As we reflect on advancing inclusion for people with disabilities during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’d like to share this testimonial, written by a Southwest Employee.
I knew deep down he was different: squirming out of hugs, preferring to play solo rather than with other kids, eating only a few types of food, and the way loud noises like bathroom hand dryers sent his hands flying over his ears with a look of sheer terror in his eyes. Other times, he was a typical little boy: playing cars, building epic Lego structures, and laughing at cartoons. I did not know about the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum, and wrote his differences off to “every child is unique.”
When the therapist told me my son was high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, I was relieved. The clues staring me in the face for years finally had a name. My 13-year-old son who seemed obstinate, refused to share what happened to upset him, tell me who did what, or express how he felt … it wasn’t that he didn’t want to. His brain is wired differently, and he didn’t know how.
Then came the guilt–how many times had I punished him for behavior outside his control? I needed information, and I dove into every resource I could find. I discovered things I could do easily and quickly, like quit using figurative language, stop asking multiple questions at once, use written lists, and “doing” instead of “telling.” It worked, and I am always trying new ways to reach him and help him understand the nuances of life.
Now that he’s in high school, I still worry about him every day. Peers call him intense, anti-social, and depressed. Dances, pep rallies, football games–those are a hard pass from him. Only technology and video games pique his interest. It is his escape, his safe place where he can let go and be social and even display leadership skills, all behind the veil of the screen and headphones.
Each new day is a bit of a coin toss—will it be a good day or will there be a meltdown? If parenting a teenager is difficult, life with a teenager on the autism spectrum can turn parenting into an extreme sport full of creative problem solving, continuous assessing and recalibrating, and loads of patience.
At times, his differences and the struggles to help him collided with my work. I recall a season where he was severely struggling with depression and had been contemplating suicide. I knew I needed some help, but wasn’t sure what was available to me. What has helped me the most on this journey has been the chance to share and learn from my Fellow Employees—we refer to them as “Cohearts” at Southwest. Not only has it opened connections to others at Southwest who have children on the spectrum, but I’ve also learned the many ways Southwest supports Employees in my situation.
My biggest worry used to be my son’s life beyond high school. What type of job would be best for him? How will the job interview experience be for him when he struggles to look someone in the eye and communicate effectively? Then I heard about a program Southwest Airlines is launching in 2022—the Campus Reach Neurodiversity Internship Program—internships for those on the spectrum, with job coaches to help the Interns navigate our Company. Amazing! Stay tuned for more information on this program in the New Year.