Growing up, people had lower expectations of me. No one expected me to go to college or start a career analyzing new and innovative ideas and proposals at one of the largest health insurers in the United States. I was told that since I was Autistic, I would not be afforded these opportunities, which usually go to neurotypical people. Much has changed over the past two years since I last wrote for the National Advisory Board (NAB) on Improving Healthcare Services for Older Adults and People with Disabilities. A pandemic of a lifetime continues to be a part of lives. Instead of having an office to go to and colleagues to catch up with daily, I now log onto my computer at my apartment with my cat on top of me as I work. In that time, I have grown personally and professionally. I started down one of the most ambitious journeys of my life, pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy while working full time at Anthem.
College originally was never in the picture for me. My transition plan initially was to stay enrolled with my school district and not graduate until I turned 21. At that point, I would have likely “fallen off the cliff” of support by aging out of the special education system. This is a grim yet all too common occurrence for Autistic individuals and our fellow citizens with varying disabilities. Many of my friends who made it through college are either unemployed or underemployed. The system is simply stacked against neurodivergent people.
One of the greatest lessons I learned in college was the power of networking with others. This skill comes hard to many, yet is even more complicated for Autistic individuals to engage in. After graduating, my initial thoughts were on just going to law school and seeing what happens afterward – and likely would have gone through with that if I did not network with other people.
The opportnities I was afforded through the Lex Frieden Internship at Anthem and the relationships I built there, helped me get to where I am today. Not only did I get advice on starting my career, but also where to take it.
One thing led to another, and the internship led to my current position in the Enterprise Analytics Hub, which provides analysis for all of Anthem. During my short time working in an office, I gained further insights into my future as a part-time student working full-time. My colleagues I worked alongside were just finishing their part-time master’s degree programs and told me about how Anthem supports associates seeking higher degrees.
Fast forward two years later. I am just finishing up my first semester in graduate school while continuing to work full-time. I always anticipated this to be a challenge, but it is a challenge I am up for. With juggling a full-time job and school, there are days where I do not know how I will get an assignment done. Things simply become too overwhelming for me. This is a problem for many Autistics, which is one of the many reasons we are unemployed and underemployed.
I am beyond fortunate to work with a team that works with me, utilizes my strengths, and gives me a helping hand whenever I am having a hard time. I would actively encourage managers and leaders to serve as a mentor to your Autistic employees and colleagues. Listen to where they want to go in their career and help them in any way possible. Also, understand that we might take a bit longer to pick up some things, so expect us to ask a few clarifying questions. If your employee is also going to school, check in with us on school as well, it’s a great way to talk about something besides work.
For Autistics working and going to school part time, I have other advice for us too. First, use every resource at your disposal. This also includes resources at work. Work is not just about health, vision, and dental benefits and a paycheck, but also a potential source of funding to attend school and additional knowledge to help you out in your classes. I always find joy whenever something we are working on is relevant to something I learned in school. It reminds me why I am going to school and working in the first place. Also, seek out mentors in school and at work. A lot of these people have been through the same situation as you have. I certainly hope to be a mentor after I finish my program. When you are surrounded by the right people, you can really succeed. Finally, and most importantly, find the time for things you enjoy. All these strategies keep me on my path toward my graduate degree.
I have been working from home with the COVID 19 pandemic raging on. While this is a privilege, it also has its own downsides, which I would not have anticipated. While my commute has shortened from the bed to my desk, having the ability to go to an office helped set the boundaries between my personal life and my professional life. It often is hard for Autistics to set these boundaries, and one of the greatest challenges of the past two years was to determine the line between work and everything else – given that I essentially work where I wake up and go to sleep each day. Regardless of if you are working at home, in an office, or in another setting, I find it beneficial to set up a routine to succeed. If the routine gets too old (and it does), try something new like taking a walk or going out for a quick cup of coffee. When we return to the office, I know that it will be a new routine on its own. While it is something I think and wonder about, I mainly look at it as a new adventure.
Now, my experience is unique to just me. I have the privilege of being able to tell my story thanks to the support I’ve had and continue to have in my current work situation. Not many people can say that. Whatever your situation, there are people out there to help you. While it is hard to network, there are professional networks of disability advocates. Many of those people helped guide me to work full-time while studying part-time versus going to law school.
We are taught to mask (not literally with face coverings) our true Autistic selves to accommodate a neurotypical society. Autistic individuals feel they must do this constantly to succeed in a neurotypical world. Until the world is more inclusive of Autistics masking our true selves feels like one of our only options. While it is disheartening to say this, the good news is that some workplaces like Anthem are working to be more inclusive. Internship and mentorship programs exist but are not available to everyone. If we really want to create a more inclusive society, we need to create more opportunities so more people can benefit from them.
I also look to the many public figures who have come out of the shadows and revealed they were Autistic. As more of these people self-identify, it helps to message that Autistics are not broken. Some of us are making electric cars and sending rocket ships to Mars, while others have starred in the Bachelor or likely had a hand in creating the COVID vaccine and other treatments which have helped keep our society afloat. Therefore, it is ever so important to offer us the extra guiding hands we need instead of just defaulting to “falling off the cliff” at 21. I said this of myself while advocating for the future I wanted in high school and renewing this again. Autistics, like anyone else, can be hardworking and contribute greatly to society. The more support we get to achieve our goals, the more likely we will be self-sufficient and contribute to supporting others to achieve their goals and independence as well.
While my story is just my story, I hope it gets whoever is reading this to think differently. Autistics do this every day, and the results we yield have provided new insights into the world. We experience many barriers but even for people who might have higher support needs, there are still many ways to include them in your community. You could, for example, use plain language someone understands instead of jargon and metaphors.
Most importantly, highlight and leverage what someone is good at doing, all people carry passions that could be a benefit to any workplace or academic setting. This Autism Acceptance Month, I encourage neurotypicals not just to accept Autistics but appreciate what we bring to the table. For Autistics, I especially encourage you to not look at yourself just as a Person with Autism or Autistic but as a changemaker, innovator, or leader. We certainly need more of those, and we need an inclusive society where we can all succeed.