On The Spectrum…

People in Vancouver may know the CBC journalist Justin McElroy who covers local politics and has been the go-to person for COVID data this past year. He is a really entertaining and interesting person; and last year he shared his story of being autistic, and growing up ‘different.’

Last week, he gave a lovely low-key interview about his condition, the challenges and coping mechanisms, and his special skills on CBC radio.

Last Friday was Autism Awareness Day. Every day of the year is Awareness Day for some challenge, condition or situation. We only have capacity to take in so many of them, ones that resonate with our own lives and communities. The reason I am writing about this one is because autism – and being ‘different’ – is connected to belonging. Being able to be yourself, and for others to accept you in all your majesty and your quirks, is a fundamental part of finding your home – belonging allows you to drop some of the heaviness carried in your difference.

Having a neuro-diverse diagnosis also allows people to move along another spectrum – of acceptance. They move from being ‘weird’ to ‘different’ to ‘unique’; and with support and direction to unlock their special skills, to ‘genius.’

Both my kids are incredibly neuro-diverse from each other. You would not know they had the same parents or were raised similarly. Understanding their mental models has been incredibly insightful to me. I can try to harness their skills in a way that works for them – even to do mundane things like cleaning their rooms. One has a mental processing blind spot – she cannot see mess in her room even if you point it out to her. The other is a neat freak who prefers you don’t sit on her bed and mess up her bedding.

With both, for many years, I used a well-known technique called “I’M IN CHARGE!” My mental model projected on to others. Today, I am learning to find a new common ground – to move along the spectrum of understanding, channelling their organic approaches, mapping theirs to mine so we get it, together. It is hard.

We can sometimes find ourselves in the wrong workplace situation – asking me to undertake precise, repetitive tasks with my distracted, creative, join the dots mental model is not a great combination. Similarly, we sometimes don’t have the right workplace relationship, because the ‘other’ is too quiet, too loud, too opinionated, too emotional, too angry, too distant…too different.

If they said to you, “I am on the autism spectrum,” you would probably happily seek to accommodate them, and reset expectations in the team. We all have the capacity to change, to lighten up, to reconfigure our opinions and processes. Those same skills can be used (should be used) to also deal with, accept, and embrace difference in others – race, gender, sexuality, neuro-diversity, disability, culture, language. We are all on that spectrum.

This Much We Know.

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