As she seeks to become Miss Virginia, W&M law student proves she’s more than her autism diagnosis.
Law student Hallie Hovey-Murray will graduate this month and already has a job lined up to practice public policy law. She’s written a memoir and a children’s book, created her own website, started an educational foundation and next month, she’ll compete in the Miss Virginia pageant.
And by the way, she has autism.
To many, that stellar track record might be surprising, given her diagnosis. But throughout her 23 years, she’s been determined to prove wrong all those who underestimated her. Now she’s on a mission to erase the stigma surrounding autism and show that children with autism deserve every chance to thrive.
“Everyone tends to emphasize the challenges more than the potential,” Hovey-Murray says of children diagnosed with autism. “It’s important to look at the individual, not the diagnosis, to find the best path forward.”
Hovey-Murray’s early years growing up in Richmond did not, however, suggest she was destined for success. Her mother, Jean Hovey, says her young daughter was a capable student and adept at following rules, but teachers at her preschool and, later, at two elementary schools, frequently called home about her outbursts on the playground and in the classroom.
“She would react strongly to other kids who said mean things or misbehaved,” Hovey recalls, “and she would point out teachers’ mistakes in a disrespectful way.”
But autism then was not well understood, and Hovey and her husband, Bill Murray, had no idea what was going on. They were unable to answer their bright daughter’s question: “What’s wrong with me?”
Medical specialists and school personnel provided little help or hope, until the family met Dr. Norm Geller, then an educational consultant at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children (VTCC) — now part of the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University — which provides outpatient and inpatient mental health services for children and teens.
Nearly 20 years ago, the tools for diagnosing autism were not as well developed as now, nor did many mental health professionals have considerable experience with autism, Geller says. When he first met Hovey-Murray, he saw signs the 5-year-old was at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum — then known as Asperger’s syndrome. But although he suggested that diagnosis to his fellow evaluation team members, the team as a whole ultimately proposed other possibilities, and in the coming years Hovey-Murray received a laundry list of diagnoses from the VTCC, among them ADHD, oppositional defiance and bipolar disorder.
As doctors struggled to treat her, she was prescribed more than 20 different medications, which only made things worse. “It was insane,” says Hovey-Murray, “like trying to fit square pegs into a round hole.”
She was asked to leave one school in second grade, another in third, and then was briefly home-schooled by her mom. Finally, when one medication prompted a particularly disturbing response, Hovey-Murray was admitted to the residential program at the VTCC. Soon after, child psychologist Susan White joined the VTCC staff, and Geller’s initial diagnosis was affirmed. Hovey-Murray was 10.
According to Geller, who has stayed in touch with Hovey-Murray, while children with autism today are often diagnosed as early as age 2, much of the research that shaped current diagnostic criteria was based on boys. There’s emerging recognition in the field that autism can manifest itself somewhat differently in girls. He says girls may be less likely to exhibit often-stereotyped autistic behaviors such as repetitive hand-flapping but may more often experience challenges with social interaction.
“We were all so relieved to finally have a diagnosis that fit,” Hovey-Murray remembers.
But even with an individual education plan (IEP) to receive special education services at a mainstream middle school, she faced challenges. She ran away repeatedly from her special needs class, fearing she wasn’t perceived as smart. Regardless, she sailed through year-end exams with perfect or near-perfect scores.
Hovey-Murray researched autism on her own, determined to rise above others’ expectations that, due to her diagnosis, she wouldn’t finish high school before age 21, or that she might never go to college or live independently. She increasingly learned how to manage stressful situations, and at Mills E. Godwin High School in Richmond, “I set out to be a good communicator,” she says, taking part in theater, debate and public speaking to refine her communication skills.
Still, aware of the stigma of autism and self-conscious about her diagnosis, for years she kept it quiet. Determined to prove herself independent, she chose Southern Methodist University for college, in Texas far from home, and there she successfully pledged a sorority. But on an occasion when she was on deadline to write a column for an online student newspaper, she overheard a fellow sorority sister describing another young woman: “Oh, she’s so socially awkward, she probably has autism.”
Hovey-Murray knew it was time to end her silence.
She wrote her column about the childhood difficulties she had faced, about her eventual diagnosis, and how at SMU she was in a sorority, was the president of the speech and debate club, and was headed to law school at the College of William and Mary.
Her father sent her column to Richmond’s Times-Dispatch newspaper, which printed it. When a deluge of responses came in, Hovey-Murray realized she had a new calling.
She now speaks about autism in schools and to community groups, fielding questions about her journey from children with autism as well as their parents. She wrote and self-published a memoir available on Amazon, “Overcoming Expectations,” and she’s written a children’s book, “Sadie Goes to School,” about a girl with autism attending a mainstream school for the first time.
In 2017, she established the One in 68 Foundation (reflecting the U.S. rate of autism diagnosis then) to raise college scholarship funds and help children with autism boost their college and career readiness. She describes her work on her website, halliehoveymurray.com.
The current Miss Commonwealth 2019, Hovey-Murray has already won several beauty pageants, entering partly to receive scholarship funding but also because they’ve provided her a platform to raise awareness about autism, especially in girls. She’s assisted Hanover County Community Support Services with its annual Miss Hanover Abilities pageant for girls with special needs, and she helped mentor this past year’s winner, Amaris Marks-Stewart, a Richmond high school junior who also has autism.
Marks-Stewart says of her mentor:
She was very supportive of me and taught me that even though we have special needs, it doesn’t mean we’re helpless.”
Hovey-Murray is adamant about banishing the stereotypes of autism, and about not allowing children with autism to flounder without support and tools for their success. “Negative stereotypes can really take a toll on self-esteem,” she says, noting the high suicide rate among children with autism. And, sounding like the legal advocate she’ll soon be, she talks candidly about the need to recognize the talents of the many highly intelligent children with autism: “Communities cannot afford to allow so much human capital to go to waste.”