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Nonprofits Organize New Leadership Programs For Autistic Adults

KLARA BAUTERS: One of the leadership programs is called RespectAbility. 


BAUTERS: This is how most leadership courses start at RespectAbility. A nonprofit fighting stigmas and increasing opportunities for people with disabilities. Ariel Simms, the president of RespectAbility, has red hair, wears glasses and uses they/them pronouns. And they’re autistic. They emphasize the ongoing challenges faced by neurodivergent people in workplaces.  

ARIEL SIMMS: I think that’s a really common myth for a lot of types of disability, but especially for folks who are neurodiverse, that we can’t be leaders, that we can only be followers, we can only be worker bees. And therefore, we don’t get the same access and opportunities as our non-disabled counterparts.

BAUTERS: Simms  and others are determined to change this perception through their leadership programs.  But these are different than you’d expect. There’s a wide range of how autism presents. So they define  leadership broadly. 

SIMMS: People with disabilities deciding on what they want their lives to look like and to lead the lives of their choosing. So we develop broad skills to support things like community organizing and activism as well as advocacy.

BAUTERS: Simms says that RespectAbility’s leadership programs are less about getting a corner office and more about an internal sense of being a leader. For instance, recognizing certain skills autistic people have that are useful in the workplace. For Simms, it’s their attention to detail. 

SIMMS: One of the things that I'm really good at is picking up on, uh, typos and things and in documents. I can get something that has been reviewed and edited by a lot of people. And I still have a real knack for picking up small details that other people miss.

BAUTERS: But certain things are harder for them. They are like an editor, not a news anchor.

SIMMS: If I have to be on camera for a video or something like that, I'll be very transparent that, you know, for me, I might need more coaching on what to do with my facial expression to, uh, present the right energy for a particular advocacy video. So, again, I think we're really different.

BAUTERS: This ability to be transparent about areas they’re working on has been hard won. Simms has a law degree from Harvard and has been in the workforce a long time…and neither thing keeps them from experiencing bias. 

SIMMS: When people know I'm autistic, they certainly can treat me differently. And that’s true across all kinds of settings.

BAUTERS: Fighting the stigma autistic people experience in the workplace is also a goal at the Tony Richards Leadership Academy. Dave Bartek is the CEO.  He is not autistic but he’s happy his organization is about to change its name… to By, With, and For Autistic adults.

BARTEK: Because it’s exactly who we are.  You know, we have autistic people involved in the launch you program. Uh, Jeremy, who's autistic is helping us in social media. Alex is our featured speaker.

BAUTERS: These autistic adults launch small group sessions to talk about a goal they want to pursue. And recognizing that autism is a spectrum disorder…their goals can be as simple or as complex as they want. 

BARTEK: An example would be. There may be a young woman that wants to just take a different route to work every day, right? So that'll be the goal. 

BAUTERS: But it’s not just the goal that counts. Beth Kimmel is the curriculum director at By, With and For Autistic Adults. She says they also have conversations to deal with their anxiety too. 

KIMMEL: The majority of autistics share that being a neuro minority means they have found themselves often in scenarios that are uncomfortable and anxiety provoking as their societal expectations are not hard-wired into them, and their way forward might not resonate with non autistics. 

BAUTERS: The new leadership program of By, WITH and FOR Autistic Adults will start at the beginning of May, with a new name and new logo.

Klara Bauters, Columbia Radio News.

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