As a small business owner and non-profit administrator, I have had exposure to a variety of work experiences. The most difficult experiences ultimately taught me new strategies I didn’t know I needed to learn. For example, in a job interview several years ago, I disclosed my diagnosis of autism. I was told at the time that I would be an asset to the non-profit who was hiring me because of my diagnosis and that I would provide insights to co-workers that would enrich the workplace. But then, just days before my start date, the employer informed me that the organization wasn’t going to hire me after all, with the explanation that my perspectives on supporting people with disabilities would influence my co-workers too much. I had moved to a new home in a new town in order to take the job, and subsequently suffered significant financial loss because of it.
When I look back on this unfortunate experience, I know that, had I had a mentor, I would have fared much better during the job interview, hiring and disclosure process. For those of us with autism, even if we speak or have functional communication, it isn’t always a given that we know how to ask for help. We also might not understand the positive reasons for developing a relationship with a mentor. During my recovery financially and emotionally, I turned to my sisters, both of whom are successful businesswomen. At first, I was afraid to reach out to them, thinking they would point out my blunders and bad choices. I felt my autism would be viewed as the problem. I was struggling so much as it was with self-doubt that I didn’t want to feel criticized even more. I was wrong, and I’m glad that I asked for help. My sisters were good listeners, and they also pointed out that, autistic or not, I had been given a raw deal and that the lost opportunity wasn’t my fault.
This had never occurred to me: that external forces beyond my control had played a role in my misfortune. That’s when I began to understand the power of dialogue when it comes to finding solutions and charting a path in one’s business, career and personal life. No one can do this alone, and a mentor is someone we can trust and speak to about all aspects of our lives. For some of us on the spectrum, access to a mentor, or realizing how important they can be, might come late in life, especially if we don’t have opportunities to experience having mentors when we are young.
I love the work that I do. In addition to the tough times, I have had the benefit of experiencing tremendous happiness and feelings of success in many collaborative projects and programs with others. There is a special magic to feeling that kind of shared commitment and responsibility. I have felt this in a number of settings, such as at the ASPIE school, a middle and high school for students on the spectrum that I co-founded in Upstate New York and more recently, the Autistic Global Initiative (AGI), a program I direct for the Autism Research Institute that is devoted to building capacity in adult services. In such situations, I learn as much from supporting others with my assistance as I do receiving their support. I also have a mentor whom I speak with regularly. Our dialogue keeps me on track and is an anchor when I’m faced with change or big decisions.
“To have faith in the power of dialogue is to believe in the promise of humanity.” These words come from the Buddhist scholar, Daisaku Ikeda. I turn to them as a kind of guiding principle in my interactions at work, as well as with those whom I mentor. Dialogue involves listening as much as it does communicating. Recently, I became involved in a mentor and mentee relationship with a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome whom I have known for many years. She recently completed her undergraduate degree and has been living independently for the first time, going to work, paying the bills, making a life. Brigid has many talents that have steadily grown and emerged as she moved into adult life, placing her in a position to start her own small business as a writer and disability consultant. During this emergence, we began dialoguing about her goals and dreams, and about practical things, too. We talk about the book she will write, the conference presentations she will do, and the differences between a 1099 and a W-2 tax form. We discuss how to plan for and pay taxes when you’re self-employed. We cover industry topics, too, such as negotiating contracts as a technical freelance writer, understanding why it’s important to research an organization to determine one’s fees, as well as how to balance pro bono with paid work.
Most recently, Brigid was recruited by the Houlton Institute, an online education provider, to serve as a teaching assistant to professors who lead online trainings and certifications for professionals, educators, and families of people with autism and other disabilities. In fact, she has become my TA for two courses I teach: the Integrated Self Advocacy ProSeries and Certification and the AGI Residential/Daily Living Course for Direct Support Providers (www.houltoninstitute.com). In addition, Brigid has become a consultant to the Houlton Institute as they develop a training program to hire more young adults with autism and other disabilities to work as TAs for their courses.
Mentoring a fellow autistic is a wonderful experience. I learn a lot from Brigid, and in the process, I find myself revisiting my past—with all its ups and downs. In our dialogue, that past becomes malleable and flowing. It morphs itself into something new and refreshing and promising, something embodied by Brigid and her generation of young adults on the spectrum. Therein lies the promise of our humanity.
Valerie Paradiz, PhD, is Director of the Center for Integrated Self Advocacy (www.houltoninstitute.com/programs/isa_landing) and Director of the Autistic Global Initiative of the Autism Research Institute (www.autism.com). To contact Valerie, please visit www.autismselfadvocacy.com for more information.