Serena DeJesus wasn’t like all the other kids in her class growing up.
Raised in Philadelphia, the new addition to the Invicta FC roster was non-verbal until she was six years old, and she didn’t interact with her classmates in constructive ways. She wasn’t interested in making friends, and she was painfully shy in comparison to most of the kids similar in age.
At the time, DeJesus’ mother Billie decided to take her to a doctor. The investigation led to a misdiagnosis, which then resulted in DeJesus being fed numerous pharmaceutical drugs that didn’t make things any better and, if anything, only exacerbated the situation.
“It was just like going from one doctor to the next one—what’s wrong with me this time?” DeJesus said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Am I wrong? It was all just guessing until I finally got my autism diagnosis, and it was quite the relief because when I was younger they misdiagnosed me and put me on all these medicines that I honestly should have never been on.
“It made things even harder for me to distinguish, especially as a kid. There was a bit of clarity having my autism diagnosed and not being on medicine anymore. Just figuring out ‘this is what I need to do and why.’”
Autism is a neurobehavioral disorder that can affect social interaction, communication and sometimes features repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behavior, interests and activities. While extensive studies into autism have been done in recent years, this was still a relatively new subject when DeJesus was growing up, which meant it took longer to finally figure out what she was facing.
“I didn’t have too many friends,” DeJesus explained. “I did get bullied as a kid until fourth grade, (when) I threw a kid off the jungle gym and she landed face first with her feet over her head and it kind of clicked in my head that no one would bully me or mess with me if I did that. It kind of clicked in my head that if I defend myself—even though it’s technically against the rules in school—that I won’t have a problem anymore. In school you’re always taught that the adults will handle it. Well, they don’t always handle it, and they aren’t everywhere all the time.
“Most of the time I would be in the library studying or playing with Legos for my recess versus being outside. I didn’t really care too much about friends until maybe high school.”
Things got better once she got diagnosed, but DeJesus didn’t truly find her peace until she discovered her passion for mixed martial arts.
Ever since she was five-years old, DeJesus had been watching fights in the UFC thanks to her stepfather, who was an avid fan of the sport. She didn’t know at the time that she would eventually become a fighter, but DeJesus definitely enjoyed watching the sport, because it reminded her of the anime films and fighting video games that she already adored.
“I grew up with Power Rangers and anime, Street Fighter and Tekken so I come down and I’m watching him watch UFC on VHS and I’m watching Gary Goodridge get Paul Herrera in the crucifix and just elbowing him to the ‘Shadow Realm,’” DeJesus said. “It looked like a transition out of something from my fighting video games. I thought it was the coolest sh*t.”
She tried out taekwondo for a few years, but eventually left the school where she was training. It wasn’t until after high school when DeJesus decided to actually give mixed martial arts a try. So she found a local gym and her passion was ignited immediately.
Perhaps even more important, however, was the effect training had on her autism.
“I just fell in,” DeJesus said. “When you grow up watching it for so long and now you’re doing the basics, it’s like oh my god I’m actually doing it! It just gets cooler and cooler and then you’re meeting cool people along the way. It’s almost enchanting.
“Socially, I don’t think I really started flourishing until I started training. Training was great because you have a set routine. Class is as this time, at this place, you have people who are on the same mission as you. It’s not awkward or nerve inducing to talk to them. Everybody on the team just supports each other. It’s a stress relief.”
Her love for fighting eventually turned into a career goal as DeJesus ended up competing seven times as an amateur before making her professional debut last year.
Now she’s competing for Invicta FC this Friday night, and it’s a dream come true for a kid who wasn’t sure she would ever get to live out her dreams.
“Martial arts is my thing,” DeJesus stated. “If I wasn’t watching it, I was doing it. I’ve tried my hand at a lot of things. I tried my hand at art. I tried my hand at music. I’ve tried my hand at other athletics but fighting and training is the one thing that’s made me the happiest and the healthiest.”
Because she’s competing in the public spotlight, DeJesus has also been committed to bringing more awareness to autism while shattering the stigma that often surrounds the word.
“I think it’s really important, because we now know what autism is, but we haven’t reached the point of how to respect and treat individuals with autism,” DeJesus said. “We still have a lot of ableism out about autism. I’m trying to have a positive spin.
“In the media, you look at television you see autists are either portrayed as savants or portrayed as people who are unable to take care of ourselves, unable to speak, unable to do anything for ourselves, and I just want to show no, not all of us are savants, or need to be taken care of our entire lives either.”
Because no two cases of autism are exactly the same, DeJesus is doing her part to show what she’s been able to accomplish so hopefully more people out there dealing with the same disorder are able to find a similar path to happiness and joy.
“I was talking to my sports psychologist and he talked to another client about me because she was also on the spectrum,” DeJesus explained. “She didn’t think she could be an equestrian rider for her college team let alone a college student until my sports psychologist started talking to her about me. That’s the kind of things I want to be. I don’t necessarily want to be like, ‘You can do it, too!’ I want to spread the word that just because you’re autistic doesn’t mean you can only reach a certain level in your life. I want to be encouraging. You can become more if you so desire.
“Win or lose, I just want to have this big platform and show that it’s OK to be autistic. It’s not something to be feared. It’s not a life sentence.”