Giovanna Roy is a junior at Colby-Sawyer College and a Media Studies major. She is a designer, a business owner, an advocate, a performer and a philanthropist.
She is also a mermaid.
As sole proprietor of her company, Mermaid Crowns, Roy designs and sells headpieces she describes as handmade crown sculptures made of all things reminiscent of the sea: sea glass, pearls, fish netting, seashells, coral shards or beads, and other treasures. She also makes appearances as Mermaid Giovanna to teach children about the importance of protecting sea life and to advocate for autism awareness.
Roy has a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome, and her mission for autism awareness through Mermaid Crowns is threefold: to contribute financially to organizations that support autism awareness; to encourage children on the autism spectrum by letting them know that it is okay to be different; and to encourage children without autism, whom she calls neurotypical, to understand that every fish in the sea, including someone with autism, has something to contribute.
Mermaid Crowns originated from Roy's love of sea creatures. I've always loved mermaids and sea life, she said. When I was little, I would go to aquariums to see the animals and learn about how they look and interact. She found the aquarium gift shops too commercial, though, and lacking objects natural enough for her tastes. I wanted that imaginative feel, she said. Something that was more magical.
Unable to find what she wanted, Roy began designing her own mermaid crowns. Then, in 2010, her hobby took on new meaning. During my junior year of high school, the BP oil spill happened, she said. I hated to see all those animals in distress. I wondered what I could do to help those animals that I love so much and decided to take what I liked doing bestcreating mermaid crownsand make a business of it, with a portion of my proceed going to sea life and to autism research and awareness.
Roy sees the mermaid as a perfect metaphor for a person with autism. What I had always liked about mermaids, she said, is not only did I see them as powerful female figures who loved to swim among the sea animals I loved, but, like me with my autism, they are human with a difference.
Helping others understand that difference prompted Roy to move beyond designing crowns and create the persona of Mermaid Giovanna. Roy attends fairs and other events in a beautiful costume with a self-designed crown and bustier made complete by a silicone mermaid tail with a built-in monofin.
As Mermaid Giovanna, Roy reminds children that even people with challenges have tremendous gifts. If placed on land, mermaids can't walk, she said. But if they're placed in water, in that environment that best plays to their skills, they can really succeed and show off the best of who they are. The same is true for people with autism.
Roy was diagnosed with autism when she was almost five years old but did not learn about her diagnosis until she was in third grade. At that point, I felt ashamed and thought something was horribly wrong with methat there was nothing good that would come out of that, said Roy. But I was wrong.
Roy's perspective on her autism changed when she was invited to join a panel to speak to educators at her high school in Bedford, N.H. At first, she said, I found that it was really hard for me to talk about it because, for the longest time, I would try to hide and do my best just to appear normal, or neurotypical. The more she spoke, however, the more comfortable she became, largely because of the positive responses her audiences gave her.
As I was answering questions about how I learn bestwhat I find helpful in teachers and what kind of deficits, for lack of a better term, I havepeople would come up to me, just so thrilled, to congratulate me. It surprised me, said Roy. One woman even said I changed her worldview of autism. It was really empowering.
Roy plans to continue designing crowns and developing the personas for the mermaids who wore them, since each crown comes with a unique mermaid adoption certificate. The certificate explains the mermaid's practices and propensities, Roy said. Each mermaid likes to do something a little differentthey each have some kind of talent. They are as unique and varied as people.
She also hopes to continue developing the persona of Mermaid Giovanna. I want to give people a different view of autism, in that it can be a gift in some aspects, she said.
Through their interactions with Mermaid Giovanna, she wants children to understand that, like mermaids, people with autism are strong and proud of who they are.
I see the mermaid as a strong figure who is not just some damsel in distress who needs to be saved, she said. Nor is she a figure that will just lure someone to tragedy.
Through her appearances as Mermaid Giovanna, Roy hopes to help people think more about autism acceptance and less about finding a cure. I can't be cured of my autism, she said. It's encouraging, though, to know that people care about who I am and what I'm doing to increase autism awareness in a way that hasn't been done before.
Roy has come to recognize the power she has as a person with autism to help change people's thinking. She said that by meeting her, people have the recognition of seeing me as more than just my disability and something that, in a way, has its benefits. The individual connections she makesthose conversations that help people see both her and her autism from a new perspectiveare how she spreads awareness. If you have that one person who benefits and wants to talk about it, then you have this chain of events that spreads to the public, said Roy. That's where you see progress, rather than being so focused on a cure.
Roy has also developed and posted a PSA video on YouTube that she hopes will send a strong positive message to young people who have autism. It is about encouraging kids and people with autism and letting them know that it's okay to be different, she said. That you have value, even talent, that you have to love and appreciate. And I know that's not easy.
On her Mermaid Crowns Facebook page, Roy wrote about meeting another young woman with Asperger's Syndrome. She told me that if she could make her autism disappear, she wouldn't because that's part of who she is. That statement showed me how much she has grown to love and appreciate herself. I hope that as time goes on, many more people with autism will feel the same way.
I think everyone celebrating who they are, autistic or not, is important, said Roy. That's why reaching kids by being this personaout of strength, out of confidence, out of being a person with a differenceis very encouraging.
With her inclusive message, there is no doubt that as Mermaid Giovanna, Roy is a strong role model for all children, autistic and neurotypical alike. The truth is, though, that her power as a role model is equally strongand perhaps even more inspiringwhen she sheds her fin, stands on two feet, and promotes awareness by celebrating her own differences every day in her life as Colby-Sawyer junior Giovanna Roy.
Learn more about Mermaid Giovanna at www.mermaidcrowns.com.
-by Mary McLaughlin, Director, Residential Education