There is a popular quote by American anthropologist Margaret Mead that reads: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Today we are those citizens. Today we are gathered to explore cultivating a community of inclusion, and how we can be those thoughtful, committed citizens who truly change the world. I am here to speak on the topic of creating an inclusive community for all people, from all walks of life, with a focus on the autistic population.
In this context ‘community’ can refer to a variety of settings, such as a sheltered living environment, a personal household, the workplace or an educational establishment, or an online support group, face-to-face therapy group, or advocacy task force. In exploring community inclusion, what works for one person, works for many. We each long to be nurtured socially, whether through the act of being understood and valued, or granted opportunities for voice and connection. Though today’s topic focuses on autism, the overlapping needs of autistics in a community are the same universal needs we collectively share.
As we delve into the topic, keep in mind that autism is more than a name for a ‘disorder.’ Autism is a sense of identity for many, a subculture of our greater society, and an emerging form of diversity. This diversity can be thought in terms of a disability or not, and as a neurological presentation, which arguably affects cognitive processing, social engagement, and certain behaviors.
I’ve connected with 10,00s of individuals around the world, many who have impacted my life in beautiful and profound ways, including, sadly some, who have taken their own life. Now, more than ever, we have the means through technology and interconnectedness to make a difference in the lives of others and to create opportunities for better lives.
Before we proceed, it’s important to point out that diversity and inclusion are two separate concepts that are often clumped together, even as they mean two different things. Diversity can be thought of as the facts and numbers, such as 10 females on the autism spectrum work at the office. Inclusion can be thought of as what we do with the diversity information (and the diverse individuals)—what we do with the facts and numbers (and people)—such as this workplace action: we are having a meeting to get your feedback about our leadership team. Inclusion is the action and practice we put in place to support the diversity.
Acquire information about diversity
Attend to diversity
I will also introduce key roles in implementing inclusion, including being an authority, a role model of effective leadership, an instigator of trust, and a cheerleader.
The first essential aspect of building an inclusive community is having a person of authority well versed in diversity. To be an authority, we must first acknowledge diversity, we must acknowledge diversity exists and understand how diversity is represented, such as cognitive, cultural, or social differences amongst individuals. When we acknowledge diversity, we identify differences, and also recognize unique contributions, and strengths and challenges that come with being different. From there, we acquire information about diversity. These are the first two elements of the five A’s of inclusion: To acknowledge diversity and acquire information about diversity. To acquire information about diversity, we can ask key questions about diversity as it pertains to a member of a minority. Example questions include:
- What is the cultural perception of the minority member?
- How do I personally perceive an individual from this minority?
- How do I personally feed into the existing stereotypes or work against them?
- How can I educate myself further?
When we apply this form of query to autistics, it might sound like this:
- What is the cultural perception of autism today? What about in other countries?
- What do I know and not know about autism?
- How do I personally feel about autistics?
- How do I perpetuate stereotypes about autistics?
- Where can I go to acquire more information about autism?
To seek out relevant information, go to the source. If you want to know what it is like to live and breathe autism, go to an actual autistic person. Keep in mind some on the autism spectrum are respected educators, authors, doctors, counselors, artists, and teachers, and plenty of other individuals, who identify with ‘autistic’ and/or ‘Aspergers,’ have pertinent insights to contribute. Also remember, even those that do not communicate in what we would call ‘traditional ways,’ such as non-verbal communicators, still have valuable insights to share and should not be overlooked.
To find out information about a member of a diverse group, there are many approaches to consider. Some ways to acquire information include:
- Type in keywords in social media, such as hashtag autism (#autism) or search support groups on Facebook.
- Contact organizations that support autistics in a positive light. (If you aren’t sure what those organizations are, ask an authority who is on the autism spectrum for their opinion.)
- Refer to books, literature, and online blogs written by actual minority members.
- Contact an autistic advocate or speaker.
