What would happen if being different…just meant being different?

Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               www.templegrandin.com

April is International Autism Awareness Month. It is so designated to raise awareness about autism and to promote the concepts of inclusion, self-determination, acceptance, appreciation, and the opportunity for those with autism to achieve the highest quality of life.

When you hear the word autism, what is the image that immediately comes to mind? What words do you use to describe someone with autism? Whose face do you imagine?

I suspect that the first image that comes to mind is not the face of Einstein or van Gogh or Steve Jobs. And yet, according to the 2013 American Psychiatric Association’s revised definition of autism, the spectrum can range from brilliant inventors and creators to those who are not capable of feeding or dressing themselves. Autism is part of a continuum with a broad range. Many of our most capable and creative leaders may touch on the spectrum.

And yet, we tend to label those with autism as disordered or abnormal, with an irregular pathology. We tend to make assumptions based on our experience in the media or in life. We assume that our experience is the prevailing reality.

What if we were to look at those who are not like us as just… different? What if we didn’t socially pathologize autism, or, for that matter, any type of developmental—or cultural—or economic—or social—difference?

All of us are different in some way. We each have our own biological and cultural differences, which many of us hide or keep secret because we don’t want to be labeled. Some of us come from extreme poverty. Others of us are recovering addicts. Some of us have been incarcerated. Others of us are over 55. For each of these “populations,” there is an overarching definition or label that does not necessarily account for our strengths, our abilities, our talents, or the things that make us unique.

Temple Grandin is a remarkable advocate for autism awareness. She is a professor of animal science and a consultant to the livestock industry. In 2010, she was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. When she was two years old, she was diagnosed with “brain damage.” She came from an affluent family who could afford tutors and nannies and other helpers to guide her through school. Otherwise, she would have been institutionalized as most people like her would have been. Dr. Grandin uses her strengths—her ability to see things differently from those of us who are labeled as “normal”—to not only create and invent methods for keeping livestock, but also to raise awareness about autism. (For an animated interview with Dr. Grandin, check out this interesting video: https://youtu.be/Ifsh6sojAvg)

Dr. Grandin is just one example of what could happen if we were to question our assumptions about the labels we tend to assign to others.

What words might we use to describe those who are different from us in a way that doesn’t pathologize or stigmatize them?

What is it we think we know about another person?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

The Assumption of Greatness

I have spent a lot of this year thinking about the concept of equity.  It has been my observation that too often, disenfranchised groups internalize a limiting narrative and a sense of “less than” rather than one of possibility and optimism.

Changing that narrative is both a public and personal imperative.  In the simplest terms, when you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices success seems within reach . . .and positive action follows.  When people believe in themselves they usually act!

But telling people that there are possibilities is not enough.

Significant change must occur at an institutional and practice level.  Part of our work here at Fedcap is to ensure that each and every day we promote and embody aspirational thinking—among ourselves as well as instilling this belief in those we serve.  But equally, and maybe more importantly, we need to find a way to expand access to people who promote aspirational thinking.

In 1931, writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the terdream-the-impossible-seek-the-unknown-achieve-greatnessm “American Dream” which he defined by this statement: Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. I am convinced that it is not just those who have been left out of the American Dream who have internalized a sense of limitations.  I sometimes think it may be those of us who are doing the “serving” who also limit our aspirations for ourselves and for others.

In other words, whether we are talking about people with disabilities, people who have been subject to generational poverty, or the previously incarcerated, what “society” or “helpers” or schools believe shapes how we help and how hard we push those we serve and how we define potential. Those of us in the practice of helping, teaching, mentoring and supporting must examine our own beliefs, challenge them critically, and be ready to flip the orthodoxies we assume so that we, too, are willing and able to change. And, as our thinking changes and evolves, so will the systems with which we interact will begin to shift as well.

We all must fundamentally believe everyone can achieve greatness.  Greatness is not necessarily defined as something huge and momentous. Sometimes greatness and change can come incrementally but still yield seismic shifts. For example, the very act of having a college savings account—even less than 500.00—makes a child three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college?  Why? Because the savings account makes a young person believe that college might be possible and attainable.

I wonder what would happen if our helping systems were designed not as a safety net to catch–but as a trampoline to help people soar.  What if they were designed not merely to keep people from falling through the cracks—but to build a solid foundation for success— a legitimate pathway to greatness.  What if every system presumed and assumed greatness—for everyone?

What would that take?  What kind of rethinking, restructuring, re-imagining would be required?

What are your thoughts?  How can we shift the paradigm to assume greatness for everyone?