Dr. Michele Kong’s connection to autism acceptance is a personal one. When her son, Abram, was diagnosed with the disorder at age 4, she was struck by her family’s social isolation from their community. Their experience sparked the beginning of KultureCity, a nonprofit that raises not only awareness, but a community-shifting acceptance of children with autism. By partnering with local and national organizations, Dr. Kong and her husband have worked to create inclusive spaces, not just for one or two events, but permanently. When she’s not developing KultureCity or working as a pediatric doctor and scientist at UAB, you might find her getting creative in the kitchen or running on Jemison Trail at 5 a.m., preparing for another marathon. Her passion for inclusive communities shows in every facet of her life, and we’re so excited to introduce her as this week’s FACE of Birmingham.
Tell us a brief background about your career as a doctor.
I was born and raised in a fishing village in Malaysia. Growing up, education was something that was always emphasized by my parents. I was fortunate that both my parents were teachers. I knew that in order to do the things I wanted to do, I had to have a good education. I’ve always been very focused on growing and learning, and I knew I wanted to be a doctor from a young age, and to get to med school, I had to be very competitive. That shaped a lot of who I am today. After getting a scholarship to go to medical school in Canada, I completed my pediatric residency and fellowship training at UAB. I always knew I wanted to work with kids. I’m a pediatric critical care doctor, and my clinical work is in the ICU.
What was the catalyst for founding KultureCity?
Our firstborn child, Abram. When he was about 2, he started showing signs that were suggestive of autism. When he was 4, he was diagnosed. Because my husband and I knew the medical system very well, we had an understanding of what autism meant medically. But as for the pragmatic challenges that the family encounters, we had no clue! We soon realized that we were in social isolation. My time was spent either working or taking Abram to therapy. Going out became really hard. At restaurants, because he has sensory overload, Abram would have a complete meltdown in public. We had so many of those experiences, and as time passed by, we felt like we weren’t part of the community anymore. Things changed when we began meeting with other special needs families, and we realized that the cores of our stories were the same — isolation and not being included. That was the genesis of KultureCity.
KultureCity’s mission isn’t just about awareness. It’s also about acceptance.
Yes, awareness is not enough. In a way, awareness is more passive. Acceptance requires an active involvement from the part of the individual — not just to learn about these people with special needs, but also to ask “How can I change the way I interact with them?” We don’t just accept someone once or twice. We are committed to changing the culture of the community. The core of our mission has always been about community.
KultureCity partners with local organizations like the Birmingham Zoo, the McWane Center and the Alys Stephens Center to create sensory-friendly environments. Tell us more about that.
When we first started trying to change the culture of a community, we organized events. For example, a sensory-friendly event at a theatre. But we realized that even if you had 30 events like this a year, it’s still a miniscule part of the child’s life. Our vision was that kids with autism would always be included, no matter the time or day of the week. The only way to do that is to change the system and the culture. To do this, we first piloted our program with the Birmingham Zoo. Now, 80 percent of staff who have contact with individuals are trained on what it means to have sensory overload and how to talk to these kids. Beyond that, we created sensory bags as well as quiet spaces in the zoo where kids can go when they’re having an overload. After the zoo, we partnered with local and national organizations. Nationally, we’ve partnered with the NBA and the NFL. There’s still a lot to be done, but we can see where we’re hoping to go. It’s been really exciting.
Tell us about KultureBALL, the annual gala for your organization that was in August.
It was amazing! It was really cool because KultureBALL is an event where people come to Birmingham. We had Dwight Howard, Tiki Barber and Tracy Johnson. We had it at the Alys Stephens Center with 800 attendees. We raised more than $300,000 through KultureBALL. Pearl Jam donated a signed guitar for one of the auctions! We want every dollar to go back to the families. We feel really blessed because we have people who see the reason why we’re so passionate.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Abram turns 10 this year, and it’s been six years since his diagnosis. So I decided for this year that I was going to do six marathons and one ultra marathon! I started running two years ago, and I’m pretty new to running. In 2015, the weight of the world was on me, so I went out to Jemison Trail before dawn in February, and it was a powerful experience for me. I would trip on the rocks. Running, bleeding, crying. But I never stopped running ever since that day.
What are your biggest accomplishments since you’ve started running?
I’ve done the Boston Marathon, I’ve done Mercedes, and I’m gonna do one in September, then New York City again. In 2016, the Boston Marathon reached out and asked to be a partner. It’s such a privilege, because they rarely choose to partner with nonprofits outside of Boston. My goal is to use running as a platform to encourage families to know that health is the foundation of everything and to push the message of inclusion and acceptance.
What do you like most about Birmingham?
Definitely the people. I love the warmness and the kindness that people here have — it’s very genuine. I love meeting strangers who become friends, especially people who have no connection to autism, but they push the boundaries. And as much as I like running, I really like eating. Birmingham is perfect for that. One of my favorites is a gas station in Hoover on Lorna road, a little Thai place called Blue Pacific. It’s so good! And of course, there’s Highlands and Bottega, but I love the fact that there are hidden restaurants where the food is amazing.
If you could have any superhuman power, what would it be?
The ability to be like Dr. Strange. He can make the connection between all those different dimensions. Ultimately, what I want is for this place to be better for everybody. You never want to see a fellow human being suffer. I’ve seen suffering from a personal level and as a doctor, so I’d love to see what I can glean from the ability to see across dimensions and fix problems.
What is one thing people might be surprised to know about you?
They might be surprised that I’m a pretty good cook. I don’t follow recipes. I’m creative, and I like to just put things together and make it taste good. Because I’m a scientist, people might assume I’d be accurate, but I’m very inaccurate when I cook.
What is your best piece of advice?
What are three lighthearted or frivolous things you can’t live without?
My phone, my jump drive and my running shoes
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Dr. Michele Kong.