If you were watching 60 Minutes last night, you might have caught Anderson Cooper’s segment on companies seeking out potential employees with autism. I wasn’t watching, but by night’s end, word had gotten back to me from all over the country from people who had. Why did they contact me? Because 1) I am autistic; and 2) by a serendipitous turn of events I’ve become an autism awareness diversity and inclusion speaker in 2020, the year nominated by the entire senior class of America to be least likely to succeed.
I watched the piece. I’m not here to pick it apart. It is factual. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Earlier this year Diversity Best Practices invited me to be the closing keynote speaker at their EmERGe Leadership Summit conference. I seemed like a good candidate because I could speak on my intersectionality as a woman, a Mexican-American and an adult-diagnosed autistic. When I accepted, I didn’t even know what diversity and inclusion were or what an ERG was (employee resource group). I said yes because it was an opportunity to get better at a lot of skills I’d been honing for decades and it was a topic I was passionate about. The conference, scheduled before Covid hit, was to be live, and my talk was supposed to take place over the clinking of silverware at the luncheon held in Jersey City in June.
But we all know what happened. The world upended and a live conference became virtual. My speech would now be taped. I was scared. Not because I’m afraid to speak publicly…I’ve been doing that since I was two, in English and Spanish. But talking into your computer’s camera and trying to capture the attention of corporate employees watching from home offices, already distracted by the course of world events, was…well…a bit of a challenge.
I took matters into my own hands and suggested to the team that I make a video instead. About autism, about my life with it, my diagnosis, and the difficulty in finding and keeping work. I put my nose to the grindstone while temporarily self-isolating in Tucson and then back home in Brooklyn. I got my friend Tyler Rigdon to score it. And then I put it in the hands of the conference team.
It was deemed too long and maybe not direct enough for the audience. They asked me to cut it. They were worried the audience would lose interest. But I stuck to my guns because I’d engineered the entire video (28 minutes, available here upon request made to firstname.lastname@example.org for the access password) to be as engaging as possible. “Trust me,” I told them. And they did.
A thousand people from Fortune 500 companies, NGOs and government facilities tuned in. They laughed, they cried, they held their breath, and they went wild for it. Seriously. Diversity Best Practices sent me the chat that ran alongside the video and subsequent question and answer (an hour total), as well as the official feedback gathered a week after the conference. I got the highest numerical rating of the conference and almost every one that had come before it.
And people said stuff like this:
* This is soooo insightful and heartwrenching.
*There are no words for how powerful, personal and beautiful this presentation is.
*I would love to show this to some people, so many could use this as an primer to intersectionality.
*I am speechless! This was a fantastic presentation. I wish more and more people would watch this! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
*Beautiful! You’re a great storyteller. Wish I could share this video with several friends that have autistic adult children.
*Loved Vene’s video presentation! I felt like I was on the journey to her self-discovery with her. It was a great way to end the day – on a note of hope, finding oneself, and not giving up until you have answers/understanding.
*The production value and messaging of her scripted presentation was very good. She is an amazingly brave woman, and her brutally honest answers during the Q&A session were a great example of playing to your strengths without making apologies for your weaknesses. I’m still mulling over her presentation in my mind two days later, and that’s always a good thing.
*Wish there was another rating level above excellent – this was such an AMAZING capstone, from all we had been participating in over the past two days. Beautiful and very impactful. Vene is a treasure and her story was so unbelievably eye-opening and insightful.
There was a lot more where that came from, but the point is that I was able to share a very personal, very intimate, not incredibly flattering, but honest representation of who I was and how autism fit into that. And I could do it because I’ve been living with autism my whole life, I was diagnosed in 2011 when there was at most anecdotal information about autism in women and girls, and I’d been doing as much research and exploration into the issues for almost a decade. I understand non-autistic people and how they think because I’ve been studying them my whole life to try and make my life somewhat easier. I can speak to neurotypicals about they autistic experience in a way that they might understand.
The storytelling was good because I’m a writer and performer. And the video was great because I’ve been editing video since I was in eighth grade and Tyler delivered on the score above and beyond what I could have hoped for.
But I also understand the corporate world. I’ve worked in tech and as a business attorney. I understand politics. I’ve worked on political campaigns. I’ve worked in retail. I know how to bridge the divide. I don’t have the answers to the burning question of how to fix the problem. But I am extremely capable and able and willing to work with those who have the wherewithal to approach this very real and immediate issue from all perceivable angles and some that they might never have thought of.
Offers came in. They didn’t pour. More like a drizzle. But they were big time offers. After that initial presentation, my first ever as a diversity and inclusion speaker, I got invited to speak at really great companies like Nintendo and Intel. And they’ve been an absolute pleasure to work with. By the end of October 2020, my little video will have exposure to over 100,000 people.
I’m not trying to build a brand as a public speaker. I have nothing to sell in the way of books or guruisms. What I have is a video that opens a dialogue, an ability to engage an audience, and so much truth, hope and kindness to share from my experience.
So yeah, regardless of my personal opinions on the 60 Minute segment last night, I’m here to say that there are so many autistics who are struggling but also succeeding in ways no one could have expected. And if I can bring awareness to them and shine the light on what’s really going on, then I will keep beating this drum with every ounce of energy in my body. Because I’m one of them and it’s not as if being a writer keeps the lights on…yet. My exclusion from the workplace is typical of the autistic experience. And in helping others, I might just be able to help myself in figuring out a way out of the 85% lifetime chronic unemployment that college-educated autistics like me face.