Silhouette of woman's face in front of mountains

As someone on the autism spectrum, I can get overwhelmed and overstimulated at times. This doesn’t always deter me from wanting to join in large social events, however. (I personally tend to be a social butterfly.) So when my friends asked me to join them at one, I decided to try.

We got onto the train that would take us to the event, and automatically I became a bit nervous. The train was much more crowded than usual. By the time we arrived at the station, I was feeling overwhelmed by the large amount of people and movement.

I began to drift away in my mind. I put on my sunglasses even though it was raining, trying to reduce the visual input. Soon after, I simply grabbed onto my friend’s hand and they led me through the crowds. Some music started, and so I put in earplugs. But it wasn’t so much the noise that was bothering me as the movement. Everything I looked at was moving in some way. By the time the event was over, I was still lost in my mind.

The best way I can describe my personal experience would be similar to being lost in a cave. The inside of the cave is my mind, and the cave walls are formed to block the sensory overload and overstimulation. I don’t want to be in there. I want to connect with the outside world. But I can’t find the exits. Or when I finally do, it’s only for a moment. I finally process what someone has said to me, and respond. But then I get sucked back into the cave again. It’s not always a choice for me, but my brain’s automatic response.

My friends helped me to get away from the crowds, and we ended up in a quieter restaurant for lunch. After maybe 30 more minutes of drifting in and out of my mental cave, I finally felt like I could process the world around me again.

Sensory overload and overstimulation is very real to me, and my reaction to it is not necessarily a choice. Only when I can get time and space in a calm environment will I be able to find the exits out of my mental cave I’m lost in.

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Anka Wittenberg, Chief Diversity and Inclusion for SAP, stood at the platform to kick off the “Autism at Work Summit 2017,” part of an ongoing initiative the company started four years ago. The goals of the initiative were to:

  • Drive employment and greater inclusion for autistic individuals.
  • Share findings and best practices to change how companies
    define “talent.”
  • Create a platform for collaboration between the medical, academia, for profit and public sectors.

“It’s the only way we can find sustainable solutions,” she said.

The summit is a two-day event designed to spark that collaboration. Held at Stanford University, like-minded people have gathered to exchange ideas and find solutions. The hopeful outcome will be furthering what autistic adults need most in the workplace:

  • Acceptance
  • Accommodation
  • Quality of Life

The group will collectively look at how we can drive awareness towards acceptance and action. They’ll share ideas about the challenges, including how to scale the employment opportunities that currently exist.

“Every company, large or small, can benefit from having an autistic employee,” said Jose Velasco, SAP’s VP Products and Innovation, Autism at Work. “At the summit, we’re going to try and figure out how we can create durable employment opportunities.”

There’s been something happening with many employers. It’s a slow but steady shift but it seems to be gaining momentum. Companies are moving from having a charitable mentality, “We need to hire people with autism out of the goodness of our hearts,” to “We need to hire autistic employees because it’s a good business decision.” Yes, autistic employees are positively impacting the bottom line, and more companies are adopting this new mindset. The best part of the kick off was the panel discussion on “How Neurodiversity Drives Innovation” with John Elder Robison, Dr. Stephen Shore and Steve Silberman.

It was so exciting to see all three of these advocate authors on stage together to talk about this topic.

Collectively, they debunked the myths that autistic individuals aren’t capable of socializing, contributing to the workforce and making an impact for a company. “Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s focus on what we can,” said Dr. Stephen Shore.

“I always wanted to blend in but I realized that everything that has contributed to my successes has been my differences, said John Elder Robison. “I see the great gift of being different.”

“Silicon Valley was built, in part, by autistic people,” said Steve Silberman.

So why do we need an Autism at Work Initiative?

John Elder Robison says that autistics have always been here. They are not new to society. Many have contributed to some of the world’s greatest inventions and discoveries. What’s changed is path to success, from academia to employment. Not everyone fits that formula and, as a society, we must break down the barriers and create new paths to employment.

“We’re just beginning,” said Jose Velasco, “When it comes to autism at work, we want to take the opportunities that are extraordinary today and make them ordinary.”

Here’s a link to watch the panel discussion. User: sap Password: bees

A version of this post originally appeared on Geek Club Books blog.

