Nothing prepares you for the day your story goes viral. There is no guidebook or advice out there preparing you for your life story being summed up into three-minute videos, or synthesized into perfectly clipped vignettes.
I discovered this when my local newspaper wrote an article calling me Florida’s first openly autistic attorney. Not long after the article came out, The Associated Press picked it up. Before I knew it, my story was being shared all over the world with a stream of overwhelmingly positive comments and reactions.
I was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old because I wasn’t speaking ― my only means of communication was intense crying and screaming, to the point that my family was asked to leave restaurants and other public places. Once, after I spent an entire airplane flight crying and screaming, all of the other passengers stood up and clapped as we got off the plane. I wasn’t talking, or playing with other children. However, I was piecing together large jigsaw puzzles; prior to the diagnosis, my mom initially believed this was a clue I might have been gifted.
When I was 9 years old, my parents used my obsession with Harry Potter to explain to me that I had autism. I learned that like Harry Potter, I was different from my peers and had magical powers, including a photographic memory, good listening skills, and passion for the things I loved, including art. This foundation made it that I never saw autism negatively, but rather, as a difference to be celebrated.
Today, many are quick to say I am “high-functioning,” but I still face challenges, such as social difficulties, sensory overloads, executive functioning (prioritizing tasks, starting and stopping tasks, organization) and independent living skills (driving is my personal Mount Everest, along with cleaning my apartment and doing laundry).
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since my story went viral is what the term “openly autistic” means. “Openly autistic” gained traction after Joe Zumpano, one of the founding shareholders at the law firm where I work, Zumpano Patricios, coined it to describe me in the local newspaper article that covered my admission to the Florida Bar. The term sparked the #OpenlyAutistic hashtag on Twitter, as the online autistic community embraced the term as part of our continuing debate around disclosing autism in various situations.
To me, being “openly autistic” means not having to hide or mask my autism; it is the freedom to be exactly who I am. Not everyone on the autism spectrum will be “openly autistic” in all aspects of their lives. Being open about our autism diagnoses subjects us to unfortunate negative stigmas and prejudices. Autistic people already face enough adversity, fearmongering, and potential discrimination in their daily lives. Because of this, some of us feel safe only being openly autistic online, or follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy of disclosing autism diagnoses.
I have seen people’s attitudes change after the discovery I am autistic. All of a sudden, our intellectual conversations drop down to simpler levels, although I am still the same person I was moments before. Some people impulsively make comments such as, “You don’t look autistic” (autism has no physical profile) or have trouble wrapping their head around my autism because I am able to speak (autism is a developmental disability that falls on a spectrum ― some of us communicate with spoken language, and some of us do not).
I have been excluded from events, had my challenges minimized, and been treated differently, among other things. Sometimes I wondered if it might be easier if I were neurotypical, or if I ran the risk of constant autistic burnout by masking and pretending to be neurotypical.
But I have no choice other than to be openly autistic. I have been involved in the autism community for nearly 11 years now as an author, artist, and advocate. One Google search of my name shows I am clearly autistic. Hiding it is lying ― and lying is not exactly a good look for anyone (it is also not something most autistic people are particularly skilled at).
I also currently feel as if I have nothing to hide or be ashamed of with my diagnosis ― I am proudly and positively autistic.
I decided I wanted to go to law school while I was in college. Law is a perfect marriage of two of my biggest passions ― writing and speaking. I also knew no matter what profession I entered, I wanted to help people.
As an autistic person, I am able to succeed in anything I am excited and passionate about. My family always encouraged me to pursue anything I was interested in and did not set limits on what I could or could not do.
I am most certainly not the only autistic person to ever practice law or hold a position as an associate attorney. I am also not the first openly autistic attorney in existence. I’m just one of the few who is willing to talk about being autistic as a woman in a field that boasts a 2018 representation of 0.46 percent for associate attorneys with disabilities ― a decrease from the previous year. I am just one of the few who is able to use my voice to advance discussions surrounding neurodiversity in the workplace.
I also recognize I’m in a position of privilege. I am gainfully employed as an attorney in accordance with my educational and professional background. My autism is accepted at work, I am friends with my colleagues, and in the office, we talk about greater accessibility and walk the walk on having neurodiversity in our law practice, rather than me being merely employed as a form of tokenism or a “feel-good story.” I have fewer support needs than others who may never have the option to mask or hide their autism.
But because I am openly autistic, members of the public and other lawyers will automatically make assumptions about me and my competence because of their own implicit biases and stigmas surrounding autism.
Being an openly autistic woman in the legal profession is an anomaly. Women and girls are diagnosed with autism more infrequently than boys and men, although women and girls may present differently, be more frequently misdiagnosed, self-diagnosed, or diagnosed later in life. Advocacy group The Arc reported that 50 percent of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or I/DD, hold a high school diploma. People with I/DD are notoriously underemployed or unemployed. More troubling, a 2018 briefing showed an 85-percent unemployment rate for people with I/DD; on the higher end, the ARC reported in 2017 that 36 percent of people with I/DD are paid employees.
I originally began sharing my story in my early teens because I was hoping something I experienced could change one person’s life or give hope. Over the past 11 years, my mission as an openly autistic woman has evolved to changing conversations and opening dialogue. Opening dialogue in the workplace is monumental in the latest chapter of my life story.
Being visible as an openly autistic professional opens the door for others to learn. It enlightens employers across all fields to consider the benefits of hiring neurodiverse folks of all abilities. It reduces the fears other autistics or people with disabilities may have about disclosing their autism or disabilities in the workplace or during a job search. I am looking forward to the day when neurodiversity is so widely accepted that it is the norm rather than the exception when an autistic person is gainfully employed in any field.
One day I hope to see and welcome fellow openly autistic attorneys with varying intersections of identities in all 50 states, because autism is as diverse as the rest of the human spectrum.
The autistic adults and other neurodiverse people are here, and we are here to stay and be productive and valued members of society.