Monday, April 3, 2017

1 in 68

It’s that time of year again.  April is Autism Awareness month.  I’m sad to say that even though we’re at 1 in 68 kids being diagnosed with some form of Autism there is still a lot of misconceptions about it.  So, I do my small part and share some of how Autism has effected myself through my professional life.  I’ve previously written uplifting lists of how my autistic son has influenced the way I see the world.  And all of those things are still very true.  Learning how to navigate the world with LG has broadened my perspective on a lot of the day to day interactions in the workplace.  Just like relearning the golden rule when your kid goes to kinder, there’s something to be said about taking a step back and re-evaluating how you respond to your environment.

However, there is another impact to my professional life that doesn’t get mentioned as much. As the parent of a special needs kid, my career choices tend to be more conservative than they may otherwise be.  When interviewing with a potential employer I have to ask about things like benefits, and what type of coverage for autism services are included.  I have to explore the flexibility of office hours. I have to reserve a few of my PTO days each year to deal with ARDs, neuro appointments, and pre-visits to new places he’s going to be required to attend in the next few months.  I have turned down job offers because it would require me to move to an area that didn’t have enough therapists within a 30-mile radius.  And I let another opportunity go because the insurance benefits didn’t cover ABA therapy. 

I am extremely lucky.  I work in a field where I am well compensated and typically receive good benefits. I am senior enough that I can require flexibility as a part of negotiating a new position.  For the most part a contract doesn’t care if it’s reviewed at 3 pm or 3 am, and execs often exchange texts or phone calls late at night or early in the morning depending on their work style - so my work product isn’t materially impacted because of my need for flexibility.  In house lawyers are generally on call 24/7 anyway, so having my butt in a seat from 9-5 doesn’t impact my earning potential. 

Unfortunately, autism doesn’t just effect the children of highly paid professionals.  And as much as we protest as employers that we’d never hold it against an employee, if you’re working in a call center it’s a lot harder to be flexible when your kid has a 2-hour meltdown and refuses to get in the car. (Sure you could force him, but he’s almost as big as you now and is really hard to physically pick up - even if that was a healthy way to deal with a meltdown.)  It’s harder to demand great insurance benefits from the minimum wage job you had to take so that you could shuttle him to the several therapy sessions a week that he needs - for which you now rely on grants and Medicaid to pay.  And if your employer only allows 5 PTO days a year, you reserve all of them to deal with the kid and his needs.  All the while, you pray that you never get sick or need a day for anything else. 

None of this addresses what the child goes through himself, which is exponentially harder than the administrative stress that parents go through.  So while we thank you for the sentiment of “I don’t know how you do it,” please don't start comparing us to real martyrs. Instead, please take a moment to think of how you could support the autism community.  Maybe it’s just a supporting look when a kid is having a meltdown in the middle of the school hallway instead of the judging of parental skills because he’s shouting some choice words that shouldn’t be in a second grader’s vocabulary.  Maybe it’s donating money or time to one of the many organizations that are working to make life easier for the community – Autism Society of Austin is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s cutting one of your employees some slack for coming in late when their kid has a bad day, or if you’re senior enough fighting for policies that make life just a little easier.  Maybe your company can employ someone with autism, giving that person a chance to make a living and the rest of your employees some exposure to and hopefully empathy for a real autistic person, not some cute kid on a poster.  If nothing else, go learn something about autism and share what you’ve learned (unless you’re going to say it’s caused by vaccines, then just shut up.)

Light It Up Blue, or Tone It Down Taupe – either way spread awareness so that instead of forcing these amazing people to conform to our rigid society, we start thinking of how our society can be more accommodating and accepting of them.