Monday, July 2, 2012

How my autistic son has made me a better lawyer.

I am the proud mama to three very exceptional boys (and that’s a totally unbiased opinion shared by his Nana and Papa and all his aunts).  My middle son, “LG” is on the spectrum, and raising him and interacting with him is really different than it is with his brothers.  While there are definitely challenges, he brings so many good things into our lives.  Because of him I’ve learned patience beyond what I ever thought I’d have, the joy of simplicity and so many of life’s lessons that I would have never considered if it wasn’t for LG.  And, because the other half of my world is work, I’ve applied some of those lessons to my professional life.

1.        You don’t always get good facts.  We learn in law school that “bad facts make bad case law.”  And that sucks.  But in the real world, you’re surrounded by bad facts.  I’ve yet to be involved in a dispute or negotiation where either party was 100% right on all counts.  You’ve got to deal with the hand you’re given and make the best of it.  One thing I’ve learned from LG is that nothing is going to be perfect, and by accepting the flaws you can stop worrying about what isn’t right and focus on how to achieve your goals using what you do have. 

2.       You can’t count on consistency.  With autism, a skill that LG learns today may regress tomorrow.  I can never be sure whether he’s “really” got something until he’s been doing it for a long time.    We may have conquered eating with a fork this week only to have to go back to hand feeding next week.  The same thing can happen in house.  You may think that the business has the process down and you can move on, but then a new employee or vendor comes along and either doesn’t know the process or doesn’t like it.  You may have to start all over to recreate the process and training.  If you get frustrated every time you take half a step backwards you’re going to easily discouraged and won’t be able to recognize when you’ve taken two steps forwards.

3.       Sometimes communication style matters more than substance.  LG has limited understanding of language.  While it’s increasing every day, there are some days where it seems like I have to try every method of I can think of to convey the same message until he finally understands.  When dealing with various business people from different backgrounds and with different personalities, the way you communicate can convey a lot more than the substance of your message.  For example, a younger inexperienced person may not pick up on the nuance of a “general rule of thumb” being something that you follow most of the time but can deviate from without serious consequences.   Whereas a person with a lot of experience may think that you’re explanation of the law makes you a “know it all” because they were just looking for a yes or no answer.  I admit; this is one area where I’ve still got a lot of work to do personally – both with LG and at work.  But knowing that is half the battle (or so they say…)

4.       Change is the hardest thing for anyone to accept.  LG does best when he’s within the world and routines that he knows really well.  Take him out of his comfort zone or change up the routine even slightly and you can be guaranteed a night of melt downs, tantrums and probably a few bruises.  Even the transition from one routine to another that he knows if he’s not properly prepared can result in drama.  His autism highlights this challenge for him, but it’s true for most people.  Change is scary, even if we know what we should be expecting.  Even if we want the result of the change, the process can be terrifying.  For a business leader, the prospect of dramatic failure that results in the loss of jobs can be immobilizing, even if the expected outcome is the exact opposite.  As in house counsel, our job is to advise and guide through the transition.  Help minimize the risk – or even just the perception of risk - and you’ll become the person your management team wants to stand next to them during the scary times.  Over or under react and you’ll end up heightening the fear and making the transition worse than the outcome could ever be.  When you start getting left out of the process, you may want to look at how you handle change.

5.       Life is beautiful.  LG challenges me daily, I’ve spent hours worrying about his future and crying over what he doesn’t have.  But a day hasn’t gone by since he’s born that I have thanked my lucky stars to have him.  His unadulterated joy at the simplest of things, the way he marvels at how his shadow moves across the wall or how the dust floats in the sunlight can stop me dead in my tracks.  He reminds me every day to enjoy the ride.  As lawyers, we have a lot of ups and downs.  It can seem like we only deal with the problems.  But take a minute each day to think about all the beauty in your world.  Isn’t it amazing that your company can service so many people, helping them to obtain the things they want or need?  Can you appreciate how much your life has been enriched by getting to know Amy in accounting or how much you’ve learned by working on that deal with Jay in sales? 

It’s amazing to think about how much I’ve learned from my almost 3 year old autistic toddler.  I can’t wait to see what he’s going to teach me next.  What can you learn from someone like LG?