“It is toxic to think that the worth of a person comes only from what they can provide. This is, in my opinion, a major source of ableism. “
By Baylie Nixon
Last month was autism awareness month. Fortunately, April is slowly but surely becoming better known as “Autism Acceptance Month” in regards of society adopting more progressive attitudes towards neurodiversity. I’m honestly surprised I didn’t think of anything to write about last month, but then again, I was also swamped with exams in some very challenging classes.
This month, on the other hand, I have a complex topic to discuss. It’s difficult to write about this topic only because it’s so subjective, and I know for a fact that my opinions on said topic are just that: my opinions, which are bound to be rife with bias no matter how objective I try to be. In addition, there are many controversial subjects surrounding the central theme of this blog post. But without further ado, I’d like to talk about what it means to be successful in life; both as an autistic, and as a member of one’s society. I’ll also discuss how and why societies should be more inclusive to autistics in the workforce.
To start, I’d like to dissect the western notion of what it means to be “successful.” In American society especially, success usually means achieving comfortable financial independence through gainful employment. When the word “success” comes to mind, I’m sure many of us start to imagine someone in a suit and tie, having a nine to five office job earning a middle-wage salary, perhaps a family at home living in a suburban household complete with the iconic white picket fence. To put a more materialistic spin on things, this “successful” person also might have the latest toys and gadgets the market has to offer. But this is, in my opinion, only a superficial idea of what success looks like.
That being said, if we pick apart why this is one concept of success in our society, we’ll find that there are several elements to the status quo that vary in their validity; some, again my opinion, are reasonable to uphold. Others on the other hand either need to be updated or discarded entirely in order to achieve an inclusive community.
To continue with this analysis, I’ll first go over the ideology surrounding success I find appropriate: The core notion that one ought to be productive, and that they contribute what they can to their community. The basic reason that societies emphasize the importance of work is because work is what keeps societies, especially safe societies, functioning.
Until literally all occupations are automated and not a single soul has to work a day in their life, humans will need to do the work. Someone has to make your latte, someone has to build the buildings, someone has to farm the food, and someone has to sew your clothes. Nature, as wonderful as it is, is not going to provide the comfortable amenities most of us enjoy and often take for granted. In fact, as history will tell, life among nature is often heartbreaking and cruel.
The widely held belief that “successful person = productive person” isn’t unique to American society. I imagine many readers of this blog are from other countries; countries that are perhaps very similar to the USA in some respects such as the UK or Canada. Maybe you live in a country that’s completely different from those in the Anglosphere. But as someone who has lived her whole life in the United States so far, I will be using the cultural, political, and economic norms of the USA as the example in my arguments. As for the value of human productivity, it’s a notion that spans across political and economic ideologies; societies of capitalism, socialism, and communism all depend on the contributions from the individual.
One famous quote from Karl Marx is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This demonstrates that in an ideal communist society, one would still be expected to work as they can for the common good, even if their needs were to be provided by the state.
The flip side of valuing human productivity is when only productivity is valued by the society in question, and not the person doing the work. Even if a particular task is easily learned and can be done by almost anyone, the person doing the task is not dispensable. It is toxic to think that the worth of a person comes only from what they can provide. This is, in my opinion, a major source of ableism.
Since those who are not conventionally able-bodied or neurotypical have different, often more profound struggles, they tend to have a harder time adapting to the work environment of their community. This means their abilities are prone to being overlooked, and the person is stigmatized for being more needy than they are productive. Even though this particular struggle can be applied to almost if not all disabilities, for the intents of this article I’m focusing on autism. This leads into where I think parts of the status quo about success need to change.
In our current standard of professionalism, there are many hurdles that make achieving employment much more difficult for autistics across the spectrum. I consider myself lucky because I’m more or less able to adapt to those standards.
A major example is how job interviews are conducted. This is just my personal preference, but I do believe in maintaining a sense of professionalism when one is involved with work and business. That being said, that doesn’t mean said sense of professionalism can’t be flexible to the diversity of humanity. When that diversity applies to neurology, perhaps interviews can be conducted in ways that are more diverse themselves.
Can an interview involve more hands-on work? Can the employer be educated enough on neurodiversity (let alone other kinds of diversity) to anticipate what the job candidates will be like? Can a résumé involve a portfolio or video of the candidate’s work?
There are so many possibilities when it comes to assessing the competence of an individual beyond asking open-ended questions that are often confusing to autistics. Something as simple as making the questions more specific could make a massive difference for autistic candidates. This not only benefits autistics looking for work, but employers looking for workers. Imagine having someone highly dedicated with an intense interest and skill for the job in question. Those are often the kind of people one can expect when being open minded to autistic job seekers.
Changing the nature of professionalism is one way to make job success more accessible to autistics. However, the true foundation of success starts much earlier in life with how one is raised by both community and family. Growing up, after I found out I was autistic, I was encouraged by my parents and teachers to see it as a gift and not a curse in spite of social hardship. When I learned of the neurodiversity movement, that conviction grew stronger. It’s because of that belief and the support I have from loved ones that I’m able to achieve my goals. I wish everyone, especially other autistics, had that kind of support.
Although a major aspect of success is tied to self sufficiency, another component of success is vital to understand: Happiness. To many people, success isn’t defined by material gain. Success looks like whatever makes one fulfilled. I find that perspective on success both valid and underrated. It’s important to know what makes life worth living, especially if that’s what will occupy one’s career and hobbies.
The only thing I’d caution is that the source of happiness doesn’t bring harm to oneself or others. It’s valid if someone is happy with their life and they see no need or desire to move further. That being said, it’s immoral and unsustainable to completely rely on others for one’s wellbeing if one is capable of self-sufficiency.
For example, I don’t want to rely on my parents my whole life. I’m sure most people share my sentiment, however, I am perfectly capable of achieving complete financial independence once I finish school. I am able to take care of myself. Because I am able to take care of myself, I should not expect my parents to do for me what I can do on my own. That is the key difference, because not everyone is capable of living independently in society as we know it. Many autistics require caregivers for their entire life, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also those in-between, who need some assistance in some aspects of life but are independent in others.
Success is ultimately much more subjective than it initially seems. As long as one does what they can to make their own fulfillment, and contribute their gifts to their community, then in my opinion, that person is successful.
My name is Baylie Nixon, I am 24 years old, and I am currently living with my family while I volunteer for an organization called Living Opportunities and study in post-bacc school. I am on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers before the DSM V was published, and have been a strong advocate for autistic inclusion since I was a junior in high school. My activism really took off during senior year of high school when I did my senior project on neurodiversity, and then later in college I was in charge of a neurodiversity club for a year.
I recently graduated from Oregon State University with a BS in Pre-Clinical Lab Science, and I am currently enrolled in further education in order to be certified as a medical technologist. I have lived in Southern Oregon for half my life, while also having lived in Forest Grove to go to Pacific University for a couple years, spending another couple back home at Southern Oregon University, then finally finishing my bachelor’s in Corvallis. I am absolutely in love with the biomedical sciences, and am excited to put my knowledge and passion to good use. I am also an Etsy jeweler, my shop is called “Bao Treasures,” and its logo is a rainbow bird. I have been making jewelry for roughly half my life.