What we need to understand about autism and individualism

We each have so much to learn from people who are different from ourselves. When we surround ourselves with people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and opinions, we are given a chance to broaden our thinking, gain new insights and develop our own understanding of the world. This is the beauty of diversity, but it is up to us to actively leverage its power.

From the day we are born, we begin to learn. We interact with our surroundings and absorb information from what we hear, see and touch. We interpret and organize that information and develop perceptions in line with what we have experienced so far. We then take all this information and use our perceptions to categorize, label and conceptualize objects and experiences in an attempt to create order and better understand the world. These mostly subconscious processes are a necessary part of human nature, but they are also factors that often inhibit learning and growth.

When I first joined Specialisterne, I didn’t know much about the autism spectrum. In my day to day work I soon realized I had a lot to learn about and from this amazingly talented, inspiring and diverse population. As it would be for anyone, my knowledge was largely based upon the picture society paints of autism, which does not capture its complexity and often has little basis in reality. It was based on stereotypes that are the result of historic biases and limited personal experience. And we know that stereotypes are problematic. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, they are incomplete and make one story become the only story.

The truth is that the spectrum is, in a word, wide.  Just like the general population, each individual on the spectrum is unique, with their own abilities, strengths, and way of being and experiencing the world.

In my work, I have had the opportunity to get to know and learn from so many different individuals with a diverse range of perspectives, talents, and passions. But I have also seen how common stereotypes, myths, and misperceptions can create roadblocks to understanding, respect and opportunity. If you ask me, I would say that we are all the lessor for it. Similarly, organizations are missing out on opportunities to spark innovation and growth by not leveraging neurodiversity in their teams.

The good news is that there is a solution to this problem. And to me, that solution is simple. I always try to see stereotypes for what they are, and to avoid labelling people based on my own preconceived assumptions or generalizations. I make an effort to respect and get to know each individual person and to listen to his or her story. I have learned to embrace differences and focus on strengths rather than deficits. We must not try to change or ‘fix’ people who are not broken.

The best approach is to adjust the environment, not the individual. Work with and learn from them.

Trying to get people to fit into a world that is confusing and uncomfortable is counterproductive. Rather learn what they need to be comfortable and productive and do what you can to accommodate. Then together, create a world in which we can all grow and thrive, and be all the richer for it.

See Specialisterne on CBC The National Disability in Demand

About Specialisterne

Specialisterne is an internationally recognized leader in harnessing talents of individuals on the autism spectrum, or who face similar employment barriers, providing businesses with talented employees and providing recruits with the opportunity to sustain meaningful employment. Through a proven method of recruitment, onboarding and management practices, Specialisterne helps businesses access this underemployed talent pool, a community rich in individuals with tremendous skills and unique perspectives. Originally founded in Denmark in 2004, Specialisterne – Danish for The Specialists – has operations in 14 countries worldwide. Specialisterne Canada was established in 2013.