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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Rosica

Cultural Competence: Autistic Culture

Celebrating cultures that we are not a part of is a hallmark of acceptance. It allows us to view unfamiliar traditions and practices with respect for their differences. Learning about different cultures allows us to take an active interest in what makes people unique.

A few weeks ago, I attended a summit called Neurodiversity in the New Year: Autism and OT. There, I had the pleasure of hearing from Meg Proctor from Learn Play Thrive and Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez of the Autistic OT.

In her talk about creating positive autistic self identity, Sarah stressed the need for neurotypical people, like me, to become culturally competent in autistic culture. Although I often talk about acceptance and creating systems that are inclusive of neurodiverse populations, the concept of becoming culturally competent in autistic culture really stuck with me as someone trained in business. It was a true ‘light bulb’ moment.

In business school, we learn how to be culturally competent in many ways. We learn about the nature of global business and respecting cultures that vary greatly from our own. We learn about creating inclusive organizations through employee resource groups, non-discrimination policies, parental leave, and representation. We learn that the nature of our world is that we’re constantly interfacing with people who are different from us. We learn that our bosses and coworkers will be people of different gender expressions, different races, different nationalities, and different neurotypes. Except, often, we don't learn about different neurotypes.

Thankfully, my education at Kenan-Flagler Business School gave me tools to encourage diversity and inclusion in many ways. Still, being where I am now, I can’t help but wonder where we’d be if we had also learned about different neurotypes. Imagine the possibilities if we had been encouraged to not only become culturally competent in terms of learning how someone in Japan may run a meeting differently than someone in Philadelphia, but also in how our neurodivergent coworkers may interpret our sarcasm differently or prefer to stay out of loud environments.

If we encouraged building cultural competence of autistic culture in education, perhaps we wouldn’t be so fixated on someone having perfect eye contact or sitting perfectly still all day. Perhaps we’d see stimming as a wonderful way to outwardly express joy or a sign that our coworker may be stressed and need some additional help. Perhaps we’d be more willing to have email meetings instead of in person meetings. Let’s be honest, having things written down and accessible in email makes it easier for everyone, anyway. Perhaps we'd be more willing to focus on the individual - considering neurotype, gender expression, race, or any other descriptor - to truly create supportive environments that help each individual flourish.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to become more culturally competent in autistic culture because I have been exposed to it through post-graduate coursework. However, the vast majority of my efforts to learn more about autistic culture have been personal pursuits. Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez stressed that the best way to become culturally competent is by listening to autistic voices. There are so many fabulous autistic self-advocates out there to add to your feeds.

If you’re a professional out in the world right now, I urge you to become culturally competent in autistic culture. Seek out autistic voices on LinkedIn and Facebook. Visit the Autistic Self Advocacy Network or Autism Women’s Network. Search #askingautistics on Twitter or join a group on Facebook. (All suggestions from Sarah!)

If you do, it just might change the way you see autistic people, your workplace, and the world.

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