Autism @ Work Reception: Thoughts

This past Wednesday, I was able to attend the evening reception for SAP’s Autism at Work conference. It featured a Q&A panel with three known authors in the autism world: Steve Silberman, John Elder Robison, and Dr. Stephen Shore. Robison and Shore are both autistic.

I quickly became aware that this reception (and indeed the conference itself) was attended by both neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals. It was my first time attending such an event, which was a bit bittersweet; this should be the norm for such conferences. There were even color codes on the name tags, letting everyone know each person’s level of comfort with being approached. Silberman later explained that while this was common for the autism conferences/talks he attended overseas, it was the first time he had seen the practice here in the United States. This further let me know how far behind my country is with regards to autism awareness and acceptance.

It again became clear when I asked the panel about their experiences with regards to how black and brown communities approach autism. Silberman woefully admitted that he wished he could have included more people of color in his book NeuroTribes, and Robison stated that the racial divide in autism is yet another symptom of the racial divide in medicine and education overall. Silberman shared a quick story of how he spoke with a black man who, when Silberman mentioned that he wrote a book about autism, basically replied, “Oh, that’s the white people disorder.” To say that the story saddened me is an understatement, but I am glad that I mustered the courage to ask about the topic. It led to several great conversations with other attendees afterwards.

This is one of the aspects of autism acceptance that hasn’t been achieved yet. There is a general awareness of it for the most part in minority communities, but it is still not understood enough in those communities to warrant full awareness. I know people who still put autism in the same category as MR, or like the man in the example, do not think it affects their community at all. A Mexican mother whose autistic son is a client of mine is very nervous about having him attend regular classes once he starts school. She would rather have him in special education classes than to face the bullying that she feels he would suffer through in mainstream classes. It broke my heart to hear that, especially since I feel her son has the potential to be able to thrive in regular classes of interest.

I want to end on a positive note, though, so here it is: The entire two day conference is a strong indicator of a shift in the business world. Companies are starting to realize the potential autistic employees have and how having neurodiverse people on their teams will help their companies grow and thrive. They recognize that hiring practices and procedures need to change and adjust; do talented individuals really need to go through a face-to-face interview? Do HR departments know how to bring in more neurodiverse applicants (right now, the answer appears to be “no”)? The questions and situations are starting to be explored and asked, which is a great step forward. Institutions are starting the slow process of change.

Here are a couple of pictures from the reception, including the books I got signed:

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Neurodiversity and Autism

After going through what I can only describe as a “dark night of the soul” over the last two months, I have emerged happily…way behind schedule on a lot of things, but happy to be back on my grind.

One of the books I started diving into was NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman. It is a huge book, over 500 pages, but it reads like a novel. This was my first introduction into the term (and movement) known as neurodiversity. It is a new concept, the idea that many neurological “hiccups” are more a natural variation of the human condition than a disorder. Right away, you can probably see why this idea would ruffle some well-established feathers.

Any of us who received degrees in the medical and health fields were more than likely taught the traditional “medical model;” anything not meeting the definition of normal (that could be an entire blog by itself) was considered pathological and must be treated. Recently, the medical field has tried to lean more towards preventative health to avoid problems later on down the road, but few have ventured far from the traditional viewpoint of identifying a problem and throwing everything we’ve got at the problem to stop it.

This brings me to autism. The traditional medical model holds to its same prinicple: throw everything we’ve got at it to make it go away. We have therapy/healing approaches that stretch across the board, from discreet trials to Reiki. Millions of dollars are being put into research to uncover autism’s cause and, in turn, its cure. Parents, desperate for answers, are falling prey to snake oil merchants and charlatans who come with both herbs and stethoscopes. Autism has become a business.

What if the answer is as simple as this: Let’s focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t.

I’m going to answer that for you. It’s not that simple, obviously. How I wish it was. But, it is a decent starting point. That is what I love about this neurodiversity movement. Because in all honesty, how good is our “normal” really going, at least in the US? We are stressed out, unhealthy, clinically depressed, and on every legal and illegal drug known to man. In one interview that I believe appeared in The New York Times awhile ago, a 19 year old who had been “cured” of his autism was asked if he missed anything about it. He answered that he missed “the joy.” That made my heart ache.

If NeuroTribes is showing me anything, it is that autism has potentially given us just as many answers as it has questions. Known scientists in history displayed many of the traits associated with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) long before we knew what it was. I myself have met many kids and teenagers on the spectrum who have amazing knowledge of different areas of math and science, but feel limited by their current schooling.

I could go on and on about this subject, but I’m saving that for my thesis and, eventually, my book. I will say that I greatly appreciate what the neurodiversity movement is trying to do and make aware. I hope to join them in helping those with ASD identify their often overlooked or under-appreciated gifts, and change the world as so many did before them.

PS- I will be attending Pantheacon this weekend in San Jose, and one of the workshops I’m attending is about creating materials so that autistic kids can participate in spiritual rituals with the family. Love it.