Autistic anxiety is a powerful presence in my life. Its intensity can be unfathomable to a neurotypical mind. I’m 44 years old and have trouble ordering food at a restaurant. I need hours to come down from the adrenaline poisoning of a one-minute phone call. I meltdown in crowds. Adrenal exhaustion is a near-permanent condition. This has been so for my whole life.
This, for me, is a disability. In a context where I’m required to talk and interact at length, I am disabled. If the internet and the web hadn’t come into being as I entered college and the workforce, I would likely have gone unemployed and ended up homeless. I didn’t expect to live to middle age. I expected to eventually defenestrate. “Written communication is the great social equalizer.”
Disability requires context. Change the context, and eliminate the disability. The internet changed the context and made a world where I could survive. Remote work changed the context as I was burning out hard in corporate environments.
Change context with acceptance. Acceptance is practical and effective magic. Ditch the language of accommodations. Accommodation is not acceptance. You can’t have an inclusive-by-default culture when your mindset and framing are accommodation. Accommodation encourages the harmful ableist tropes of people being ”special” and ”getting away with” extra “privileges” and ”advantages”. Accommodation is fertile ground for zero-sum thinking, grievance culture, and the politics of resentment. You can’t build inclusion on accommodation. Inclusion requires acceptance.
I am disabled in certain contexts, but I am able and awesome in others. Like many autistic folks, my strengths are radically genuine passion, focused obsession, burning drive, pattern recognition, and hyper-empathy. In a context that harnesses these strengths instead of remediating my deficits, I can create pretty cool things with the help of a diverse team that compliments my shortcomings.
“Being autistic has always given me a strong sense of justice and fairness, and a burning drive to do the right thing and to fight for it, even when it seems like struggling against the weight of the world. This seems very related to my extreme empathy, which is also tied to my experience of being autistic.
“Knowing that injustice or violence exist anywhere is deeply painful for me, whether it directly targets me or not, and I believe that I must do anything within my capacity to work for a world where none of us have to be afraid anymore. If I were not autistic, I am certain I would not have the same drive as I do now.”
“The best things about being autistic for me are learning deeply about different subjects through hyperfocus, full immersion in sensory experiences like listening to music or watching a film, and noticing things others may not.
“The best thing for me about being autistic is the level of passion I have about my areas of interest. It drives and enables me to learn and memorize large amounts of information about a specific subject, or to become very good at a particular skill …
In autistic circles, we have the saying, “Embrace the obsession.” That’s what I’ve been doing my entire career, embracing my obsessions in cooperation with others. Rather than remediating deficits, we need to embrace the obsession at home, in school, and at work.
Being autistic in a neurotypical company or school steeped in accommodation instead of acceptance is hard, often impossibly so. The culture is aligned against us. The culture fuels internalized ableism, anxiety, depression, and burn out. What if the tables were turned?
What if The Tables were Turned . . .
What would it be like if autistics were the founders, owners, leaders, managers, and supervisors in most businesses in the world.
And we told the non-autistics that we would train them for bottom-level entry jobs but they could work their way up, maybe.
And we told the non-autistics we would provide specialized training just for them, so they might possibly succeed.
And we told them managerial positions were hard to come by because of certain character traits the non-autistics lacked.
And we told them, even after they tried hard, and followed the guidelines and suggestions, and sat in on the seminars, and listened to everything that was different about them, that they still needed to try better and to look at their actions. We didn’t hesitate to highlight what they could improve upon during performance reviews. We needed to treat them like everyone else during evaluations. Equality.
“We needed to treat them like everyone else during evaluations. Equality.”
This insistence on “equality” of treatment is ableist. It is used to drive neurodivergent and disabled people out of work and out of society. This sort of equality is anti-acceptance and thus anti-inclusion. “Fair is not when everyone has the same thing, but when everyone has what they need.”
I recommend NeuroTribes to everyone working with other humans. We tech workers talk about changing the world and democratizing stuff; that book actually did it. It changed the conversation about what it is to be human. It is a history of the 20th Century through the lens of the dispossessed and misunderstood. It is a trip through anguish and horror and a celebration of the minds that survived to make modernity.
Help more minds survive to make modernity and a more inclusive world. Choose the language of acceptance over the language of accommodation. Years of fighting for accommodation of my chronic pain and sensory overwhelm fed my anxiety and burnout. Years of tilting at thoughtless ableism have exacted a toll. With compassion and acceptance, more minds will survive and thrive and create.