Skip to main content

Southwest Airlines Community

National Disability Employment Awareness Month: My Personal Experience Living Fearlessly Authentic


Southwest Airlines is honored to be among the 2018 Disability Equality Index Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion.




The following blog post was written by Southwest Airlines University (SWA U) Curriculum Developer Tonya Ratliff-Garrison.


A couple of years ago, I discovered a painting on Etsy that I knew I had to buy. Although the artwork was aesthetically pleasing, that’s not what drew me to it. Instead, what caught my attention were the words written on it: “She was fearlessly authentic.” Those words are an inspiration that maybe one day I can live my life as “fearlessly authentic” and stop wearing the mask I’ve used most of my life to cover my autistic self.


tonyaswalife02_edit.jpgI was born autistic, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my late 40s. I’ve always known I was different; I thought something inside of me was broken. Throughout my life, I struggled to interact and connect with other people. I learned to camouflage my “neurodivergent” characteristics in order to blend into society and render myself as indistinguishable from neurotypicals (non-autistic people).


I’ve become so good at “acting normal,” that when I tell someone I’m on the spectrum, I often get a response of “you don’t seem autistic” or “you must be just barely autistic.” I know the comment is well-meaning, but it can be demoralizing and frustrating as they are unable to see the real me. I might look and act “normal” but what goes on beneath the surface is a completely different story.


Autistic people differ neurologically from neurotypical people in various ways including sensory perception, auditory processing, communication capabilities, social skills, and behavioral control. While these are commonalities of people diagnosed on the spectrum, it’s important to understand that these characteristics, along with others not mentioned, blend together differently for each individual. 


As Dr. Stephen Shore, a professor of special education at Adelphi University who is autistic himself, famously said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” So I can tell you only how autism affects me.


Interacting with people has always been a challenge for me. As a child and even as a young adult, I was selectively mute. I would want to speak but I struggled to verbally communicate what I was thinking and feeling. I’m better today but I still have “planned scripts” when I know I’ll be in  social situations.


I experience the world at a heightened sensory level. I can’t tolerate sunlight and brightly lit rooms, so the years I lived in Seattle were some of the best of my life. I thrived in the overcast climate. Some noises tend to be louder and more painful for me than neurotypicals, and claustrophobic situations terrify me.


I think in pictures, so conversations can be hard as it takes me longer to process what I’m hearing. I don’t know when it’s appropriate to enter a conversation, and sometimes find myself interrupting to get my thoughts out before they disappear.


The one thing that causes me the most trouble in society is my honesty and bluntness.. If you ask for my opinion, you’re going to get it. Many might see these characteristics negatively, but these are also my strengths. They make me an innovative thinker who recognizes patterns and opportunities others may miss.


TonyaZippo.jpgSteve Silberman, author of Neurotribes, says we should think of the brain like a computer operating system. Just because a Macintosh doesn’t run Windows doesn’t mean it’s broken. It’s like the old Apple advertising slogan—autistic people simply “think different,” not worse. The real tragedy that comes with autism, though, is not who we are, but what happens to us. Autism is not just a disability issue—it’s also an issue of inclusion.


The unemployment rate of individuals diagnosed with autism runs as high as 80 percent, and those who have a job are often underemployed—highly capable individuals with multiple college degrees doing jobs that require menial tasks with no specific skill set. With such dismal life opportunities along with marginalization by society, it makes sense that research shows the average age of death for an autistic person as 54 years old, with suicide as the leading cause.


I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I believe that one day I’ll be able to achieve my dream of being “fearlessly authentic,” and it will be because I’ve been embraced by so many of my Southwest Airlines Coworkers and supported by my Leaders.


I became a member of the Southwest Airlines Diversity Council in 2017 to champion for neurodiversity, not only for myself and other autistic adults, but also for the half-million autistic children who will enter the job market over the next decade. A better future cannot happen unless society stops viewing autism as a deficit to be cured or eliminated.


2017 Southwest Airlines Diversity Council2017 Southwest Airlines Diversity Council

An article in the May-June 2017 Harvard Business Review highlighted companies that view neurodiverse talent as a competitive advantage and are pioneering programs to hire and nurture employees with autism. Companies like SAP, Microsoft, Caterpillar, Price-Waterhouse, and Deloitte have reformed the HR processes that unintentionally exclude autistic applicants and have implemented specialized support programs to help those on the spectrum fit in to the company culture and maximize their contributions.


My autism has allowed me to bring a different perspective to my role as a curriculum developer at Southwest Airlines University (SWA U), our state-of-the-art training facility that provides technical training and personal and professional development. I translate both spoken and written words into movies in my head, which allows me to test-run learning experiences in my imagination and visualize the best way information should be presented. This helps me create out-of-the-box approaches to the learning experience.


Employers who have implemented programs to hire more autistic people say they are already seeing pay offs including boosts in innovative capabilities, quality improvement, productivity gains, and broad increases in employee engagement. These programs also benefit neurotypicals because companies have adopted  management styles that emphasize placing each employee in contexts that maximize talents and contributions. 


Embracing neurodiversity isn’t an easy feat. It will be hard for both the neurodivergent as well as the neurotypicals, and compromises will have to be made on both sides. But if society can accept that not everyone’s brains are wired the same, it will be a place where people like me can finally drop the mask and start living fearlessly authentic.