In honor of April’s Autism Acceptance Month, Night-Shift Supervisor, Darlene, provides her perspective on living with autism as an adult and parenting a child on the spectrum. This Q&A format of BioDiversity & Inclusion: myPerspective represents our organization’s agility, inclusion and compassion for neurodiversity in the workplace.
BioReference: What is Autism?
Darlene: Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships and self-regulation. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects people differently and to varying degrees.
BioReference: Why do we have an Autism Acceptance Month? (Explain why understanding neurodiversity is a benefit to all, early intervention is KEY to lifelong success, etc.)
Darlene: We have Autism Acceptance Month because of the prevalence of autism in the US which has risen from 1 in 125 children in 2010 to 1 in 54 children in 2020.* Recognizing and understanding autism provides parents, teachers, caregivers, etc. the opportunity to learn about signs and symptoms along with access to a variety of resources. Awareness also allows diversity and inclusion to thrive in businesses, educational institutions and individuals with autism to expand their resources for more opportunities and thriving environments.
BioReference: What is your experience with autism – as a child and an adult?
Darlene: My life experience with autism was challenging because I was only diagnosed in my 30’s. Throughout my childhood into early adulthood, I was always considered weird and often a loner because of obsessive fascinations and lack of appropriate social skills. If I had the therapy and resources like my children now have, I feel I would have had a better quality of life and more opportunities to thrive in employment and education. My battles with constant stimming, dyslexia echolalia (constant repeating of phrases) made communication difficult.
BioReference: Tell us how you first learned about autism through your 1st child’s diagnosis.
Darlene: My youngest son was diagnosed at age four. Since he was a toddler, he had awkward behaviors I didn’t understand. He walked on his tip-toes which I thought was normal because I did the same until I was about 17-years-old. He didn’t want to be held and didn’t look at me. If he got wet he would scream and take his clothes off, even in public. On the flipside, he was incredibly smart at a young age. At 18-months, his speech was very clear and loved talking about dinosaurs. By age two, he was reading. Now at 7-years-old, he is in school learning 4th and 5th grade curriculum. He is a joy to watch and thanks to local resources, he receives the therapy he needs to thrive.
BioReference: How did you know or suspect your other child may also be on the spectrum?
Darlene: My middle son is still being evaluated but his teacher feels he has ADHD [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. He is not as advance as his brother but has energy that seems to last forever. He does have speech issues I experienced which requires him to receive speech therapy. As a parent, I face a lot of challenges with time management to provide them with multiple therapies and being a full-time employee. But working the night shift allows flexibility for me to complete these tasks on designated days.
BioReference: How do you incorporate your knowledge, understanding and gift of autism into your work at BioReference?
Darlene: After discovering my diagnosis, which at the time was Asperger Syndrome, named after the pediatrician who observed certain behavior in autistic children who were high functioning, I did research (obsessively) on how to cope and use my gift to my advantage. Being able to hyper-focus at work, I was able to create data tables in excel to set productivity and quality monitor goals based on data I collected from various sources. The data I collected for accuracy would be considered very time consuming for any other supervisor but for me it’s fun and quick and I know it improves my team’s production and overall operations.
Having this gift also allows me to see others who share the same gift or struggle with it. So, I always aim to keep our workspace safe and recognize the boundaries needed for them to thrive by allowing them to be themselves while maintaining compliance to safety. I understand this well because it was very exhausting trying to mask my awkwardness which I did for most of my life. After diagnosis, I made sure I was able to thrive by being me but also receiving mentorship and therapy, which taught me ways to cope and thrive in the workplace. By having this experience and sharing with other staff, I believe it makes them feel comfortable, engaged and motivated to follow rules.
My way of being inclusive on my shift is by having a music power-hour. One of data tables for error shows a peak between 3 – 5 AM. So, staff picks songs and I play this music as a wake-up call to remain focused during those hours to reduce errors. Also, with the recent addition of a new hire who is deaf, we gather at the completion of our shift to learn a couple of words in American Sign Language so we can communicate with our newest team member. The staff loves it and it’s nice to see smiles and everyone working together.
BioReference: What are top 3 challenges you want leaders to understand about the Autism Spectrum Disorder which often includes ADHD characteristics?
Darlene: Training: Training is key for people with autism because we thrive and depend on routine. Since processing is a repetitive job, it’s imperative to have a clear training plan. It’s a group effort with fellow leaders to create modifications and SOP augmentations. I created visual aids to assist with absorbing the information for staff members.
Boundaries: People on the spectrum have high sensitivity to their senses. Since this is a repetitive job, loud noises and distractions can create issues and interrupt the hyper-focus groove. Providing noise-canceling headphones and reasonable accommodations are helpful in the workplace. My staff is aware of my condition and know when I’m focused on the computer screen to signal or gain my attention in front of me and not to approach me from the back because I startle very easily. It may be funny at times but not always for those who don’t know me well and are surprised by my reaction. Understating boundaries helps us maintain balance and respect among staff.
Time Management: While hyper-focusing is a plus in this department and industry it also has its down-side, often called autistic burnout. We tend to over task so much that we lose focus and become frustrated and exhausted from information overload. It’s important that leaders designate tasks within a reasonable time frame of completion or provide extensions when needed.
BioReference: What are some resources you recommend for parents learning about autism? Please provide websites for state or national resources.
www.musingofanaspie.com – A woman’s thought about life on the spectrum
www.autisminblack.org Provides support to black parent who a child on the spectrum through educational and advocacy services
www.thecolorofautsim.org Connecting families to culturally competent support
www.grouposalto.org Autism resource site in Spanish
www.stepupforstudent.org Florida site for families seeking grant and educational scholarships for children with special needs
www.thescottcenter.org Florida center for Autism treatment and resources
www.soakautism.org Florida resource site for individual with autism
www.autismfl.org Resource site for resident in the state of Florida seek resources for autism
The BioDiversity & Inclusion Committee at BioReference is grateful to Darlene for stepping forward to offer her insight into the world of autism from a child and adult’s perspective. Thank you for the education and reminder that “different” is a gift, and those affected by autism can achieve the highest quality of life.
Darlene with her sons Iysh Khahyil (L) and Eleon (R)
Christopher demonstrates a few words in American Sign Language for his team at the end of their night-shift.