Celebrating Awareness at the Special Olympics Headquarters
The following post comes jointly from myself & my Special Olympics International co-worker Meghan Hussey. During the month of April, we hosted a brownbag for all staff to join & discussed our backgrounds with Developmental Disability & Autism.
Several moments in my life led me to originally proposing the idea of having an office-wide “Mission Moment” with the theme of Celebrating Awareness as a way to bring awareness to both the Developmental Disability and Autism Awareness Months.
I was originally diagnosed when I was 3 and half years old with developmental delay which later was diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome (a high functioning form of Autism). Up to 12th grade, my family would advocate for me and help people understand me. There was a certain point in my 12th grade at Osbourn Park High School, I decided it was time to bring more light to the Autism Spectrum and myself to the students at the school. That certain moment was the motivation I needed to begin self-advocacy.
From then and into my years at George Mason University I made a point of advocating for Autism Awareness through presentations, social media and physical appearance. I even had my honor society, Delta Alpha Pi, at Mason to get involved in Autism Awareness. The momentum continued into my professional life at Special Olympics Headquarters. Over the years, I was always doing some small awareness piece around Autism Awareness in April. I would usually send out an email to staff about showing support with a little badge in prior years. Only within the last few years, I was asked more about my thoughts on Autism.
The Mission Moment turned out to be a big success thanks to my co-host Meghan Hussey, and fellow Employee Athletes, Garrie Barnes and Terrel Limerick. There were quite a few lessons to take away this presentation.
The lessons that stood out to me were:
1) Never label someone
2) Always learn about each individual
3) Never make assumptions about one’s abilities
These stood out to me because these are things that are true in all areas of life and apply to all people, not just people who have Developmental Disabilities or Autism.
To reinforce this, one of my favorite parts of the presentation was when we played a game called “Mythbusters.” During the game, we had various myths around Autism and Developmental Disabilities. The first myth we discussed was around Sheldon Cooper, Jim Parson’s character on the Big Bang Theory. The myth was that Sheldon is on the Autism Spectrum. The answer was busted since the creators of the show have never mentioned what different abilities he has. If you have watched the show, most of Sheldon’s behavior and tendencies do come across as autistic in nature. However, he could have other different abilities going on as well. Thus, he’s often referred by his family and friends as “special”, accounting for his differences, but not labeling him in an absolute manner. The point is that no one should be labeled by their different abilities, behaviors and tendencies. We’re all human beings and unique in our own ways.
For the remainder of this post, my co-worker Meghan, will share her experience & why she came on board to assist me in this event:
When Jerry had the idea to do a Mission Moment to celebrate Developmental Disability Awareness and Autism Awareness months, I wanted to support him. My younger sister also has autism, and it has been a big part of my life. While Jerry and my sister both have Autism, they have very different experiences. Jerry has Asperger’s, whereas my sister has classic autism and needs more support. Also, since Jerry has autism himself and I am a sibling, we have two different personal experiences to share.
One of the aspects of working at Special Olympics that I love is that I can really bring my whole self to work. My perspective as a Special Olympics employee is informed by my experience as a sibling, Unified Partner, and coach. Jerry can also share his perspective as a person with autism and as a Special Olympics Athlete and Athlete Leader (and Athlete of the Year for SO Virginia!). We have the opportunity here to share our stories with our colleagues and help reinforce our mission.
Our lunch session started with a very basic introduction to developmental disability and autism. Developmental disability is an umbrella term for a disability that results in substantial functional limitations in areas of major life activity, originated in birth or childhood and lasts throughout the lifetime. Examples include intellectual disability, autism, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates and learns. Someone with autism has impairments in all three categories:
It’s important to remember that Autism is a Spectrum. A lot of people think this means it is like a grey scale that goes from low to high functioning with nothing in between. Growing up, I was asked this question a lot about my sister, whether she was either of these, and the truth is she’s high functioning in some regards but lower functioning in others. A better way to think about Autism is that it is a full color spectrum. People with autism all have different strengths, challenges, likes, and dislikes, its not just black & white.
Following the instructional portion & Mythbusters game, we opened up the floor to our colleagues in attendance to ask questions of myself, Jerry, and our other colleagues in the room with developmental disabilities. These two questions stuck out:
• What can we do to further make our office a more inclusive and supportive work environment for employees with autism or developmental disabilities?
• What can we all do to raise awareness about autism or developmental disabilities?
These are questions everyone can ask themselves. Awareness starts with listening. We really appreciated that we could have an honest discussion with our friends and co-workers in the office about developmental disabilities and autism. It is important to let the voices of people who have the disability lead the way and to treat them how they want to be treated. Simple things like being conscious of someone’s noise sensitivity, being respectful of someone’s work routine or procedure, and not just giving someone work they’re good at but that also interests them, go a long way in making our work culture more inclusive and our office more Unified. As one of our colleagues said, “we need to walk the walk”.
Challenging stereotypes is the ultimate way to celebrate awareness. Both Jerry and I do this by sharing our first-person experiences, but for others it might be through volunteering, campaigning against the R-word or playing unified sports. We closed out the discussion by challenging all employees to seek out other ways to celebrate awareness & help build on the mission of inclusion that Eunice Kennedy Shriver tasked us to accomplish almost 50 years ago.