Autism Interview #69: Larkin Taylor-Parker on Autistic Community and Disability Rights

Larkin Taylor-Parker is an attorney practicing in North Carolina, a graduate of Agnes Scott College and the University of Georgia School of Law, and a proud member of the Autistic community. Larkin lives in Raleigh and enjoys spending time with friends and family, playing the tuba, and riding and maintaining a pair of vintage English three speed bicycles.

The opinions expressed below belong solely to Larkin Taylor-Parker and do not represent those of Larkin’s employers, clients, or any other persons or organizations.

Has autism either helped or hindered your ability to work in the legal field, or do you consider it neutral in this respect? Explain.

My variant of autism happens to come with a good memory. I think autism might have some relationship to my long attention span, but I don’t think I have a big advantage over any other person capable of doing the work and willing to put in the hours. Enjoying this enough to be willing to devote a lot of time to it is probably more important than whatever my neurology is doing for me. I think it matters that I picked a career that plays to my strengths and in which I am genuinely interested. That is important for anyone, but the very deficit-focused upbringing many Autistic people have makes it hard for some of us to focus on what we do well. We need to be careful to help youth and adults who didn’t grow up focused on their strengths get that ability back and avoid stunting it in children growing up today.

Based on your experience, how would you evaluate autism awareness among those who practice law and those who employ lawyers? How about autism acceptance?

That is a big, diverse group of people, and I haven’t met the vast majority of them. I can’t honestly speak to that. Outside of lawyers who work on disability issues or happen to be or know Autistic people, I wouldn’t expect to find any more knowledge of autism in the legal community than in the public at large, i.e. a vague awareness that it exists without much more knowledge. We don’t necessarily need every lawyer, or every person, to have the most common Autistic traits memorized, but it would be good to see more people throughout society adopt attitudes of acceptance, which I would define as dealing with us as individuals rather than confining us with stereotypes. So far, I am enjoying my career, but I will be interested to see what having a meaningful, professional job, education, middle class income, and a certain privilege of credibility in the neurotypical world will mean for my relationship with the Autistic community in the long run. What I’m doing is certainly not completely unprecedented, but it is rare enough that I will have to chart my own course in that regard.

One way in which the legal community at large is learning more about autism these days is through initiatives various organizations, most notably The Arc of the United States, have started on autism and criminal justice. I don’t know much more about the criminal justice system than any reasonably informed member of the public, but the importance of judges and prosecutors understanding how autism might have affected everything from the circumstances that led to criminal charges being brought against an Autistic person to the perceived credibility of an Autistic witness or victim goes without saying. I’m exited about these efforts as well as work being done to train first responders, especially police officers, about how to deal with Autistic people they encounter in safe, productive ways.

In the private sector, it probably behooves all professionals to cultivate accepting attitudes, maybe even gain some cultural competence. The Autistic unemployment rate is bad, but people around my age and younger grew up under the protection of strong disability rights statutes. Many of us have had more opportunities than our elders did. Continued advocacy will probably increase the number of us with money to spend over time. The more integrated into society we get, the more we will need higher-end professional services. Our communities are close-knit. We talk to each other about the experiences we have with professionals. Those who serve us respectfully can expect word of mouth to work to their benefit.

Where can organic autistic space be found? How can neurotypical parents offer/promote/support this for their autistic children?

Autistic community happens whenever several Autistic people hang out without a neurotypical organizing the event or a therapeutic reason for getting together. It is not a new thing, but it does seem to be becoming more common. There is a very active social group that gathers for activities, going to the movies, board games, things like that, in the town where I live. I think that is becoming increasingly available for adults in large to mid-size towns in the U.S.

For children, this is harder, but equally important. A good place to start might be to make sure Autistic children are not the only Autistic people they know. I’m not suggesting segregated classrooms or schools. Inclusion at a young age is crucial because it establishes integration as the norm for children with and without disabilities. However, it is also important to give Autistic children the opportunity for social contact with other Autistic people, ideally both peers and adults. This could be facilitated through something as simple as inviting another family over for dinner.

What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?

There are many very helpful neurotypical advocates, but there are a number of common mistakes well-intentioned neurotypicals make. Autistic people are increasingly included in organizations claiming to work for us, but that sometimes happens in tokenizing ways. If the extent of inclusion is letting an Autistic person speak about personal experience as a volunteer on a panel, there is probably tokenization going on.