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It’s April. A few years ago, this month held no special meaning to me; it was just another month. Then I had my son, the perfect addition to our family. Looking back, the only obvious sign was hand flapping until he started preschool at 3.

I started noticing small differences between him and his peers, and his teacher was picking up on things as well. Then started the process of evaluations at school and finally to a neurologist for a screening.

By this time, I think we already knew he was autistic. Like most parents, I started reading everything I could get my hands on.

The first six months were the hardest. Looking back, I believe it was my own feelings that made those months hard. My own expectations and dreams I had already planned out for him before he was even born.

Then my daughter was diagnosed; she was almost 10. How did I miss the signs?

Now I know it was my own ignorance about what autism is. I had to really step back and re-evaluate things. On one side, I had my daughter. She was doing well in school, has a really impressive imagination and love of reading, happy, healthy. On the other, I had my son — happy, healthy, lovable, smart — and I thought, wait a minute, if my kids are doing this great, then what’s the problem? Is there a problem?

The tides began to turn. I started towards acceptance and advocating to meet their needs. I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes, but they’ve always been the same kids.

Yes, parenting isn’t always easy, but I think all parenting comes with challenges. We’ve never known any other way of doing things, and maybe that makes it easier.

So I have a few requests for this month:

1. If you meet an autistic child, don’t say “I’m sorry” to their parents — their differences are not something to apologize for.

2. Don’t assume every parent of an autistic child is the same.

3. Don’t assume every autistic child is the same or has a special talent.

4. Don’t assume everyone lights it up blue. The feelings on this month are complex, and not everyone is on the same page.

5. Keep in mind that our kids may hear you and understand what you are saying. Even if they don’t speak in a traditional manner or seem to be in their own world. Believe me when I say they’re more aware than you might think.

They’re listening — what kind of messages do we want them to hear?

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Michael Ryan Andolsek, 25, is a fashion designer on the autism spectrum and the founder of ANDOLSEK, a line of womenswear.

Read the full version of Michael Ryan Andolsek, Designer on Autism Spectrum, Creates Stunning Womenswear.

Read the full transcript:

This Designer on the Autism Spectrum Creates Stunning Women’s Fashion.

Michael Ryan Andolsek oversees all creative aspects of ANDOLSEK, his self-titled line of women’s apparel.

“Autism affects every aspect of my life, including how I work as a designer.” -Andolsek

At 17, Andolsek began learning fashion in Salt Lake City and France and launched his own company and 25.

Because of his tactile sensitivities, Andolsek only works with certain fabrics.

Every little detail is important to Andolsek – from the way the garment is stitched, down to the packaging.

Andolsek held his first runway show in late March 2017, launching his Spring 2017 “Ready-To-Wear” collection.

ANDOLSEK’s skirts start at $325, while embroidered dresses go for $3,500.

With his own company, Andolsek can set his own hours and design his own workspace.

“In our workspaces, the temperature is altered depending on who is working, smells and food are never allowed, and certain chairs are provided.”

“There are many aspects of fashion where, if certain accommodations are made, a person with autism could flourish and find a fulfilling and valued job.”

It’s surprising how many people know and love C. S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” but who are unfamiliar with his other books. Perhaps it’s the assertive faith of his less-read works. Perhaps they seem dated.

The narrator in my favorite Lewis book, “The Great Divorce,” lives in a “grey” town. A bus regularly travels from this town to the foothills of heaven. Anyone can get on the bus. Once they arrive, the ghostly passengers learn they will become more solid and happier as they journey further toward the mountains. They’re all welcome to stay in heaven. None do, preferring the familiarity of “grey” town to the uncertain promise of something different, something better. They all get back on the bus and return home.

This allegory about the prisons we construct for ourselves has stayed with me since I first read the book almost 50 years ago. Not because I believe in Lewis’ concept of heaven and hell, but because I know from my own life how easy it is to build a safe, predictable, unthreatening prison out of fear.

