In an effort to continuously gain a better understanding of the people we serve, we hosted a company event on autism awareness. Individuals with autism are likely in your peer group, part of your audience or within your company as well. Understanding how to best support them and include them is essential. Nikki Warren, Verbit’s Head of HR-Global Operations, and her 19-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is autistic, joined us to share their personal experiences.
Every member of our community can benefit from greater awareness of autism and how to create more inclusive practices, environments and workspaces. Here are some highlights of what was shared firsthand on what it’s like to live with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Verbit’s Global Head of Accessibility and Inclusion, Scott Ready, who led the discussion, also provided some additional tips.
Make accommodations to support those who do and don’t know they are living with autism
Maggie, who is 19, learned that she was autistic when she was 14. Her mother expressed the importance of learning about autism early. Maggie didn’t learn that she was autistic until she was heading to high school.
“She was diagnosed pretty late in life, which happens a lot with girls,” said Nikki. “Girls are much harder to diagnose than boys.”
Unfortunately, by the time Nikki and Maggie learned of her diagnosis, Maggie had been through bullying experiences at school, which took a toll on her mental health. Nikki suspects that learning more about how Maggie’s brain works earlier could have helped them better navigate school and social situations.
Looking for ways to help students in schools, employees in workplaces and others in your audiences and communities who may be struggling is essential. With many individuals going undiagnosed, making the environments they frequent more inclusive with best practices from the get-go, especially if they don’t even know to ask for accommodations, can have a lasting impact. For example, having quiet rooms, note taking services available or schedules printed or displayed electronically are small offerings which can have a lasting impact, as well as help everyone.
Educate your colleagues on ASD display behaviors
Nikki and Maggie both said that Maggie’s “stimming” was an early sign of her autism. Stimming refers to moving the bodies in a repetitive way that might strike others as unusual. Maggie was often “flapping,” especially when she was excited or overstimulated. Her flapping was a form of stimming, which is a common behavior associated with ASD.
In Maggie’s case, her stimming was something she would do when overwhelmed. Other people’s reactions to her stimming caused Maggie to start to hide this behavior.
“When I’m talking about something that I’m really interested in, or I get overwhelmed, I start to get my fist and grip my hands together because I’m trying to avoid flapping,” said Maggie.
This learned behavior is Maggie’s way to adapt because of other people’s reactions.
“I’ve internalized my stimming behaviors and I don’t know if there’s really a way to reverse that. It’s just masking behavior that I’ve done over time so much that I just I’ve internalized everything,” she said.
Many people who attended Verbit’s talk weren’t familiar with stimming, which prompted questions. The lack of knowledge about this behavior highlights the need for more autism awareness. Not only would better understanding help prevent many instances of staring or passing judgments on people displaying these behaviors, but it could also help to identify early signs of autism. Since many individuals are not diagnosed and many others often do not want to proactively inform their peers, greater education on these types of behaviors can be helpful.
Understand that socializing can be a challenge for peers with autism
One of the biggest challenges Maggie has faced is forming social connections with her peers. The 19-year-old had an easier time communicating with adults than people her age. Some barriers included her tendency to overlook social cues. Trouble “reading” other people is common among people with ASD, which can make it more difficult for them to form friendships.
“I don’t always pick up on social cues and social interactions,” said Maggie. “Some people will be saying things that I don’t understand, they’ll be laughing at me, and I don’t really understand why.”
Other students often made the situation more difficult. Rather than taking the time to understand, “they took advantage of that, that I was clueless, and I didn’t even realize it. That happens to a lot of autistic people in school” she said.
Ready pointed out that this is an area we can all help improve by raising our awareness and talking more about neurodiversity and acceptance in schools, workplaces and social environments.
Hyperfocus and special interests can make for outstanding individuals
Maggie explained that many people with ASD have a special interest that they focus on and learn about in detail. For Maggie, that interest is all things Disney.
“I can tell you where to find the cheeseburger spring rolls in the Magic Kingdom. You know, I can tell you pretty much everything you need to know,” she said.
Maggie hopes that she can someday turn her passion into a career with Disney. The family is even relocating to Orlando to help Maggie take more steps toward this dream. Both mother and daughter are excited about their move and the future for Maggie.
In the past, some identified the hyperfocus or fixations which sometimes arise with individuals who are autistic in a negative light. However, we now know that individuals with autism can make for incredible learners and professionals. According to the Neurodiversity Hub, peers with autism can often display incredible strengths and skills. These include reliability, dependability, honesty, high levels of concentration, amazing attention to detail, great memory and much more.
Institutions are therefore well-suited to embrace individuals who are neurodiverse.
Educate yourself and your peers on respectful terminology & facts
Ready pointed out some important language considerations to be aware of when speaking about ASD. For instance, the term “Aspergers” isn’t correct anymore, nor is it accurate to say, “high functioning” or “low functioning” autism. In fact, it’s also incorrect to think about ASD as something linear or something measurable by degrees. Instead, people with ASD may experience strengths or challenges in a variety of different areas making each person unique.
ASD presents in diverse ways and is just one type of neurodiversity, along with ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia and Tourette’s Syndrome, among others. Increasingly, there is an understanding that these labels describe various ways that people’s brains work and that it’s incorrect to label them as negative. As Maggie said, “I don’t necessarily think of it as a burden. It’s just a different way for me to see the world. And, you know, there are so many people with autism that have done such great things.”
Ready also pointed out some of the many successful people throughout history who had ASD, including Mozart and Emily Dickenson. Identifying these individuals is a helpful way to highlight the good that comes from neurodiversity.
The event provided a valuable opportunity for Verbit’s team to gain insights into the experiences of individuals with ASD and how to better support them. As an organization dedicated to providing accessibility solutions, prioritizing a diverse and inclusive approach is paramount to us. Don’t hesitate to contact Verbit to discover more about our solutions to help make your environments more inclusive.