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'Please be yourself': Neurodiversity acceptance subject of college talk

Press-Republican - 10/21/2023

Oct. 21—PLATTSBURGH — Haley Moss knows neurodiversity is not a word that many people are familiar with nowadays.

And that's okay.

Moss, 29, the first openly autistic lawyer to practice law in the state of Florida, spoke about neurodiversity to an audience at Clinton Community College'sStafford Auditorium Thursday night.

"The first time I heard it, I said 'that word is totally fake'," Moss said.

But since then, Moss has learned a straight-forward answer to give when asked what neurodiversity is: "It's very simple: Neuro, brains; Diversity, differences."

'THE FUTURE SHOULD BE ACCESSIBLE TO ALL'

Those differences, in the case of neurodiversity, include individuals with conditions such as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, Tourette Syndrome and a number of other cognitive or psychiatric disabilities.

In speaking to audiences about her own experiences growing up with autism, Moss said she hopes not only to dispel many of the stigmas around those conditions but to also advocate for greater acceptance of and accommodation for people who have them.

"The future should be accessible to all of us. and people's disabilities are always going to be part of that," she said.

PART OF WHO I AM

Moss was diagnosed with autism at age 3, having been non-verbal as a toddler.

"When my parents were first told that I was autistic...they were told everything that I would never do," she said. "They were told that I would be lucky to one day graduate from high school, to get my driver's license, to make some friends or maybe possibly hold some kind of job. and that's scary stuff to hear as the family of a three year old."

But Moss said her parents instead worked to frame her differences as just that: differences.

So Moss said she grew up thinking: "Okay, this is just part of who I am. Nothing more, nothing less."

DIFFERENT BEHAVIORS

Moss shared some of those differences: fidgeting and not focusing, not maintaining eye contact, coming across as cold or insensitive and having trouble picking up on social cues.

Neurodiverse people will often try to hide or "mask" those behaviors over fear that they will be bullied or discriminated against over not behaving the way that neurotypical people are expected to behave in society.

But, Moss said, society should be working toward greater accommodation for and acceptance of people with those behaviors.

Moss explained development for neurodiverse people in terms of the alphabet, noting that while many people assume kids will grow along an "A,B,C" path, neurodiverse people might start at "Q" before developing other skills.

"I was completing big puzzles before I was able to talk," she said, noting that schoolwork came easier to her than socializing at school at first.

"I was doing all sorts of other things and moving ahead in my schoolwork, ahead of being able to do all sorts of other random social things."

ACCOMMODATING AND ENCOURAGING

As an example of how neurodiverse behaviors can be framed negatively and reframed positively in society, Moss shared a story of a mother she spoke with once who was very distressed by her young son's "destructive" tendencies, including taking apart a TV remote.

But the mother acknowledged to Moss that the boy was just curious about how things worked, and Moss noted that, often, neurodiverse children just need an environment to accommodate their needs and behaviors rather than discouraging them.

To that point, Moss explained how many in her law school class assumed that she had been given accommodations for her autism in a way that Moss said seemed to belittle her for getting help.

Actually, Moss said, her requests for accommodations had been denied by her law school.

"But that doesn't mean that it would have been any less valid if I did get accommodations," she said. "It means that somewhere along the way, people with disabilities like me got let down and we've had to somehow still overcome and work through it."

ACADEMIC ASSISTANCE

In a Q&A session, parents at Moss' event spoke about the frustrations of getting accommodations for their neurodiverse children in both grade school and higher education.

Moss sympathized and acknowledged that it was a frustrating problem with no quick solution, but urged parents to both speak up to local administrators and school officials while also emphasizing the need for all neurodiverse people to feel empowered to speak up for their own needs and accommodations, as frustrating as that can be.

In particular, Moss said that academic assistance for her was often framed only as extra time on tests, assistance that Moss didn't feel she necessarily needed. But knowing that note-taking assistance was also an option would have been greatly appreciated if she'd known she could have asked for that.

'PLEASE BE YOURSELF'

Asked by moderator Thom Hallock the single biggest piece of advice for neurodiverse people, Moss offered a message of self-love and acceptance.

"The biggest piece of advice I would give you is that you are not broken," Moss said.

"You are not a failed version of normal. Please be yourself. I know that sounds really hard to do in this world sometimes, but we need you just as you are. and the things that you really love. Please stick with them. They're fun, they bring you joy, and I hope that you get more joy in your life because the world sometimes makes that really hard."

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