Everyone on the autism spectrum is different and has a unique set of strengths, interests, abilities, and challenges. By encouraging more people to share their journey, we can celebrate together the many amazing attributes that autistic individuals bring to communities and the workplace. We can also make a greater impact together by using our collective voice to create change where it’s needed for autistic individuals.
Our first story comes from Benjamin VanHook, an autistic individual based in Virginia who is passionate about advocating for autism appreciation. Ben works as a Programs and Outreach Associate at the Organization for Autism Research and speaks at conferences about neurodiverse inclusion in the workplace. Read on to learn more about Ben’s experiences and how he’s using his voice to drive appreciation and understanding for autistic individuals in the workplace and beyond.
Ben was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was five or six years old. He found socialising and communication difficult and struggled to make friends, and was often bullied at school. Ben went to a middle and high school for neurodiverse individuals that helped him develop strong social and communication skills.
Ben applied to three universities in the United States with autism programs, and ended up choosing Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania which had the AIM (Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst) program. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology and is now completing a degree at George Mason University in public policy with an emphasis on education policy.
Ben believes that the American education system presents a number of challenges for neurodiverse individuals, including a significant cost barrier.
“The thing about American colleges with autism programs is that you have to pay for the program separately from college, so it adds an extra burden financially to autistic individuals and families,” says Ben.
“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was put in place in America in the 90s to support neurodiverse individuals in education by providing a fair, free and equitable education, but too often, middle and high schools fail to meet those standards. Neurodiverse individuals are sometimes forced to drop out of general schools and enrol in specialised and expensive private schools just to be understood, meaning education can be very costly even before college, and the price of education pre-college (and degree of success) can be the ultimate factor in one’s decision to enrol in higher education.
Ben is passionate about advocating for change in this area and hopes to eventually use his public policy degree to make the education and employment system more accessible and equitable for neurodiverse individuals. Ben has spoken at conferences on the topic of neurodiverse inclusion, which he enjoys doing to make new connections, inform others, and bridge the gap between neurotypicality and neurodiversity.
“I believe the biggest way to support the neurodiverse community is through building bridges with the neurotypical community. The more we can interact with each other, the more we can know and accommodate each other to build a more inclusive society – but without communication, none of that can happen,” said Ben.
“I’ve always seen disability as a social construct that was built to favour one group of people whilst at the same time perpetuating an endless cycle of unemployment and lack of opportunities for people who in any way deviate from that group, and the way to stop the cycle is not through fixing individuals, but rather through accommodation, collaboration, and understanding.”
One of the ways in which current workplace and education practices create barriers for autistic individuals is through the ‘hidden curriculum’, a concept describing the often unspoken rules students are taught in school. This can include things such as social norms, roles, values and beliefs that are not outwardly communicated, which can often be challenging for autistic individuals to navigate.
For Ben, the hidden curriculum often impacted his ability to feel comfortable in job interviews, particularly regarding variables such as eye contact and fidgeting.
“For me personally, I fidget a lot in interviews and eye contact is hard. That’s really difficult for me. Eye contact is a hidden curriculum because people expect you to have learnt it. If I’m not making eye contact, [the interviewer] might perceive [me as] not [being] interested in what they have to say, and it’s the same thing about answering questions by having a five or ten-second delay – they might think that I’m not really prepared for the question, rather than understanding that I might need some time to process it,” said Ben.
To make workplaces more inclusive for autistic individuals, Ben favours a competency-based approach where candidates are able to complete tasks rather than perform in a job interview setting. This could look like bringing in several candidates at a time and asking them to complete tasks both individually and together to gauge how they work alone and collaboratively. This approach could also assist in seeing candidates’ soft skills in action as well as mental attributes including motivation and perseverance on hard tasks.
“If you bring in people to complete tasks together, you not only save time, but you also get to learn so much about the candidate – and they don’t have to go through the stress of an interview process filled with social norms and non-verbal communication,” said Ben.
Another way in which businesses and educational institutions can be more inclusive of neurodiverse individuals is by continuing to provide options for virtual attendance of classes, interviews and meetings as the recovery from COVID-19 continues. Often, busy environments like offices and classrooms can be overstimulating and overwhelming for neurodiverse individuals and providing the option to tune in virtually can be enormously helpful. In Ben’s case, virtual interview processes enabled him to feel comfortable by continuing to use fidget toys under the table and not having to worry about making eye contact because he can pull up a blank screen when speaking.
When envisioning a world where autistic individuals are not only accepted but appreciated, Ben believes that the key is ensuring autistic individuals are the ones making decisions surrounding their lives rather than neurotypicals.
“A neurotypical person can provide guidance and advice but it shouldn’t be on them to make the final decision unless a person’s at risk of harming themselves or other people,” said Ben.
‘Empowerment is giving one the freedom to make their own choices in life. Neurotypicals can serve as a map or guide, but the autistic individual must be the captain of the ship making the final decision. I believe that appreciation is allowing for the individual to steer the ship and make their own decisions, to have some degree of independence and freedom.”
Ben also believes it’s critical for autistic people to directly work on policy that impacts them, a move that will benefit both autistic individuals and economic outcomes.
“I believe autistic individuals [should] have a seat at the table in the highest areas of government so we get policies passed that are actually effective. Today, at least in the United States, there are quite a few policies that are meant to support autistic individuals that just don’t or are not strong enough, and as a result, we are wasting money on inefficient programs. If we have neurodiverse members working on these policies, we’ll be able to create a much more efficient and less costly program,” said Ben.
Overall, Ben believes the key to appreciation is communication and advocacy, which is something he embodies in his day-to-day life and in the workplace.
“The more businesses, schools, families, friends, and the community learn about autism from an autistic perspective, the more change we can create. But if we don’t reach out to the community, they won’t really know what we need or how to support us.
“I try to disclose [my diagnosis] to anyone I’m working with, because if people don’t know who we are or what we need, they don’t know how to support us or work with us. So we need to advocate for ourselves and tell people how we work and how best to support us.”
Ben provides the following advice on how to shift from autism acceptance to appreciation:
Read Ben’s articles on disclosure, acceptance, and education at the links below:
Organization for Autism Research, OARacle Newsletter/Blog
American Psychological Association
Would you like to share your experience as an autistic individual? Contact [email protected] for more information.
Ben is an autistic graduate student studying public policy at George Mason University in the United States with an emphasis on education policy. He is currently employed at the Organization for Autism Research, having previously worked for MASI, George Mason’s autism initiative. He has written several articles covering topics ranging from autism appreciation to disclosure to education and has spoken at a few national panels in the United States discussing autism inclusion in the workforce and mental health and autism.