Hearing someone lament being not disabled enough might raise an eyebrow, especially if you heard the phrase out of context. But after spending a few minutes listening to AT&T’s Jennifer McCafferty talk about her son, Braeden, there is absolutely no mistaking her intent – or the amount of love in her heart – as she describes the phrase’s meaning.

Not disabled enough

Braeden, 15, has autism. Jennifer, a channel manager with AT&T, noted his case is considered ‘mild.’ While he is often included in mainstream activities with neurotypical peers, he may struggle to participate. Yet he doesn’t quite fit into programs for children with developmental disabilities either.

Jennifer recalled an experience where she was told Braeden couldn’t attend a camp for disabled children because he is not severely disabled. “He’s a child caught between two worlds,” Jennifer said. “A lot of times people don’t see his disabilities. They think his challenges are behavior-related.”

Autism, sometimes referred to as an invisible disability, causes symptoms difficult to recognize by those unfamiliar with the condition. This can lead others to attempt to correct behaviors in counterproductive ways for people with autism.  

“Teachers often talk about ‘can’ts and won’ts and don’ts,’ but Braeden doesn’t understand this,” Jennifer said. “Once he was disciplined for walking on a bench at school. The teacher told him not to do this but didn’t say what to do instead.” Children like Braeden often benefit from positive direction (“start walking”) instead of negative (“stop running”), his mother added.

Making autism acceptance a reality every day

Jennifer and Laura agree that the first step to autism acceptance is learning how to engage with those who have cognitive disabilities – be they visible or invisible. They offer the following advice to build relationships with members of the neurodiverse community – or anyone for that matter:

Speak in Positives.
Say “start walking” instead of negatives like “stop running.”

Listen First.
Then ask, rather than assume, when confronted by behavior you don’t understand. 

Choose your words wisely.
Others may not interpret them the way you intend.

Be patient.
Not everyone processes information the same way.

Accept people for who they are.
Learn to leverage their unique gifts, rather than trying to change them.

Creating connections with autism

AT&T’s Laura Cain, service representative, also understands the challenges of living with an invisible disability. Laura, who has Asperger’s syndrome (a term historically used to indicate high-functioning autism), was not diagnosed until age 38.

“Throughout life, I always seemed to keep one friend at a time,” Laura said. “I tended to pour everything I had into a friendship, and things usually went south after a few months.”

Laura explained that challenges reading facial expressions and body language can lead her to say the wrong thing in the moment and offend people. She forces herself to smile or imitate facial expressions of people she’s talking with to help indicate she is paying attention and interested in the conversation. This behavior, or ‘masking,’ (not to be confused with face masks worn during the pandemic) is a social survival skill neurodiverse people sometimes employ to conceal the behaviors they feel make them different.

Laura has built many friendships online, outside the pressures of needing to mask, including one very important relationship.

“I was lucky to meet my spouse over the internet in the late ‘90s,” she said. “Communicating via online chat messages was the way we fell in love. Conversing on the phone was even better, even at 8 cents a minute. That 300-minute block of time from SBC Long Distance was just what we needed in the early 2000s.”

“Thank you, AT&T,” she added with a smile.

Laura has thrived while working virtually – with no need for masking ― during the pandemic. Masking is an exhausting activity, one that often required a 10-minute nap in her car before driving home after work, she said.

“The work-from-home option has eliminated almost all my stress during the workday,” Laura said. “For the first time in over 30 years, I’m no longer grinding my teeth at night!”

Autism acceptance instead of autism awareness

Jennifer underscores the importance of listening and patience when it comes to interacting with people with autism.

“One day at school, Braeden was really upset all day,” Jennifer said. “His teachers couldn’t get him to do any work. He wouldn’t participate in gym, which made the gym teacher upset with him.”

The culprit: school picture day. Scheduled for the day’s final session, Braeden was worried about getting dirty before his picture – leading him to skip lunch for fear of being messy.

“No one asked him what was wrong,” Jennifer added. “This was on his mind all day long. Someone only needed to ask him what was bothering him.”

People with autism have emotions just like everyone else but process information differently. Laura suggests keeping things positive.

“Instead of saying, ‘Why does it take you longer to do things?’ or the dreaded, ‘You don’t look or seem autistic,’ respect individuals with autism and instead say, ‘How can I better support you?’ or say, ‘I’m so glad you told me. Let me know if you need my help to communicate better with you,’” she said.

Laura also recommends acceptance over trying to change people with autism. “Autism Awareness Month in my autism communities has shifted to Autism Acceptance Month,” she added. “Being aware is great but being accepted means so much more to those of us who have autism.”

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