I take the entire inspiration for this post from a conversation with my friends and colleagues at ACAT in Berkeley, Brent White, Tanya Coffield and Laura Harrison.
Autistic leadership is both pioneering and not new. Paradoxes are what we do well, and while cultural advances and moves towards social justice bring forth a new cohort of autistic people who seek to lead in their respective fields, autistics have been quietly leading since the dawn of time.
Well, what we can say for sure is that autistics (including self-diagnosed) are now openly assuming leadership because we have to. The very justice we seek in social terms demands it and shapes it in a glorious (if somewhat gear crunching) symbiosis with the aforementioned cultural advancements. Though on all fronts we still have a long way to go.
And here is the rub, we recognise that autistic leadership is required, but we don’t yet know the shape and form it must take because we’re forging it right now on the anvils of our souls.
If that sounds melodramatic consider this; I’m often moved to use the canary in the cage analogy for my own work and those of other autistics I know. As a people we are vulnerable to environmental hazards – as leaders this can be magnified because we must process an extraordinary volume of fast flowing information and translate experience (both frankly energy-zapping in a way that can shut autistics right down) while carrying on responsibly as leadership demands.
We also carry trauma (a particular issue for us all but often complicated by late diagnosis), and can be ‘trigger magnets’, not only regarding our own histories but also that of others in our care. How to hold it all, and survive overwhelm and overload are in many senses not only about developing models but also about intense personal growth (insight based investigations on a virtually doctorate level and of the kind your average allistic would probably have no need for in the workplace). The workload can be incredible and almost impossible to log let alone recompense.
Yet as I suggest above, our leadership is not new. Not. One. Bit. It has simply not been recognised for what it is, or it has perhaps rather been sidelined and appropriated into the mainstream. We have and often continue to lead quietly and even unknowingly, while others seem to make the noise and get the attention. I bet it was ever thus.
But the point is that as a people we shouldn’t be lead by those who don’t fully understand us (a wider societal and historical problem that the individual must wrestle with in the workplace), also that autistic leadership should be acknowledged for what it is – the generator of so much that is good for the whole population and not just autistic people.
Perhaps the main impediment to autistic leadership is not that we must design it in our own image from first principles (though this is true as all existing visible models are allistic) – it is rather that we are not yet believed in as leaders.
This is what has to change in a wider sense, so that we can be freed to make our leadership models and create the support networks to sustain them.
I read so often about executive function for autistics, and the devastating impact of exposure to what I am beginning to call environmental hazards (the sensory world and allistic – socially embedded – expectation). Some autistic readers may feel that ideas about leadership might as well be beamed from the moon for all it has to do with their autistic reality. I have those days too and it’s hard not to admit defeat.
So I acknowledge my privilege while asserting that this is a hard and lengthy struggle for us all. Also that leadership comes in so many forms and can be so varied in scale. Recognition of what we do, on what ever level this may be, could be the start.
Self recognition may have to come first. Seeing others could be the inspiration, which is why I make myself visible. This is certainly how I began my journey with a trip to see my friends and mentors Brent White and Tanya Coffield back in 2015.
This post is for you. xx