As usual, ’tis the season for Autism Awareness Month. Although I had staked my claim on a spot on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum by this time last year, I hadn’t unpacked yet, and thus, I wasn’t yet prepared to take on the blue-tinted world.
This year, however, I’ve made myself at home on the spectrum, and I’m coming out to the autism organization-dominated mainstream world, gloves on, and swinging. Indeed I’ve been gearing up for this ever since last year, so please bear with me while I spout off a few words to that blue-tinged, puzzle-piece-littered world. 🙂
Dear decision-makers of the (usually big) business world…
I realize that April is the time of year when most of you drench the world in shades of blue and iconic puzzle pieces, all in an effort to shine the spotlight on autism.
You want to be “with it”. You want to be hip. You want to blaze trails. You want the world to know how “in tune”, “in touch”, and socially aware you are.
But I pose the question: how “aware” are you really? The people to whom I’m referring likely work for a company that is likely a mega-store or home improvement store. Do your patrons really notice? Do they look at the displays of blue lights and charity logos and say, “oh, how nice; they’re batting for autism. Now where are those screwdrivers?”
Or do they just register it as something else to avoid running into as they head straight for the tool aisle?
A little over a year ago, the latter would have been me. I was weird, shy, quirky, and mildly anxious as a matter of principle, but it had never dawned on me that I might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. After all, autism was primarily a 2000s-onward “epidemic”, and since I had reached my late 30s without so much as posing the question, that question had never crossed my mind.
So when I ask “how aware are you really?”, I realize that the question comes off as more than a little hypocritical. Or at the very least, ironic.
But then again, I wasn’t claiming to jump on the Autism Awareness bandwagon, either. My name didn’t go on a list of donors or entities participating in any campaigns. I was just me, I kept to myself, and that was that.
When one draws attention to themselves by advocating for autism, I dare say that the majority don’t have a clue what they’re really advocating for. Or even raising “awareness” of.
I have a few questions for you…
Why do you participate? Do you assume that it’s a peculiar civic duty so that you can jump on a trend and be able to say “me too!” or “look what we’re doing!”? Is it for show? Or are you yourselves actually aware?
The truth is, practically everyone is aware. Almost everyone across the globe has heard the term “autism”. Very few actually know what it means or what it’s like. Don’t feel too bad, though; even the highly-regarded “experts” on autism don’t actually have any idea, either. Which does not help the odds of your office supply store or package-shipping service knowing much, either.
These “awareness” campaign efforts come across as lip service at best. Personally, I suspect that it is, deep down, a simple marketing ploy. Market research has probably demonstrated somewhere along the line that the general public responds better to companies who appear to be socially conscious and connected to their community and the world at large.
But simple “awareness” is kind of a cop-out. It gives the impression (illusion) that you’ve taken some kind of action, and now you feel good about yourself. And now, you assume you’re off the hook for (actually) doing anything (more). After all, your social expectation (and your self-imposed obligation to do something) has been fulfilled for the year, and you don’t have to worry about doing anything more until next year.
It appears to be a public relations tactic, implemented under the social pressures of keeping up with the Corporate Joneses, giving your company a license to say, with a supposedly-clear conscience, that you’re “up on things”, sensitive to the hot-button issues, current with the headlines. You trail-blazing trend-setter you.
Who are you doing it for? Autism Moms(TM) who make their children’s condition their own crusade, who yank the microphone away and start shouting into it before their children (or even autistic adults) can draw our breath to speak into it for ourselves. The Autism Moms(TM) are the ones for whom, in the end, it’s not nearly so much about their child’s situation as it is their own plight. I won’t say they don’t need support; they do, but it’s not the type of support they’re wanting. (I totally realize that the majority of parents of autistic children are not like this, however.)
Your company isn’t going through this effort for us, the autistic people, either. In fact, I suspect that you probably wouldn’t know us if you saw us. You would probably simply think we were “weird” and feel a visceral urge to separate yourselves from our presence as soon as possible.
