This post is by Jay Lytton, an adult with Asperger Syndrome.
Having Asperger's Syndrome is a challenging and life-defining experience. As a child, I did not know what Asperger’s was. I was oblivious as to how my disorder affected the people around me because I only attended to my own interests. I remember when I was in high school, I always had to be right. I berated my teachers and peers when I disagreed with a request or opinion. Even though that resulted in me being ostracized both in the classroom and on the school yard, I still believed that I was RIGHT. At the end of high school and during college, I began reading books about body language and studying non-verbal cues. I wanted to figure out why I was so alienated and why I did not connect with anyone. When I became fluent in Spanish during my early twenties, I realized that I had also been speaking another foreign language my entire life.
As I began transitioning from a school setting into a career position, I did not realize how valuable these skills I had learned would become – whether they were for a job interview, for networking, or for socializing in the workplace. By learning non-verbal cues, I learned a new way to manipulate my environment. I was able to redirect the way I communicated my thoughts and beliefs in a manner which "mainstream" society could understand. The challenges I have faced in the workplace have been similar to what I faced in my primary and secondary educations. However, the experiences that benefited me the most were the ones which gave me support, but also held me to high expectations.
For instance, while I was attending the University of California, Davis, I had the opportunity to intern at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, a research center that focuses on neurodevelopmental disorders. While I was there, I worked on several research and clinical projects, including a senior thesis. I also partnered with the M.I.N.D Institute’s Director of Research to create a student organization to promote awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders. The professors with whom I worked, who were aware of my issues because of their work in the field of neurodevelopmental disorders, understood what that meant for me and still always held me to the highest standards.
Today I work with adults at New Horizons, a non-profit organization that helps individuals with developmental challenges. Part of my role involves looking at how to faciliate career growth for these individuals in the workplace. I am trying to do the same thing for our clients that the M.I.N.D Institute did for me. I am able to empathize with the clients’ needs, but I make sure to set the bar high for them.
My goal is to not only help them succeed at their jobs, but also to push their limits so they can take on new challenges. Many of these clients have also had a lifetime of people expecting less of them because of their disabilities. We need to encourage them to expect more of themselves in order to give them the best chance of rising to their full potential.
One thing that is unique about my organization is that some of the clients are also considered staff members. If we can encourage individuals with disabilities to feel included in the workplace, then they will not only perform the expected workplace tasks, but may rise beyond the challenges of that particular job.
Accommodating people with disabilities is legally mandated, socially responsible, and economically beneficial. What I have learned is that schools, organizations, and companies will not know how to accommodate individuals like myself if they do not understand the challenges of having disabilities like autism or Asperger's. Accommodating individuals with disabilities does not mean simply fixing a problem by providing a piece of equipment. It means understanding what the individual's challenges are, finding common goals, and setting high expectations. Our efforts to enable people with disabilities to lead independent, successful lives will result in their contributions back into the economy and into society.