What would you say are qualities that make someone a good friend? What are the qualities that make someone a great date? What qualities should a professional look for in a new colleague? When I draw up a list of the qualities my peers and I look for in others, here are some answers: a sense of humor, self-control, empathy or emotional awareness, effective listening, and being comfortable around others. Many people rank these qualities above any technical abilities for the people we want to spend time with.
The list above, though, are soft skills; these are not things people overtly try to learn, but are skills practiced in a variety of settings and on which people rarely receive formal feedback. We may be told what technical skills we perform well on the job, but bosses and managers will rarely tell us that our greetings each morning make colleagues feel special. People spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to improve their soft skills because they know that socially adept people are more successful, more adaptable, and more well-liked.
But what if a person’s soft skills could not easily improve? What if that individual’s brain chemistry stalled his or her ability to exhibit self-control, understand a joke, or feel comfortable in crowds? These are the experiences of people on the autism spectrum. These are the fundamental, neurological differences that make success in the “neuro-typical world” so challenging for those of us who have autism or for those who love, support, and advocate for people with autism.
My role as a training program coordinator and case manager involves my developing training activities for people with autism; I build tools and exercises through which individuals can learn technical job skills. With the tools I have designed, individuals practice the hard skills for hundreds of different jobs. However, autism affects these individuals’ abilities to practice, gain, and exercise the soft skills essential for advancement in the world of work. Similarly, autism affects these individuals’ abilities to exercise the soft skills necessary to maintain meaningful reciprocal friendships with non-impaired peers. Because of their autism, these adults may never be fully integrated into the fabric of their communities because they lack the very skills others seek out in their friends, partners, and colleagues. And that is a trend I work to counter, even when I am “off the clock.”
Dr. Stephen Shore, a professor of Education at Adelphi University (who has Asperger’s syndrome) famously says, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Autism is a developmental disability that affects people’s brain and nervous system development along a wide spectrum and with unpredictable results. The causes of autism have not yet been discovered. Because there are so many variations to its manifestations, some people argue that there may not be a single “autism” but a wide range of different “autisms.”
With the ever-rising incidence rates of autism, the latest CDC rates stating 1 in 45 people are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it has become increasingly important for society to examine its values that contribute to the alienation of those who are different. We humans have evolved the desire to exclude those who are different and avoid the out-of-the-ordinary. For millennia, human beings have traveled in tight-knit groups of familiarity, relying on others’ soft skills to determine with whom they would like to spend their time.
But this reliance on soft skills is the very crutch that is kicked out from under the legs of those with autism who are labeled “disabled.” As an advocate for adults with autism, I argue that each of us needs to reexamine the qualities we seek out in those with whom we spend our time. Friends and loved-ones need to support our own growth, but our colleagues need not be people whose company we seek, but whose professional skills we value and whose talents advance our collective goals in professional settings.
Through working side-by-side with adults with autism, I have found that it sometimes helps to step outside myself to understand how vastly different people can be from one another. My regular interaction with hundreds of adults with autism has afforded me the opportunity to reflect upon the qualities I seek for self-improvement. Because of my work, I have added “advancing opportunities for others less fortunate than I” to the list of traits (a sense of humor, self-control, empathy or emotional awareness, effective listening, and being comfortable around others, from above) I seek out in colleagues and friends.
I believe we in the autism advocacy community must continue to speak out so that our friends, siblings, and loved-ones with autism are given opportunities to share their considerable technical skills in spite of their perceived impairments with soft skills. What I long for is a time when society can look past labels; instead of dismissing people for their weaknesses, we must value people for their strengths.
Matthew Ratz, MEd, CESP, is a speaker and writer as well as a nonprofit program coordinator with vast experience advocating for vulnerable populations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Matt’s speaking and training, visit www.harnessthepromise.com or visit www.linkedin.com/in/mjratz.