We’re the ones you won’t hire because we don’t “interview well”. We’re the awkward ones you’ve fired for “insubordination” when we don’t feel comfortable pestering a patron or constantly upselling their purchases at every turn. We’re the ones who might have been disciplined because we kept doing things the same way (a way that made sense), despite the company’s constant desire for usually-pointless change. We’re the ones you scolded for doing things differently or inadvertently rolling our eyes out loud when being held to a new policy or new ridiculous lingo (which, as all top-down-dictated policies and lingo are, is probably ridiculous and grossly out of touch). We’re the ones you misunderstand, misinterpret, micromanage, exclude, and ignore.
So who are you doing it for, if it’s not so much for the Autism Moms(TM) or for actually-autistic people?
It’s likely for the shareholders, who now pat you on the back because you’ve fulfilled a civic duty, you’ve jumped on a bandwagon and put on your Socially Responsible Face. They think this is a good thing, and so the share price might bump up a fraction of a point, but that’s really about it.
But in doing all this, whose problems did you really contribute to solving? Whose lives have you really helped to improve? What good did “lighting it up blue” really do? Are autistic people really better off at the end of every April?
Additionally, what about the rest of the year? People are autistic year-round, ya know.
That’s why mere “awareness” is not enough.
Pop Quiz: if “awareness” isn’t enough, that means there are more steps to take. What’s the next step?
Most of you are likely bumbling and mumbling something about an even bigger, brighter, attention-grabbier display.
Or maybe making bigger donations to autism-related charities next year. After all, your company’s name may end up higher up on a donor list then. Maybe even with a gold star.
Or, if your employees currently wear regular appropriate clothing of their choice under your company’s apron or vest and name tag, then by god(dess) they’ll all wear all blue clothing, for the whole month!
Or maybe you’re thinking about releasing a media press kit to the major news stations to hype your efforts. To make sure the whole world knows just how sensitive, civic, and ahead of the curve you are.
So what’s the answer to my Pop Quiz question?
It’s a deceptively simple, single-word answer: understanding. Followed by another single-word answer: acceptance.
If you’re really going to try to convince the world that you’re as contemporary, cutting-edge, and sensitive as you’re claiming to be, then you’re going to have to take the next step–which is really a first step. Because blue light bulbs and puzzle pieces don’t actually count as an proactive, constructive step.
The first step is to attend a conference, preferably one that features autistic people as speakers/presenters. Hear their voices; listen to their words; recognize their talents; appreciate their strengths; respect their stories; admit their advantages over the average neurotypical population. The several highest levels of the management in the company should attend, and personally.
The next step is to hold a workshop for all employees and levels of management. Teach them what you learned at the conference. Invite a few actually-autistic people to give a talk at this workshop. Have all staffers take a test at the end of the workshop, and make it something more than just a cakewalk for show. Hire an autistic person to decide whether they pass or fail. Spare each employee their jobs, only if they pass in the autistic person’s eyes.
The next step is to hire more autistic people. Try to overlook our social differences; come to accept that we’re different, and that we think and do things differently; appreciate us for who we are; take us at face value and try to withhold judgment until you really get to know us, which I admit can sometimes take a little while. Be patient, it’s worth it. If one position within the company isn’t well-suited for us, then try to be open-minded and think outside the box of another role we could fulfill even better, in a way that brings benefit for both sides.
The next step is to make your business autism-friendly. I’ve written before (an entire five-to-six-post series) on how to do this for autistic employees, and why you should consider doing so. The same concepts and efforts involved that I described in that post series for autistic employees also hold true for autistic customers/patrons, too.
The most important part of this, though, is to seek the input of–and then implement the suggestions made by–the autistic people you’ve hired and autistic patrons. Those are the people who count the most.
None of this has to cost very much. Most of it just takes a bending of the mind.
Only then have you earned the right to bring your efforts to the spotlight of the media and brag about them, for at that point, you will deserve to do so. You will have made a true difference and improvement in the world as a whole.
You may notice that you don’t end up dragging out the blue lights and puzzle pieces. They serve no purpose anyway. They only occupy precious physical space and provide unnecessary distraction. You can pawn them off on some other run-of-the-mill carbon-copycat company who’s just trying to squeak by with doing the bare minimum required to keep up appearances and facades…
…while you, on the other hand, are a trail-blazer, and for real this time, and you have no use for such nonsense. You’ve gone the distance, you’ve truly cut the edge.
Some companies are trailblazers, and others are copycats. Which of these speaks to you? How do you prefer to be recognized and perceived?