Recently, I finished reading Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 2016): what an inspiration! The content is clearly laid out, with a survey of the barriers to successful inclusion of autistic people in the workplace, and solid recommendations to remove those barriers. Throughout the book, Booth has included the perspectives and experiences of numerous autistic people she has interviewed. These things alone make the book a compelling and invaluable resource.

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What impressed me most of all, however, were two insightful distinctions that inform much of Booth's approach. First is the revealing contrast between the medical and social models of disability. The medical model, which has been (and unfortunately still remains) the default approach, is to focus on the individual's “problems”, suggesting that the solution lies entirely with (in our case) the autistic person. More recently, the social model of disability has started to gain ground. The social model recognizes that social constructs are the barriers to inclusion of those with disabilities. A simple example: Is the deterrent to employing someone in a wheelchair the fact that they cannot walk or that your workplace isn't wheelchair accessible? We all recognize that to be inclusive, it is the workplace's responsibility to accommodate employees in wheelchairs. To think otherwise would be considered heartless, inconsiderate. The social model simply suggests that we take the same perspective to all disabilities.

And then there's that pesky word, “disability”. Since discovering that I, myself, am autistic, I have struggled with that word. Indeed, it holds some degree of controversy in the autistic community at large. The other distinction Booth makes resolved that controversy for me very simply, differentiating between “impairment” and “disability”. Continuing with the example of a person in a wheelchair, the impairment is that they cannot walk and must use a wheelchair. The disability, however, is merely the lack of accommodation, e.g. a ramp and/or an elevator. Once the accommodation is in place, while the impairment remains – for it is a part of that individual – the disability disappears. Extending this distinction to an autistic employee is equally simple: if the autistic person, for example, is hyper-sensitive to bright lighting, that's the impairment; the disability is caused by overly bright lights. Allow them to turn out the lights above their workspace and use a desk lamp and “poof!”, the disability is gone.

Booth, herself autistic, is from the UK, but Autism Equality in the Workplace includes information from not just the UK but also Australia, Canada and the US. I highly recommend the book for anyone dealing with diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

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Hungry for more, I was delighted to stumble upon a copy of Michael Bernick and Richard Holden's The Autism Job Club (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2015), which focuses on a job club in San Francisco started by the Autism Aspergers Syndrome Coalition for Education Networking and Development (AASCEND) to help autistic people, including Bernick's son William, find jobs. Bernick and Holden take a different approach from Booth, focusing on educating autistic people about the workplace, job coaching to give them skills to help them succeed, and helping them with placement. There is a short chapter, near the end of the book, that does mention work being done to change workplace culture, but the bulk of the book is concerned with how the autistic individual must adapt in order to find work.

There is no doubt that the two approaches are both necessary: working directly with autistic people to give them tools for success, and changing workplace culture to increase awareness, understanding and accommodation for those on the spectrum. To date, there has been a far greater focus on getting the autistic candidate to adapt to the workplace and not nearly enough emphasis on getting the workplace to understand the benefits to accommodation.

As I was reading The Autism Job Club, however, something started to bother me. Then all of a sudden it hit me: the voices of the autistic people mentioned in Bernick's book are all but silent. Yes, there are a few passages quoting autistic people, but these are almost invariably quoted from written sources (a flyer, a blog, etc.). There are many more quotes from neurotypicals (those who are not autistic or otherwise neurologically different, such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.) who are either parents of an autistic person, job coaches or otherwise involved in helping autistic people find work.

Reading Bernick's book felt like being the topic of conversation but not being part of the conversation. It felt like a doctor talking about you to her or his nurse, referring to you as “the patient”, all while you are in the room. The diagnostic rate of autism here in the US is 1 in 68 – a rate of prevalence that will only increase with time, especially as we get better at diagnosing girls and women on the spectrum. With a prevalence like that please understand that we are in the room and that we do have a voice. If a guest speaker were invited to a school to give a talk about Black History in America, it would be (certainly should be) a reasonable expectation that the speaker is Black. Similarly, if you are seeking a greater understanding of autism in the workplace, please have the same expectation: that you want to learn from someone who has direct, personal experience of what it's like to be autistic in the workplace.

As you are working toward inclusion, be inclusive. Such inclusivity is becoming more frequently second nature when it comes to race, gender and sexuality, but we're nowhere near that when it comes to disability. We're going to change that.

 


Should you wish to purchase a copy of Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace, you may do so at a discount! Use the code Y16 when ordering from the publisher.

I don't like cars. Nope, never really have. If I never had to get into the driver's seat again I'd be delighted. But, for most of us, it's unavoidable right? I mean, let's face it: either you commute to work, run errands during the day or somehow need your car (or, in our case, minivan). Heck, some of us may even drive for a living. There are exceptions, of course. when I lived in New York City I didn't drive (I didn't even own a car) but since moving south driving has become unavoidable. For the first few years in the South I worked from home (bliss! – but that's another story) so my wife took the car and I had a scooter, now a motorcycle.

