Rachel’s mother had grown accustomed to her own anxious feelings. After many challenging, surprising, and exciting years raising a child with autism she knew her daughter’s high school graduation day would be a joyous one, but also one riddled with uncertainty.
Rachel would be entering the working-world. It is the great unknown to both Rachel and her mom, and one less likely to include the same love and empathetic life experiences to which she was accustomed. Her school environment was tailored to meet her learning needs, which considered environmental lighting and sound changes that help to prevent her sensory overload. Children with autism struggle with everyday sensory information and can experience sensory overload, also known as information overload. Excessive information can cause children with autism stress, anxiety, or physical pain, which can result in withdrawn or highly agitated behavior.
Rachel’s mom knew the world outside their home and her daughter’s school would be less forgiving. Rachel would be entering a more competitive and ambitious environment that would markedly test her learning challenges. Statistically speaking, 35% of people between the ages of 19-23, with Rachel’s learning disability, have not held a job or received postgraduate education (Autism Society, 2012). However, Rachel possess some wonderful, notable abilities including her attention to detail, maturity, and work ethic, as well as her aptitude for data analytics and mathematics that can add significant value to the workplace and her career development. The workplace can be, in fact, a wonderful environment for Rachel to better understand her abilities and embrace her talents. However, Rachel’s mom is concerned. She wants Rachel to find fulfillment in her new world; one where she feels like a capable, contributing, and valued member.
The importance of embracing our individual personalities and communication styles is critical to our social and emotional health and that of others. Current day workplaces have set policies that embrace a diverse community, but the reality is some have not caught up to this ideal and have developed a set of social standards to fit their own attitudes and practices. Social standards are a concept and a bridge between biology and human behavior that has inspired social rules and other related rule systems that have evolved over time (e.g. statuary laws, professional codes of conduct, customs, and rules of decorum). These social standards can instill negative feelings in those who are being discriminated, impair their work performance, and hinder their professional relationships.
The good news is, Rachel’s work performance has been excellent. However, her supervisor wonders why Rachel’s emails have a cold and distant tone. Her supervisor has not confronted Rachel about her concerns, but rather engages in conversations with other employees about, what the supervisor views as Rachel’s peculiarities.
The workplace can be an unforgiving environment for those who don’t conform to a particular set of standards and can leave individuals like Rachel feeling isolated and uncertain about themselves; meaning it is essential for our well-being and for the well-being of others that we express kindness and compassion and eliminate social rules that can segregate us from wonderful, contributing members like Rachel.
New research and technology is being developed to assist those who can benefit from social interaction practice. This includes both haptic and visual feedback and can help enhance the ability to effectively communicate with others. Software tools like Podium, can help improve the critical soft skills of communication, presentation, and engagement for all people, including people with autism. AutismSees, the startup LLC developing Podium, was established as tech a resource to enhance the social and emotional health of those in the autism community and to assist with their transition to independent living, as well as enhance the field of autism research.
Apart from Podium’s initiative to develop an education technology platform for feedback—there are other research initiatives in play, including the Massachusetts Institute for Technology Media Laboratory where personal robotics is the focus to help people live, connect, and learn by straddling our physical and social worlds. These research initiatives have played a critical role in Rachel’s life. Today, she is an internationally known motivational speaker for women on the autism spectrum. Most recently her travels brought her to Australia, where she spoke at the Sydney Opera House on mental health initiatives for women.
If you are interested in reading supporting research on AutismSees and the development of the Podium app please visit http://www.autismsees.com; and for more information on Massachusetts Institute for Technology Media Laboratory and personal/social robotics please visit “https://www.media.mit.edu/research/groups/personal-robots”
To the parents of Rachel From the Podium Team:
How can we train for moments of critical evaluation without corrupting our individuality? How can we empower people to self-advocate, find authenticity, and promote individual advancement?