Like many autistics, I have a long list of things that make me uncomfortable. Chewing, tapping, rhythmical sounds. More than one person speaking at a time. Social situations. Crowds. Anything loud. Hands or objects near my head. I could fill a book with the mundane things that make me feel my head is going to burst. And then there are the parts of my being me that I feel embarrassed by…the misplaced keys, the forgotten grocery store items, the lost car in a parking lot, the sense of unfamiliarity when I drive places I’ve been to many times before.

My need to avoid these things can be overwhelming. Stay home, stick with my routine, construct a safe, quiet, emotionally neutral space and then lock the door from the inside. This is my default setting.

Fortunately, my wife makes a habit of dragging me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to do the things I most try to avoid. She refuses to concede the fact that “difficult” in any way means “impossible.” Quite the opposite. She schedules movies, dinner dates with neighbors and political get-togethers, insisting I not only show up but participate.

When did my expectations of myself get set so low? Why did I let my autism become an excuse for not trying, for not pushing myself? The answer is pretty obvious to me. I long ago chose habit, familiarity and safety in place of putting in the tough work needed to have a fuller, more rewarding existence for myself. I became fearful and stopped showing up for my life.

Every week now I go to our local Kiwanis meeting, where I volunteer to help, take on projects and literally force myself to sit at tables with other people. After-church coffee hour may seem like small potatoes to you, but it’s mountain climbing for me. Keeping an adult support group up and running is…well, emotionally bracing seems as good a description as any. My wife doesn’t make me do these things. I do, and am better for it.

Which brings me back to Lewis’ bus. However I choose to define being different, it can, if I’m not careful, become like a room I’m afraid to leave instead of what drives my journey toward something better. I believe it’s up to me.

All of us make choices…big and small…about how we choose to live our lives. Are we going to build a small room in a little house out of our fears, anxieties or, worse, other people’s opinions, and then hide inside…or are we going to start dismantling these emotional hiding places brick by brick and begin our journey?

I absolutely hate this process. It’s exhausting and beyond uncomfortable. It’s also the thing that gets me up in the morning and keeps me moving forward. I’m not stronger and most definitely not more resilient these days. I am, however, more determined.

It has taken me a while to realize that the scenery begins changing as soon as the bus leaves town. Life has a way of getting better as I go along, even if it can seem slow and painful at times. There’s more joy to be found in the journey and less reason to fret about the destination than I ever expected.

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There are many sayings and phrases that float around the autism community

“If you’ve met one person with autism — you’ve met one person with autism.”

“No one person on the spectrum is the same, just as no two snowflakes are the same.”

Unique, special, different — these words have been used to explain my child many times. I’m all right with that. After all, those are some amazing adjectives to describe a person, and my child is pretty amazing.

The autism spectrum is so wide and vastly unique, just as a person on the spectrum is unique. My daughter Zoey is 4 years old. She’s nonverbal and requires substantial support. I’ve never met anyone quite like her. She’s beautiful, strong-willed, funny, smart and she has a smile that lights up not just a room — her smile lights up the world.

When Zoey was diagnosed just before her 2nd birthday, we were told there was no guarantee she would ever speak. That didn’t stop us or her from trying to communicate — we found our own way, a different way.

I had found that music calmed Zoey during the tidal waves of her frustration. Music became her therapy and her way of communication. She communicates via song lyrics and songs, and instead of talking or me hearing “her first word,” Zoey sang. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was my daughter’s first word.

So when I had friends messaging me saying that a character reminded them of my child, or that when they saw this character, they immediately thought of my Zoey — well, I had to see for myself.

I had to meet this Julia, the 4-year-old autistic “Sesame Street” character, with orange hair and different speech and unique quirks and who seems to really like Elmo, just as Zoey seems to really like Elmo. She did remind me of Zoey.

I watched a video of Julia singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and I was overcome with emotion. That was not Julia, that was Zoey! I left the room to grab a tissue to dry my face from the happy tears of finally seeing a character who was so much like my child.

I came back into the room and saw Zoey sitting on the couch, watching the video of Julia singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with her friend Elmo. I watched as she replayed this video over and over .

It felt to me like my child met someone just like her.

Thank you, “Sesame Street.” Thank you, PBS.

That is inclusion. That is awareness. That is autism. That is Julia. That is Zoey.

Follow this journey on Melissa’s blog.

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Photo source: “Sesame Street” on YouTube

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