Organizations such as Autism Speaks and The Autism Society of America are working to build an inclusive society where “individuals with autism can live fully through connection and acceptance.” April presents an opportunity to recognize the uniqueness of autistic people and to inspire movement from autism awareness to greater acceptance.
As part of our effort to come together and work toward a more inclusive society, we can ignite the fire for change and equal opportunity. One individual who has dedicated himself personally and professionally to this commitment is David Long, Chairman and CEO of PAN client, Liberty Mutual, Committee Co-Chair of the Mass General Hospital “Aspire” Spring Gala, and founder, with his wife Stephanie, of The Common Room, a newly formed social club for young adults on the Autism Spectrum.
We had the chance to catch up with David about his passion for building a culture of autism acceptance and his efforts to turn awareness into action for the autism community.
David Long: It’s great to see the level of autism awareness increase as it has, and it’s also encouraging to see the progression of understanding about autism. The fact that more people understand that individuals are diagnosed on a spectrum with varying degrees of capabilities in social skills, verbal communication and relationship building is progress. So, to actually have an awareness month to keep autism in the spotlight is quite an accomplishment and comes as a result of the efforts of individuals, organizations and corporations coming together to educate others.
That said, awareness is just the beginning. The real question is “What do you do once you get the attention?” How do people on the autism spectrum get the services, support, friendship and opportunities they need to become valued and valuable members of our communities?
David Long: The biggest barrier we are attempting to move is to progress from awareness to understanding and acceptance. It’s important to remember that this population has lots to offer. They need not and should not be defined by a diagnosis.
Programs at Aspire help our young people build life skills and the annual gala tries to break down the stigma surrounding those on the spectrum. We let our guests know that we must be open to the reality that everyone has unique skills, and we can all listen, learn and value diversity in our companies.
“The biggest barrier we are attempting to move is to progress from awareness to understanding and acceptance. It’s important to remember that this population has lots to offer. They need not and should not be defined by a diagnosis.”
David Long: The power of diversity is to embrace differences and to harness that power to make you a better person, a better family, a better team or a better company. Each and every human is multi-faceted and complex; not one of us is defined by a single characteristic. We must challenge ourselves and each other to see beyond first impressions, look for the special things that make each of us who we are, and learn to embrace our differences.
Aspire has built a continuum of support programs aimed at both therapeutic and social components of our young people’s lives. From after-school programs to summer camps, and from pre-teen programs to college boot camps, each aimed at building the skills and confidence to move forward in life. There is more support today than ever before for those aged 18 and below on the spectrum. Yet the opportunities for internships are few and job opportunities fewer. For example, 85% of ASD college graduates are unemployed and become more and more socially isolated. This is tragic as this cohort is more than capable of working and contributing to companies and society at large.
There are companies beginning to move forward with neurodiverse hiring programs, but the environment and the manager at these companies need to be right for our young people to succeed. So we have a huge challenge ahead to educate companies on how to do this successfully.
David Long: Thanks to the generosity of our awesome sponsors, we’ve really moved to a new phase with the Aspire Annual Gala and now The Common Room, building on awareness, broadening acceptance and now focusing on action. Specifically, providing internships and job opportunities to our young people.
“I see a new generation that is more focused on diversity and equity and much more inclusive and accepting, and I love it.”
The hope is that the growing push for equity will strengthen and include, not leave behind, our population of young people. I do see a new generation that is more focused on diversity and equity and much more inclusive and accepting, and I love it. They will run companies one day and I am confident they will do so in a much more inclusive manner. I see my job as paving the way to make it easier for them when they do so.