Respect is another issue. Nearly all of us have experienced ableism to varying degrees. It can be hard not to wonder, if only for an instant, whether ableism played into some perceived lack of respect. Neurotypical adocates can’t control or take responsibility for the feelings of Autistic people around them, but they can keep that in mind. As you get to know an Autistic adult, err on the side of formality. Don’t ever act entitled to someone’s time unless you genuinely are because of some kind of commitment, probably a paid one. If you hire an Autistic adult, part of respect is obviously abiding by general employment norms and any applicable laws or employment contracts without trying to debate or circumvent those things.

One final consideration: there are particular challenges that come with some impairments and particular challenges that come with those impairments running into a society that isn’t always accessible, but we also have the same problems as everyone else. The more integrated we get, the more our advocacy buys us the same opportunities available to others, the more that will be true. Don’t be shocked when Autistic people in your life have the same problems as everyone else. Ableism isn’t something I encounter every day as a relatively successful Autistic person, though it certainly stings when I do, and doesn’t even make the top ten list of my problems. That list is populated by issues that affect my whole generation, such as the high cost of basic things like housing and education.

What does a strong Autistic community look like? 

The only kind of Autistic community worth having is one in which all Autistic people are welcome. If we divide ourselves by degree of support needs, co-occurring disabilities, or other traits, we’re no better than the most prejudiced people we’ve encountered and will leave so many people behind as we try to address the barriers to our success that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. I would say most Autistic people who are engaged with Autistic community have mostly been faithful to that ideal, but we do have our bigots.

A strong Autistic community is one that gets things done and demonstrates leadership on our issues. The challenges we face collectively aren’t our fault, but no one else is going to advocate for our interests as enthusiastically as we will. That isn’t to say neurotypicals can’t help, but we need to continue to set the agenda as much as possible and push researchers and policy-makers to let us. Often, our priorities are different from other stakeholders. We tend to care less about promoting normative behavior and reducing the incidence of autism than many neurotypicals who work on autism issues. We tend to care more about issues affecting outcomes and lifespans in big ways, such as suicide, eating disorders, abuse and neglect, unemployment, and access to healthcare. We have done a good job of demanding a seat at the table so far, but we need to continue to do that to have a community which will be valuable to its members.

How do we build a strong Autistic community? Who is involved and what are they doing?

Only Autistic people can do it, but neurotypicals can help. No one can build our community for us. We either will or will not create something that appeals to enough young people to sustain itself year after year. To do that, we have to create a narrative people want as part of their lives. That means a narrative with much more to offer than victimization and sadness. We need people to model overcoming adversity, not overcoming disability but thriving as disabled, Autistic people, despite discrimination and other obstacles. Autistic people who are open about their disabilities and are good members of their local communities help build this narrative whether as volunteers for non-profits, programmers, bankers, janitors, or just trusted friends and neighbors. A community is a story, really, and it has to be a good one for people to buy in.

To continue to attract our young people, we also have to have something practical to offer. The Autistic community and its leaders need to continue to engage in effective advocacy on the issues that are important to large numbers of Autistic people. We need to provide various kinds of support to help people get established in life. That could include mentoring, scholarships, and leadership development training. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has really shown leadership in this area, and I remain grateful for an ASAN-funded fellowship which, along with other scholarships, family help, work, and student loans, helped to support my legal education. I would like to see those sorts of programs expand. We also need some of the kinds of basic infrastructure many communities have, and it has been heartening to see journalism oriented toward the needs of this community happening at NOS Magazine. Continued development of these kinds of organizations is important.

Neurotypicals can support Autistic community organizations by funding them. In some cases, there may be volunteer opportunities, too. Small things, like allowing groups to use meeting space you may have available, can make it much more feasible for people who want to do good things to get their ideas off the ground. If you are in a position to make hiring decisions, that can also be a great way to develop Autistic leadership if the right well-qualified candidate comes along. If you’re someone who has a say in who gets a job or a slot in an academic program, look hard at your process. Study what Autistic people have said about barriers to our success. If you see aspects of how you make that decision which may be inaccessible, ask yourself if they’re really necessary for finding the most qualified people. If they aren’t, get rid of them.

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