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Why is that I don't like driving? I think it has something to do with the confinement of a car and the fact that it's harder to see clearly from inside a car than it is from a motorcycle. Now, some of you may be thinking about the fact that a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than a car, and without doubt you are right. But my comfort level is so much higher on a motorbike than it is in a car, so there is some mitigation. Aside from the obvious safety issue, there are some downsides to riding compared to driving: it takes longer to get going, as you have to put on all your gear; it can get chilly during the winter, even here in the South; the gear, if it's of good quality, can get expensive. But to my mind, the pros far outweigh the cons. For one, it's a heck of a lot easier to find parking for a bike than it is for a car! But the riding experience itself (I now commute to an office) is so much more pleasurable. Yes, there is the stereotypical feeling of freedom as you ride, but there is also a marvellous sense of unity with the motorcycle itself: riding requires that you move with your bike as you ride, which gives the sensation of being “one” with your bike. And there's more: I usually don't even get off my bike when filling up at the gas station (laziness or efficiency, take your pick); there is a sense of camaraderie with other riders; my bike gets better gas mileage than most cars; and then there's riding on a virtually empty road, often at night, when you can open her up and lean into the curves … amazing! There's also an undeniable “cool” factor that I forget about most of the time, until I'm on the elevator in full gear and someone else starts a conversation about riding, or until a kid stops and stares while I'm cruising along – the look of awe when I wave is delightful.

But whether you ride or drive, and no matter how much you may enjoy driving, there's always that one aspect of being on the road that gets in the way of enjoyment: other drivers!

Wouldn't it be lovely if the roads were always clear? I know, certainly, that when I'm riding my motorcycle, clear roads are the ideal! No cars in my way? Shoot: it's like a dream come true! But a dream it must remain (most of the time). I mean there's always that other driver who drives too slowly, doesn't signal, follows too closely, cuts you off, doesn't stop fully at stop signs (okay, that last one is a pet peeve I attribute to my Aspie/OCD). No matter where you go, there's always that one other driver who drives you (pun fully intended) round the bend! It seems you can't run even an errand or get to work without some jerk doing something stupid, or dangerous, or both. And of course it's always the other guy, right? I mean, we all drive perfectly well, don't we? I know I do (ahem).

But seriously, folks: don't other drivers sometimes (okay, frequently) make you mad? It's hard sometimes, isn't it, not to let frustration or anger take over, what with the number of people who must have gotten their driver's license through a correspondence course. Other drivers will either make you turn inward or explode outward; either you withdraw completely, such that driving is all but impossible, or you let the frustration out and flip them off or worse. This is where we lose control, having a meltdown or going into full road rage. And that's not good. Not good at all. But haven't we all been there at one point or another?

Let's look at what happens when we let other drivers get to us. Getting mad or having a meltdown requires a great deal of energy: your adrenalin rises, your blood boils, you want to scream. Heck, a lot of the time we do scream – at the other driver! That much anger or a serious meltdown can leave you drained, can't it? So, yeah: it takes a lot of energy. And it's our energy that's being expended, not the other driver's. Unless we make a point of letting the other driver know how pissed off we are, they probably aren't even aware that we're so upset. What happens to all this energy that we're throwing out there? Does it make the car in front of you go faster? Does is make the other driver signal at the next turn? Does it make the car behind you back off? Let's face it, no, it doesn't. When you stop to think about it, it's as if we think our energy is going to make a change to what's happening outside our car, as if we've got super telekinetic powers or something. But in fact, the only thing all that negative energy is going to affect is us. And it's not going to affect us in any positive way because it is, without question, negative energy that we're throwing – not “out there” but right back at ourselves. So, bottom line: we've exhausted ourselves by using negative energy on ourselves. Good plan, huh?

So what can we do? There may well be any number of techniques, but let me share with you what works for me, in the hope that it will work for you also. First of all, the most important thing is to be aware of yourself; be aware that you can, and probably will, get frustrated while driving. Start by doing no more than noticing that you are getting frustrated. Even if nothing else changes, and you end up angry or having a meltdown, if you noticed that you were going there before it was all over, you've made progress. Baby steps. With practice, you'll be able to notice right as it's starting to happen, and that's where it gets good. At that point, when you see your energy starting to rise, you can exercise some control, some restraint. Before things get bad, you can stop yourself and say “doesn't matter”, and, with that level of awareness you'll find, all of a sudden, that is doesn't matter! Yes, I know: you doubt that you can do this. So did I. But I thought about what happens to that energy. I thought about how it really only affected me and how that's not a Good Thing. I visualised myself trying to be some sort of Jedi master, moving the car in front of me with my telekinetic powers, and it became kind of funny. Once I could see the absurdity of using so much of my energy, and for nothing, it became easier. Now, when I start to see it happening, and I say, “doesn't matter” (saying it out loud helps). That's it, it's over. I realise that I'll maybe arrive three minutes later than I would have otherwise, but at least I'll arrive in a good mood, and that's a darn good trade off, don't you think? Yeah, it's not going to work every time; I lapse, you'll lapse, but you'll get better and better, and so will I.

Most of us drive cars, some of us ride motorcycles, some of us bicycles. Whatever the vehicle, the situation is the same: there are always going to be drivers on the road who do stupid things. And we have a choice: either we can allow the other drivers' antics to get to us or we can step back and realize that it “doesn't matter”. Remember that the only person who controls your reaction to any given situation is you. Ask yourself: do you want to get agitated? Do you want to get frustrated and angry? My guess is that your answer is, No, you don't. So, take action. Start to practice saying “doesn't matter” whenever some goof-ball driver does something stupid. I've found that my ability to enjoy a drive (or a ride) has increased dramatically, and you can do the same. Start small, just by becoming aware of what you're reacting to and build from there. Practice. You'll get better. Eventually you'll get to the point where it “doesn't matter”.