April is recognized as Autism Inclusion Month.
This post has been updated since its original publication in 2021.
Awareness is a necessary first step toward the ultimate goal of creating more inclusive spaces, which also requires us to listen to those with lived experience, and then to take action. The importance of listening to autistic people in our daily lives is shared along with a few basic tips for non-autistic people in this 2019 article from Jessica Chen for The Mighty, which also notes general concerns about the organization behind Autism “Awareness” Month, Autism Speaks, and explains why many autistic people would prefer this month to be called Autism ‘Acceptance’ Month or Autism ‘Pride’ Month.
We’re using identity-first language and referring to “autistic people” and “autistic lawyers” throughout this post. We recognize that some autistic people prefer person-first language, i.e. “people with autism,” within the context of the problematic implications of such person-first language, as laid out in this comprehensive case by autistic lawyer Lydia X.Z. Brown. Rather than attempt to summarize the points they make, we encourage our readers to read Lydia’s full post on Identity-First Language, published by Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which includes links to a number of related articles. Understanding the debate about language is important, and as Lydia points out, it shouldn’t be ignored entirely, dismissed simply as a matter of individual personal preference. This word choice in particular reflects a much deeper meaning, and autism “is an edifying and meaningful component of a person’s identity, and it defines the ways in which an individual experiences and understands the world.”
“Neurodiversity drives innovation,” as Suzanne Hartness, COO of Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin, pointed out in a 2020 program from the ABA, Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike: Neurodiversity in the Practice of Law. Whereas our individual reasons for inclusion may be guided by moral and humanitarian considerations, inclusive work environments are also clearly beneficial to for-profit firms from a business standpoint. (Related: The Business Case for Diversity is a Sinking Ship, Lily Zheng, 2019.) The ABA panel, which also featured Haley Moss, the first openly autistic lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar, and AJ Link, co-president of the National Disabled Law Students Association, shared a convincing business case for the risk-averse the legal industry, suggestions for non-autistic people to create more inclusive environments, and tips for neurodiverse individuals both to navigate and shape their environments.
Overcoming ableism is essential to the inclusion of neurodiverse and disabled people, and “often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or another,” as explained by the Center for Disability Rights. They explain ableism further as a “set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities… Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how non-disabled people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.” The other major obstacles to inclusion discussed in the ABA program were unconscious and overt biases, stigma around self-disclosure, myths surrounding costs of accommodations; and fear of the unknown.
With 2.5 million autistic adults and as many as 80% under- or unemployed (according to the Autism @ Work Playbook), many firms and other organizations have already demonstrated how easily the benefits of creating an inclusive environment outweigh the costs: Ernst & Young, SAP, HP, Microsoft, and Dell. The foundation for efforts to include autistic individuals in work environments, as shared by the panel, requires autistic workers to be involved in decision-making, i.e. to be invited to the table and listened to. From there, Haley highlighted how organizations need to recognize that reasonable accommodations required by the ADA are a floor to inclusion, and that taking a more relational approach to supporting neurodiversity can create an environment in which disclosure of disability isn’t required.
The panel provided tips for firms to manage the changes necessary to improve inclusion. They highlighted sample accommodations and common assumptions to reject, including the idea that autistic people lack empathy. The panel also cautioned against looking for “culture fit” when hiring, noting it can result in exclusion — rather, look for “cultural contribution” to welcome diversity.
For autistic individuals as well as anyone with other forms of neurodiversity, Haley shared important tools for self-advocacy. Noting that disclosure is a personal choice, she suggested phrasing requests for accommodations as statements about what would support our best work, i.e. “I work best when I have a quiet environment.” or, “I work best when I have clear instructions.”
Finally, as the panel discussed spaces that employers and other organizations in the profession can create to support inclusion, Suzanne suggested that lawyer assistance programs like LCL MA could offer support groups for neurodiverse members of the legal profession. We welcome autistic legal professionals to reach out to let us know if you’re interested in a group and any preferences about its frequency or membership you might have. (You can find our current group listing here, which includes ADHD support — but currently no broader group for neurodiversity.)
APRIL 18, 2022: Autism and Neurodiversity in Law Practice (ABA Webinar, Free to ABA Members)
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