One of the challenges of writing about autism grows from the same roots as one of the most famously important quotes about autistic people: “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” It’s impossible to write about our collective experience as neurodivergent people and tie it with a bow; autism is a spectrum that comprises infinite diverse experiences.
It’s so important to write about autism though, and to draw a more complete and complex picture of what autism is, what it can look like, and how to best empower neurodivergent people. Equity and social justice are so strong in our public consciousness right now, but identities tend to be dissected so that we can digest individual issues in bite-sized chunks. Talking and writing about autism is a step towards making sure it’s one of those chunks, at least until we all join forces to rip the whole system to shreds.
To begin with, there is a common perception of autistic people as superheroes; they are glorified in the media as two-dimensional, mathematical savants with photographic memories. But some autistic people are terrible with numbers, but amazing with art. Some autistic people may have trouble speaking, but they are thoughtful and articulate writers.
As an entrepreneur, I can say that my autism has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s amazing to be able to see the big picture and the minutiae of projects with equal clarity, and the work I’ve done to understand unspoken communication rules has left me well-equipped to communicate across cultures. But at the same time, it is exhausting to see both the whole forest and the details of the bark on each tree. I burn out more quickly than others, I often forget to finish for the day, and understanding the mechanics of communication doesn’t stop me from regularly losing my train of thought.
Co-founding Sticky Brain Studios was a chance to scrap traditional ideas about work spaces and cultures, and to build a company ethos that recognized both my skills and my needs. Understanding that every task seems equally critical to me, Ted Brunt, Sticky Brain’s other co-founder, supports me with setting priorities to help me focus (and be reminded to pause once in a while) so that I don’t succumb to autistic burnout (a whole special kind of burnout!). Knowing that I take directions literally and struggle to read between the lines, we work to ensure that our internal communications and expectations are always clear and direct. In times where I have struggled to organize my thoughts, we’ve brought in support to listen, track, and rearrange them into linear strands (like with Kelsy Vivash who ghost wrote this article for me because my thoughts were too all over to write it myself!)
The pandemic, too, has required me to re-evaluate the way that I live through each working day, and frankly, elements of it have been amazing. The extra mental labour that I usually need to do in order to leave the house has been cut in half; nowadays, to prepare for meetings, a “professional appearance” needs only to mean “dressed from the waist up.” I no longer have to expend energy masking my stims; I can stim to my heart’s content as long as my hands stay out of the view of my webcam, and so Zoom meetings are often less draining for me than meeting in-person. The exhausting minutiae of planning a coffee meeting (“will I be able to focus on what the person says in this coffee shop? Are the lights too bright? Are the chairs ok? What’s the ambient noise like?”) have evaporated, and the move away from phone calls means that more often than not, I have access to people’s facial expressions and body language to help me figure out the person’s intent and mood. Of course there are still challenges for me: keeping track of time and space on Zoom calls can be disorienting, and looking at all of the facial expressions in a meeting of 30 people is complicated. Overall though, there is an enormous amount of control in being able to meet online.
So now knowing just how malleable our workplaces can be, how do we re-imagine how to make our spaces more inclusive coming out of the pandemic? First, we need to stop looking to autistic people like me as an example that everything is fine. It’s not.
Some autistic people will need specific workplace accommodations to ensure that they are safe and productive – things like quiet spaces, wearing headphones, blasting their own music loudly, physical movement, comfort items, darkness, or bright light. To create truly equitable and inclusive workspaces, we need to ensure that we’re prepared to meet the needs of neurodivergent people, even when those needs are inconvenient or unusual.
We need to be conscious not to ask our autistic colleagues to stamp our diversity card while hiding all aspects of their neurodiversity from us at their own expense. We have to work against any notions of “seeing past” disability: all this does is displace the responsibility onto neurodivergent people to hide and suppress themselves.
And, we need to run – RUN – away from this idea that autistic people are either superheroes or pitiable. The reality is that autism can, at times, be shitty but for some of us it’s also awesome. I hope that with the newfound workplace flexibility we’ve established during the pandemic, we can begin to imagine workspaces that support that awesomeness, not just contain it.
Publishers Note: This article was originally published by Sasha Boersma on her LinkedIn. The essay is ghost written by Kelsy Vivash.
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