Every year on April 2nd, communities around the globe celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. The observance aims to foster understanding, acceptance, and support for people with autism, and inspire a kinder, more inclusive world. We ARE (our internal initiative to Attract, Retain and Empower diverse and inclusive communities at Red Ventures) invites you to join us in uplifting people with autism and those who love and support them by wearing blue today!
Our teammate Carol Rego — a director of product management in our Charlotte office — was kind enough to help educate us about autism through her personal experiences with her brother Brian.
What is autism?
Autism Speaks defines autism as “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” However, while there are some common traits of autism (like the ones listed here), these characteristics can vary from person to person. Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all for neurotypical people, the same can be said for people with autism.
Because each person with autism’s journey is different, the best way to educate yourself about autism is by remaining open to learning. Read up on a variety of sources, and ask questions if people are willing to share their stories (which I am always happy to!). That being said, as you read this blog post, keep in mind that my experience with autism will be different from the next person’s and the next’s.
What was your first experience with autism awareness?
In second grade, I gave a presentation on my family to my classmates. When I got to my brother, I told everyone his name, his age, some of his favorite things (the color green, watermelon, Jeeps), and at the end I added, “He is also autistic.” My teacher immediately jumped in and said, “Artistic. Your brother is artistic.”
My seven year old self tried to explain to her that she was incorrect and that I had not, in fact, mispronounced a word. She didn’t give in, and I eventually gave up. That was the first time I realized that not everyone — not even all adults — were aware of autism. Granted, a lot has changed since then. Most people have at least heard of the term ‘autism,’ but there is still opportunity for deeper education and acceptance.
Why are we wearing blue today?
Many people with autism thrive under a routine; conversely, they may become frustrated and overwhelmed when their schedule is thrown off. When this happens to Brian (my brother), he will jump up and down and shout. Now that he’s older, this doesn’t happen as much in public — but when this happened when we were kids, most people would shake their head and mutter something about ‘getting that misbehaving kid’s tantrum under control’ as they walked away. I’m not sure which was worse — the dismissal or the misinformation.
I’m sure each person with autism and/or their families have at least one similar story. By wearing blue on April 2nd, you are telling us, “I see you, and I accept you as you are.”
What are some common misconceptions about people with ASD?
Not everyone with autism is savant like in the movie “Rain Man.”
How can we create an environment that is supportive of those on the spectrum?
Let people on the spectrum do what they need to do to adjust to our world. People with autism experience the world differently from neurotypical people and may exhibit certain behaviors in order to cope. My brother Brian is super sensitive to sound, so he constantly wears ear plugs to dampen ambient noise. And, for whatever reason, they have to be purple ear plugs. It’s not a great look, but hey — it works for him.
Another common coping behavior is stimming (short for stimulating behaviors), like rocking and hand flapping. For people not used to seeing these behaviors, especially the latter, observing them can be jarring. One of my biggest fears is Brian finding himself in a confrontational situation in which he begins to flap because he is uncomfortable. His flapping could be interpreted as a sign of aggression, which in turn could lead the other party to call the police. If you witness something like this, be an ally, and step in to de-escalate the situation by explaining that this individual could have autism and that flapping is actually a coping mechanism to help calm themselves down.
Finally, if you are an event organizer or a small business owner, consider the needs of people with autism. Can you include some type of sensory-friendly area or designated sensory-friendly hours? Have you trained your volunteers and employees on how to best serve guests/shoppers/clients with autism? Sure — maybe a person with autism isn’t your core customer, but 1 in 54 children are on the spectrum. There’s a likely chance that you’ll encounter someone with autism at some point.
How can we better support people on the spectrum in the workplace?
Be mindful and intentional with the language you use with your team and coworkers. Don’t use “autistic” as a punch line in a joke. Keep in mind that people with autism do not have to disclose if they are on the spectrum. Even if your intention wasn’t to put someone down, you could hurt someone on your team.
What is neurodiversity?
In its simplest form, Oxford Dictionary defines neurodiversity as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).” However, the word itself is more nuanced than that of the autism community. Some people believe autism is something that should be cured, while others disagree. I’m not going to try to get into the details, but this article, “The Concept of Neurodiversity Is Dividing the Autism Community,” from Scientific American explains the topic more.
Regardless of which side of that debate you fall on, one thing we can all agree on is that autism is real, and thus we by definition have a neurodiverse society. A few studies have examined how neurodiversity is good for teams — especially in the workplace — including this article by the Harvard Business Review which discusses neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.
Unemployment rates can be as high as 80% for the autistic community, which is a shame considering the amount of untapped potential there. However, several tech companies have caught onto this trend and have already implemented Autism at Work programs, such as Microsoft and SAP. We should all explore similar options within our own workplaces, both for our bottom line and our community.
Want to learn more?
Check out the following resources dedicated to supporting and advocating for the autism community:
Want to learn more about the work of We ARE? Check out these takeaways from our first-ever We ARE Uplift Panel.