner Light (available on YouTube). She had jotted down a speech, but her nerves got the best of her, and she blocked it out. “I just stood up there and told my story,” Pezon says.
“It was more powerful than what I had written. It was from my heart. The whole thing was about inner light. You have to find the thing that keeps you here, and you have to express that and give it to other people.”
Growing up, Pezon says she was always a little different than her peers. “I knew my quirks,” she says. “I knew they were quirks, but I didn’t know how different or separated it was.”
In fifth grade, a substitute teacher spent a semester telling her she was not “normal enough” to be in that classroom. When her regular teacher returned, she gave her parents the resources that later led them to a diagnosis of Asperger’s.
“I didn’t know anything that I was going through until high school,” Pezon says. “Everybody is telling me how great I am, but why can’t I make friends then? What is going on that I can’t make this happen?”
Pezon didn’t find out about her diagnosis until her sophomore year at Eden Prairie High School. After an individualized education program meeting, she read through her file for the first time. The word Asperger’s kept popping up. “Part of me is like ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ but the other part is ‘Thank you, because now I know what I need to do,’” she says. The next day, Pezon spent hours in the school library researching Asperger’s. “I now knew why I had these [differences]," she says. "I could work within them, instead of resisting them like I had my entire life."
In 2010, Pezon went on to UW-River Falls, planning to become a history teacher, but a social work class changed all that. “For the first time, I didn’t have to take the extra time to understand the concept," she says. "It came naturally. This was what I needed to do.”
Pezon is working toward her independent licensure in social work. Once done, Pezon wants to give her car a rest and work in an office, helping people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. “That’s where my passion lies,” she says. “I love what I’m doing, I’m not necessarily a fan of how I’m doing it right now.”
Outside of work or study, Pezon likes watching comedies and documentaries on Netflix, hanging out with friends and writing. As Pezon notes, she’s just your average 26 year old with some special circumstances. “If there were some pill that could take [her diagnosis] away, I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “It has made me a more compassionate, more understanding, more empathetic person. I would not be who I am today without it, and I like who I am.”