Alumni Spotlights

Britini D’Angelo, BFA’19, BA ’19, M.S.Ed.’21: Breaking Down Barriers for Neurodiversity

Photo courtesy of Brittani Morgan Photography

Photo courtesy of Brittani Morgan Photography

When you first meet Britini D’Angelo, you can’t help but notice her enthusiasm, her optimism, and her confidence. At the age of 24, she has accomplished much: She completed degrees in both theatre and communication at Niagara, was twice honored by NU’s Student Government Association as one of NU’s most outstanding leaders, and is the first in the university’s history to be valedictorian and receive the Niagara Medal at gradation in the same year. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the Chuck Norris System™ style of karate, is a three-time world champion at the United Fighting Arts Federation World Championships Tournament, and performed a martial arts demonstration at halftime of a Harlem Globetrotters game in Las Vegas. She sang the national anthem to open the crowning ceremony of the 2018 Miss New York Pageant, has danced for 19 years in 12 different styles, and plays three musical instruments. This year, she was a Season 23 cast member on “Big Brother.”

Remarkable accomplishments for anyone. And then you find out she has autism.

It’s been a road,” Britini says of her life journey thus far. “It definitely has taken a village, and I have the opportunity and privilege of having the best village there is out there.”

Heading that village is her mother, Cathy, whom Britini describes as “my biggest advocate, my greatest role model, my hero, my rock.” As a former rehabilitation counselor and presently an educator and school counselor, Cathy became concerned when she noticed that her daughter was not reaching her childhood developmental milestones. When Britini was diagnosed with autism through early intervention at the age of 22 months, Cathy applied to have Britini accepted into the Summit Center’s applied behavioral analysis home program. She insisted that Britini, who was nonverbal at the time, receive the recommended 40 hours of ABA therapy, which was more than double the hours typically offered, and continually advocated to ensure that Britini would receive those 40 hours so she could be prepared to enter kindergarten. Fast-forwarding, Cathy worked with Britini’s psychologists and teachers to provide her with the educational accommodations she needed to put her on a level playing field with her same-age peers, and consistently made sure that those accommodations were being made available to her. She also acted as an advocate for Britini in her extracurricular activities.

Her mother’s tenacity, coupled with the support of her father, Dave D’Angelo, and nana, Margaret Touma, who helped with Britini’s ABA therapy, and her siblings, Pop, cousins, aunts, and uncles who assisted her along the way, paid off. Britini excelled academically during elementary and high school, and enrolled at Niagara in a double degree program in theatre-performance and communication studies.

“There was no other place but Niagara for me,” she said, noting that she attended Purple Eagle basketball games with her grandparents and took school fieldtrips to campus. “Niagara’s been my home away from home since I was five, and it offered me everything I wanted—the clubs, the academics, the challenge.” The fact that Niagara was the only school that would let her pursue degrees in both theatre and communication, despite the rigor of the theatre curriculum, was just icing on the cake.

As an undergraduate, Britini participated in 13 clubs and organizations. She was the first music director and later president of Soar Throats, NU’s acapella club; a Vincentian Scholar; NU Student Government secretary in 2019; active with Campus Ministry’s BASIC program; and served as president of the Public Relations Student Society. She was inducted into the Sigma Alpha Sigma, Delta Epsilon Sigma, and Lambda Pi Eta honor societies during her undergraduate career, and into the Kappa Delta Pi graduate education honor society while pursuing her master's degree.

Just weeks after graduating with her master’s degree in education (with the intent of following in the footsteps of her mother, grandparents, and other family members who are educators), Britini found out she had been selected as a houseguest for “Big Brother.”

“It was just such a crazy turnaround, from graduating in May of 2021, and then in June, literally a month after, I leave for L.A.,” she said.

Britini had been a fan of the show for years, and she saw being on it as an opportunity to tell her story publicly, and on her own terms.

“I’ve always wanted to break down these stigmas that people place on us, like we have a disability so that means we’re limited in some capacity, shape, or form,” she said.

While she wanted to shed light on what people with autism can accomplish, she chose not to reveal her condition until the show’s finale.

“I wanted to play the game, and I wanted to see how well I could do,” she said. “But I didn’t want anyone to have any preconceived notions of what I may be like, and I didn’t want it to be an excuse or a crutch or a limitation.”

Although Britini was evicted in week six of the show, becoming juror #1, she said that she is proud of the game that she played and grateful for the opportunity it has given her to “break down barriers for neurodiversity.” She has a three-fold mission, she said: educating others on what it means to be on the autism spectrum; advocating for early intervention; and challenging people to accept others for who they are, and not as a label or a diagnosis.

“It’s not just about my story,” she said, “it’s about sharing everyone’s story, it’s about breaking down these stigmas and these stereotypes that come along with someone who’s diagnosed with autism that just are not true. I’m so excited and I feel so blessed to have been given the platform that I have to talk about that and to have that opportunity to speak about something so close to my heart. 

“My autism is my superpower,” she continued. “So many people ask me if I could go back in time, would I want to be born without it. My answer’s no, because it really has allowed me to become so much more than I thought I ever could be, because I had to work so hard throughout my entire life. I’ve had an unbelievable journey. It’s been hard, but it’s been wonderful. It’s made me me.”