(Photo: Jeanette Purkis’ Autism Books and Other Things)
Gaining insights about a minority can go a long way in creating an inclusive environment. Knowing many individuals on the autism spectrum have been repeatedly manipulated, victims of predictors or peer-group pressure, and are more vulnerable to experience heightened levels of trauma, depression, and thoughts of suicide, enables leaders to identify means of support in the community. Another example is first being aware that autistics have a tendency for repetitiveness and hyper-interest in one subject, and then recognizing these behavioral traits can be turned into positives, such as the ability to accomplish much work in a short amount of time, and the know-how that comes with in-depth study. Furthermore, being aware of some of the DSM-V history is advisable, and how a culture’s norms change through time. For instance, did you know that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness in the DSM? Most today would agree that was a grand error.
Another key fact to keep in mind: Though autism is a neurological condition, it is often mistaken as a mental illness. A person with autism can have coexisting conditions of mental illness, such as depression, but autism itself is not a mental illness. Nor is it a disease. Even so, many other people, besides some autistics, have a mental illness. In the USA, 1 in 5 have a mental health condition (“Mental Health Facts in America,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.org.), 1 in 4 have a psychiatric disorder in any given year (National Institute of Mental Health), and 1 in 2 people will likely suffer from a mental illness during their life (Archives of General Psychology).
Being an authority, when it comes to diversity, has the potential to broaden the mind and perspective, and will definitely assist in moving toward a community of inclusion.
As John Maxwell, leadership expert and coach, said, “Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” As well as being an authority, through acknowledging and acquiring information about diversity, it’s vital to Be a Leadership Role Model—in other words, to model effective leadership and empower others. This involves understanding key factors of what makes a quality leader. Information abounds on this topic. Researching leadership and identifying ideal leadership practices can go a long way in forming an inclusive community.
This brings us to the third A of Inclusion: Acceptance—the acceptance of diversity. An ideal leader models the acceptance of diversity, and demonstrates this acceptance through voice and action, including ‘walking the talk.’
Acceptance of diversity includes a leader’s ability to:
- Navigate different viewpoints with an open mind
- Take the time to understand a topic and show respect
- Propagate self-awareness
- Analyze perception (implicit bias) and language
- Act accordingly with conscious awareness
It’s essential to understand that the act of accepting diversity does not equate to accepting a particular individual, preference, style, or way of being. Rather, accepting diversity means to accept that diversity affects relationships and other circumstances, including the climate of a community and the well-being of its members.
A quality leader for inclusion:
- ‘Knows their stuff’ through adamant and purposeful study, research, and reflection (An Authority)
- Recognizes that every individual has personality quirks, things that make them unique, things that limit their potential
- Avoids the natural tendency of creating separation through words and actions, such as seeing through a lens of ‘us and them’
- Creates ample opportunities for independence and growth of skills and talents and self-awareness
During my work in online communities as an autistic role model, authority, and leader, and my job as a community manager for a technology company, I try not to take things personally. I view community input and concerns with the whole of the community in mind. I remove my own ego, as best I can, and understand it’s not about me. I practice servant leadership. I recognize I don’t have all the answers, point individuals to resources, and remind them to trust their own heart and inner knowledge.
We’ve talked about three A’s of Inclusion thus far, to acknowledge diversity, acquire information about diversity, and accept diversity, and we’ve looked at what this process includes. Next we will be looking at attending to diversity. But first let’s examine the issue of trust.
Just as it’s important to be an authority and effective leader, it’s equally paramount to Be a Trust Instigator. What do I mean by a Trust Instigator? A person who brings about and promotes trust in a community. Essential to an effective community, no matter the people, is trust. In the autism world TRUST is a major determining factor of success or failure of a community. Time and again, autistics report trust as a number one must-have for a sense of connection and belonging. Autistics, as a whole, are prone to turn away from individuals whom they don’t trust, particularly those who bully, lie, manipulate, gossip, have hidden or interior motives, or don’t live up to promises.
