Thursday, April 2, 2015

Update to How My Autistic Son Made Me a Better Lawyer

April 2 is International Autism Awareness day.  I've made no secret of how Autism has effected me personally and professionally.  But like everything else in life, living with an Autistic son evolves over time. And while the lessons I first wrote about here are still applicable, I'm continuing to learn from him on a daily basis.  So in honor of Autism Awareness day and of LG, here are the new ways my autistic son is making me a better lawyer.

1.  Acceptance trumps Awareness.  The autism community in general struggles with this one.  With the 2014 stats of 1 in 68 kids being diagnosed (1 in 50 boys), there are a lot of organizations focused on raising the awareness of this disorder.  However, being aware of something and accepting it are two different things.  Understanding how or why something 'is' is just the first step.  Determining what to do next is where the real value is added.  For the autistic community, it is a movement away from viewing autism as a childhood disease to the fact that many adults with autism continue to need accommodation well into adulthood, but can otherwise be contributing members of society.  For an in house lawyer, it means being aware of budget, market or other considerations isn't enough.  We have to accept that reality and be creative in ways of achieving the goals of the business within those confines.

2.  Reaction or lack thereof does not equal lack of understanding.  As my son grows, his communication skills are also evolving.  His receptive communication is much more developed than his expressive communication - which means he understands a lot more than he's able to communicate back.  So there are times when I tell him something and he doesn't respond or react.  It's tough to know whether he actually heard and understood me and just isn't equipped to respond or whether he doesn't actually understand.  As he develops further, it's become clearer that he understands a lot more than most give him credit for, but he often doesn't react as expected. And I've come to learn that this is not a uniquely autistic trait.  There are some business people who don't always react as expected to news of advice.  As in house counsel, we need to manage the interaction and not just the conversation.  Look for the non-verbal clues of understanding and acceptance or rejection.

3. The details matter even when you think they don't.  A lot of autistics focus on details of things that are very important to you.  My son corrected the presenter at a dinosaur show when he used the old name for a particular dinosaur.  He could tell by the toe claw which dinosaur it was.  I, of course, couldn't tell the difference and didn't even notice the claws were different.  But in certain situations the details don't seem like they're a big deal but can really blow up.  By way of example, a friend drafted an executive summary on a major project she had worked for weeks on.  Her boss glossed the summary before submitting it to the exec team and one change he made was to rearrange the 'author names' to list his before hers.  In his mind, it was a report from the legal department and he was their contact.  He wanted them to address further questions and issues to him rather than her so she could move on to the next project.  However, she felt slighted and like her work wasn't respected.  She started looking for another job that day.  Sometimes it seems like those details aren't very important but they are.  It pays to pay attention.

Three new things I may have missed without my 1 in 68.  What have you learned if you from yours?