When I was in elementary school, I struggled to make and keep friends. I would often welcome new students to our school and befriend them instantly. They would become my closest friend for a while, until they made more friends, and eventually abandoned me. I did not fit in with the other kids, and for them to make more friends, they needed to let me go. I do not know if any or even all of them already wanted to let me go, regardless of whether the other kids wanted them to, or if they were having to choose between new friends or me and had to cut me loose as a result. All I know is this pattern continued year after year. Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky, I did get to hang out with other kids, and I did go to slumber parties. You see, I played sports, and I was always included when the team did something as a group. But I struggled to “fit in” and did not have many close friends.
Since childhood, we all have one shared need, regardless of who we are or where we live. A sense of belonging. This need remains throughout our lifetimes. For some, it is met much easier than for others. Autistic people often struggle harder with finding belonging than most non-Autistic people. This occurs for a number of reasons.
"We have to completely mask our core selves to 'fit in' or assimilate."
One of the primary reasons is, as Autistics, we struggle with meeting social norms, and communicating with non-Autistic people. The other side of this same issue is that non-Autistic people generally do not accept us as we are without us forcing ourselves to mask. Yes, masking can give us the illusion of “fitting in,” but it is not true belonging because we cannot be ourselves at all. I do not mean that we cannot be our full authentic selves. I mean we are not ourselves at all when we mask. We have to completely mask our core selves to “fit in” or assimilate. We usually do this for psychological safety and/or actual physical safety, depending on the situation. Rarely will we ever mask with the intention to deceive. That is actually very contrary to the deepest nature of many Autistic people. We are direct communicators. We are committed to the truth, and honesty is the only approach that we feel comfortable with (again, this applies to many but not all of us).
Many think that the best way to create belonging is inclusion. While this is an important aspect, it is only the beginning. Belonging requires a much deeper approach.
Before inclusion can make a path to belonging, we have to start with mutual understanding. Dr. Damien Milton talks about this in his Double Empathy Theory, which asserts that instead of Autistic people having deficits in communication and social skills, it is both the Autistic and the non-Autistic that do not understand each other. Milton’s theory goes on to describe how communication, and interaction as a whole, is a two-way street. Both parties need to make equal efforts to understand and be understood. The responsibility, in this case, is not entirely on the Autistic, but is shared equally by both parties.
For decades, Autistic people have worked as hard as they can, often compelled by others, just to even come close to understanding and behaving in a way that is consistent with the social expectations. We struggle to comprehend the unspoken rules, to infer what is indirectly implied, and to cope with relentless rejection.
"Autistic minds are a natural neurological variation, one aspect of a broad neurodiversity of all minds."
In contrast, non-Autistic people have spent those very same decades looking for ways to “fix” us. Awareness campaigns have raised concerns and suggested so called solutions that would “cure,” “prevent,” or harmful therapies that are touted to “solve” or “fix” our Autism, that actually cause trauma and do not change our Autism. We do not need any of this. Autistic people are valid just as they are. There is no disease to “cure,”“prevent,” or “treat” out of us. Autistic minds are a natural neurological variation, one aspect of a broad neurodiversity of all minds.
Acceptance is better than awareness, but it still falls short. People who accept us still often have deeply ingrained misconceptions about Autism, due to lifetimes of being misinformed. They often fall into the trap of benevolent or ambivalent ableist approaches. This can be anything from denying our agency or autonomy because of assumed deficits, to denying us supports that we need because we do not seem “autistic enough” to need them. This can happen to even the most well-meaning friends and family members and of course in the workplace.
Many Autistic people have been told “you don’t seem Autistic” followed by any number of misconceptions and stereotypes. Not only is this invalidating of our lived experiences, but it also often denies us our essential needs being met, because it is assumed that we are not disabled enough to need accommodations .
So, what can employers and allies in all areas of our lives do to foster belonging for Autistic people? Here are a few of my suggestions:
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Speaking directly does not always mean being rude or harsh. Likewise, being indirect is not necessarily nicer, especially when you are communicating with Autistic people, who struggle to decipher the unspoken meaning. Find ways to be direct while being respectful and kind.
Listen to Autistics and believe us when we tell you our lived experiences.
This is an important aspect of fostering belonging for Autistic people as we are often misunderstood and disbelieved. This can be especially invalidating, and for some of us it can feel excruciating to us, as setting the record straight, or having facts clearly and accurately expressed, is a strong driver for many of us.
Offer structure and routine where possible.
In a workplace setting this can look like advance notice of meetings and providing detailed agenda in advance to allow Autistic people to prepare and set their expectations. Often, one of the most stressful things for Autistic people can be unpredictability. On this same topic, it can be very essential to an Autistic person to have a designated workspace, rather than hot seat arrangements, as consistency is particularly important.
Always treat us individually just as you would anyone else.
No two Autistic people are exactly alike. As the saying goes, if you have met one Autistic, you have met one Autistic.
It is my deepest hope that more non-autistic people will get to know more Autistic people and learn the truth about our lived experiences. That would lead to better belonging for many Autistic people.