1-2% of People are Autistic – How That Affects Your Practice
In college, I had an on-campus job doing clerical work in the admissions office. One day, one of the staff read to us in shock an email exchange that she’d just had with a prospective student. The student had emailed a question, and the college representative responded to his email with relevant information, but without actually answering his question. The student then responded with, “I repeat, …..” and repeated his initial question.
Well, the staff person was so floored at the student’s apparent rudeness that she just had to share it with everyone within earshot. I responded to her that I could see where he was coming from since she in fact hadn’t answered his question. She brushed off my response and repeated that he was clearly being over-the-top rude, and that his file was being marked so that he wouldn’t be admitted to this college.
I felt so bad for this kid. I knew that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, and in fact he must have thought that the staff person who’d responded to his email was the one who’d been the poor communicator.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and many people who know me aren’t surprised that I recently joined the growing number of people diagnosed with autism late in life.
It’s currently estimated that 1-2% of people are autistic. You’ve surely met many of us over the years, including some people who you never suspected were autistic. We’re all different. The spectrum isn’t a line going from mild symptoms to stronger symptoms. Rather, the spectrum is a constellation of symptoms, each of which can present in different ways in different autistic people. They say that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
So what does this have to do with us as immigration attorneys? Well statistically we likely have autistic clients, might have autistic staff, and definitely have autistic colleagues. We’re already aware that our clients may have cultural differences that impact how they interact with us, and we try to be understanding of those differences. So here’s another difference to be aware of and understanding of.
I’d also encourage you to not necessarily rule out prospective staff who may come across in an interview as “odd.” Some people who communicate very well within their professional roles don’t always interview well. Interviews are generally a terrible way to assess potential job performance in an autistic person since many interview questions are vague, open-ended, and frankly irrelevant to the job. And those of us who don’t make eye contact like neurotypicals or have other more divergent communication styles might still be excellent in a back-office role.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many autistics have strong sensory aversions, and are majorly affected by certain lights, sounds, smells, or touches. So if anyone in your life complains about these things, please take them seriously and don’t brush off their complaint, which is what often happens. For autistics, these things can be painful and truly impact our quality of life.
Autism Awareness Month is now known as Autism Acceptance Month. I’m not saying it’s easy to be accepting. I once gave up trying to communicate with an autistic roommate despite giving what I thought were herculean efforts, and an autistic colleague once gave up trying to communicate with me. These communication failures are hurtful for the autistic person, as it can feel like our best will never be good enough.
But as Alfred Adler said, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” Our profession involves communicating with people who often have very different backgrounds from ours. We’re used to keeping an open mind. Let’s keep opening it more and more. We’ve got this. Some brains work differently. Maybe we shouldn’t necessarily reject someone (from college or anything else) because of it.