I recently read a Facebook post by one of my favorite Aspergian authors John Elder Robison, that he was pleased to find out that the College of William and Mary in Virginia has initiated a program to better understand and work with neuro-diverse individuals.   I am inspired to see some movement in the right direction, but still dismayed at how many colleges – and employers – have such a lack of understanding and empathy for those with disorders such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

My daughter was not diagnosed with ASD until her sophomore year of high school.  Although there were many struggles before and after diagnosis, those challenges have gotten even larger and more life-impacting as she’s grown older and more independent.   The communication and social skill deficits create minefields out of what would be no big deal to a neurotypical individual. These minefields are ready to explode with a single misstep.  It’s nervewracking for a parent who’s hours away, and receives a phone call when each minefield explodes.

Some examples:

  • Dealing with roommates or coworkers
  • Handling medical situations/illnesses (navigating treatment and insurance)
  • Communicating with professors or employers about accommodations or special needs
  • Explaining idiosyncracies to others
  • Sensory hypersensitivity, and the emotions that come with it end up affecting performance

Adaptive services departments do what they can, but often do not advocate for the students who need them.  The colleges my daughter has experienced have well-intentioned staff, but are not really equipped to help ASD students succeed.  It’s not a matter of equipment for someone who has an obvious physical disability — it’s  matter of understanding the “invisible” disability and getting the professors to also understand and accommodate.   The most frustrating thing is that the professors are totally unsympathetic to this disability, don’t understand it at all, and expect the ASD student (who appears to be normal on the outside) to perform the same as the neurotypical student under the same circumstances.  It just doesn’t work.

The same goes for employers.   Even though she is a quick learner, hard worker and dependable, my daughter has trouble keeping a job, due to the conditions of her Asperger’s.   In high school, she was fired from a deli cashier position, stating that it was because of her Asperger’s.  She didn’t really do anything wrong, she just wasn’t as fast as they wanted her to be. However, when we parents called the manager to ask him, he said he never said that.  We had no proof, so there was nothing we could do.  At other jobs, she has dealt with sexual harassment, crooked managers, and manipulative coworkers.  At one job, she was told that she didn’t smile enough. She lost a very good job due to a jealous supervisor training her to do an important task the wrong way.  Yes, this is the way of the “real world”, but as someone with this disability, she is not able to cope with these situations and their consequences the same way a neurotypical person might in terms of self-advocating or being cognizant of other people’s motives.

Students with autism related disabilities CAN succeed in college and on the job with a little help and understanding, but there needs to be a culture of neuro-diversity acceptance.   It’s easy to recognize discrimination based on age, religion, physical handicaps, or gender, but those with mental illnesses and disorders are discriminated against every day and there’s not much that can be done to prove it. Everyone has strengths, weaknesses and different personality traits which should be embraced and used to their full potential.  It’s so disappointing when major corporations and universities fail in this area where they should be leading the way.  I feel that fair treatment of those with mental disorders will be a long time in coming, if ever.

It’s a shame since they have many strengths and talents that could be of great benefit.   Kudos to the employers and colleges who are on their way to appreciating these differences.

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