From day one, trust should be a core value of community building. In order to establish a sense of trust, a leader must:
- Practice transparency in word and action
- Instill a sense of safety and approachability
- Practice predictable and respectful actions
- Be authentic
- Keep their word
- Remain well-studied in best communication practices, including avoiding debate, hostility, angry tones, taking things personally, and having to prove a point or be right
Remember feeling trust is key. Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to remedy. One way to practice creating a sense of trust, is to Attend to Diversity. We can attend to diversity in many ways, including:
- Encourage engagement and autonomy
- Pave the way for safe and mature discussions
- Remain open, present, and available
- Demonstrate civility toward differences
- Clarify differing perspectives
- Challenge misconceptions and stigma
- Provide a place at the table that truly matters for everyone
Where do some fall short, when it comes to trust? In their motives. Be sure to examine your motives for diversity and community building. Chances are, if your primary motives aren’t pure, transparent, or evident, an autistic will sense danger or false representation, and not want to buy into your plan.
Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde’s, once said: “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” Attending to diversity and fostering trust, includes a thorough evaluation of your own interior motives for creating community. If spreading kindness, or another virtuous deed, is somehow attached to your intentions, your chances of success are that much greater!
We just talked about how to attend to diversity through a variety of ways. Attending to diversity is the 4th A of the 5 A’s of Inclusion.
The last of the 5 A’s is about Appreciating Diversity. Appreciating diversity involves a ‘Be a Cheerleader’ attitude—routing for the team, routing for success, and routing for inclusion done right. It’s the final and ongoing chapter of an effective community. Inclusion, without appreciation of differences, simply doesn’t work.
How can we appreciate diversity? We can:
- Recognize strengths, accomplishments, and challenges
- Foster information sharing and innovative ideas
- Learn about one another
- Recognize individual experiences are real and valid
- Seek to understand other viewpoints
- View differences as differences, not flaws or weaknesses
In closing, the 5 A’s of Inclusion is an effective tool and a feasible approach to work toward an inclusive environment. When we Acknowledge, Acquire, Accept, Attend, and Appreciate, we are one step closer to making a difference in the lives of others. And when we can step up and be the Authority, Leadership Role Model, Trust Instigator, and Cheerleader, we are doing more than just talking about diversity, we are putting diversity into action. And we are literally changing the world. I leave you with words I gathered from autistic adults, about what they need in order to feel a part of a community. I formed them into a poem called A Place.
Where someone cares
Where there is space to discuss struggles and triumphs—the dark and the beauty
Of bonding and finding commonalities
Where differences are acknowledged above deficiencies
Where there is safety in authenticity
Where I am understood, accepted, valued, supported—loved
Where I won’t be confronted with judgment and control
Where I belong just the way I am
With ample opportunity to be my complete self
Where I am appreciated and missed
Where my absence is felt
Please note this is all original work and copyright protected by law. Contact the author before using in part or whole. Thank you.
About the Author: Samantha Craft
I prepared this for an autism conference in India.I am a professional educator, an author, and a speaker. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in my early-40s. I’ve acquired over 2000 hours of independent research on the topic of workplace well-being and the autistic community. I have personally corresponded with over 10,000 autistics from around the world. I work as the Lead Job Recruiter and Community Manager for ULTRA Testing, an innovative software testing company that employs neurodivergent individuals from the USA to work from home, with over 70% of the employees who identify with being on the autism spectrum or a similar profile. (This website and Spectrum Suite LLC is not affiliated with ULTRA Testing.) I’ve developed a comprehensive, multi-part PowerPoint series about how to build an inclusive workplace environment. The presentations include a step-by-step guide to a Workplace Inclusion Plan (WIP) with specific goals and initiatives. What I have named a ‘WIP,’ an acronym for ‘Workplace Inclusion Plan’ and a continual ‘Work in Progress.’ I can be reached on Twitter (aspergersgirls) and on Facebook and at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by Samantha Craft, 2.17.18
You can learn more about me throughout this website at myspectrumsuite.com