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This month we are discussing how valuing the perspective of autistic professionals can transform workplaces, industries, and fields of study. There are over 5.4 million autistic adults in the United States and over 50,000 autistic individuals enter the workforce each year. Although some workplace environments seem to intuitively take autistic needs into account, many others are unaware of the negative impact their environment may be having on autistic individuals. Having autistic employees creates opportunities for non-autistic co-workers to listen to and learn from their autistic colleagues. This growing openness and acceptance positively impact workplaces, making them more inclusive and comfortable for autistic employees and clients. And employers are also recognizing that a neurodiverse workforce creates opportunities for innovation and different ways of thinking and solving problems that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Dismantling long standing assumptions
Through the years, I have heard countless stories of autistic children and adults being misunderstood by the professionals who are supposed to be helping them. When my autistic daughter, Rachel, was in high school, one of her speech therapists gave her a failing grade in her social pragmatics class because she did not use neurotypical social skills, like making eye contact with a teacher, or another student, when they were talking to her. Both my daughter and I were confused as to why she was being graded on her social skills at all. It felt like she was being punished for being autistic. Although Rachel knew why and when neurotypical people would expect her to make eye contact, she explained that she found it painful, and didn’t understand why she had to be the one to conform to arbitrary social norms that didn’t seem to consider how challenging and painful they might be for an autistic person.
Rachel helped lead the way by advocating and sharing her perspective. Her team encouraged her to participate in these meetings as an equal member of the IEP team. By giving her space to voice her concerns and questions, team members reevaluated why these were expectations in the first place. Rachel challenged their assumptions about autism and social pragmatics and fundamentally changed the focus of sessions with the therapist from social skills to self-advocacy.
We demystify autism when we shine a light on what it means to be autistic. We don’t know what we don’t know. But when an autistic coworker can point out how a procedure, like standing in line in a large group, or filling out long forms by hand, is especially challenging for autistic clients, we can collaborate and begin to improve systems so that we don’t place an undue burden on autistic individuals and also create a better system for others through Universal Design. Just as Rachel helped her IEP team understand how their approach to social pragmatics was detrimental to autistic students, I am hopeful that lasting change can occur when autistic professionals lead the way.