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What My Autistic Son Taught Me about Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI)

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Musings from another day of communing with my son through his paintings...

DEI is an integral part of my consciousness. As a parent of Sebastien, a non-verbal, autistic man, who communicates with complex emotions and memories with movements, a smattering of words, paintings, and his colourings, challenging myself to this unconventional way of communication is not an option.

At the same time, I have also witnessed a growing interest in DEI as an organisational objective and strategy in my professional work. Despite the formulation of rollout plans, initiatives, and targets, which project a facade of commitment, the true essence and potential of DEI have not been harnessed.

This is because we invariably run into a resistant organisational culture that is held back by a leadership mindset and the dominant voice of the majority who feel threatened by the erosion of their unquestioned privileges. At the same time, the marginalised are often too fearful or too disillusioned to dare to speak up for themselves or others.

And at the end of the day, regardless of the promise that might have sparked the initiation of DEI, its implementation often becomes so watered down that its transformative impact is inevitably snuffed out.

This is why I often tell friends that compared with DEI in the autism world, corporate DEI is like kindergarten. It is never really put to the test. At any moment in time, DEI can be set aside with no real consequences.

In contrast, advocating for DEI is drilled into the bones of parents like me. That's because setting DEI aside can lead some of our autistic loved ones to erupt in meltdowns: self-injury, aggression, and property damage. Because of how different they are and the lack of acceptance/support for their differences, their waking life is a constant source of stress. So back in the days when we didn't understand Sebastien and the outlet of painting wasn’t enough, he would ultimately have a meltdown.

For the likes of Sebastien and other marginalised individuals like him, DEI is not an option, but a necessity.

That doesn't mean pursuing DEI is an easy path. It means not always feeling in control and not always being certain of the outcome. It means being constantly jolted out of your comfort zone and still keeping your mind and heart open. Only then can you hone your understanding of another person's difference, acknowledge it, and include it.

Take Sebastien’s painting as an example. Being self-guided and self-taught, he doesn’t appear to follow any rules. In fact, he seems to break them: too much water, too much paint. Sometimes, the whole thing just falls apart, beyond redemption; at other times, inexplicable beauty emerges. It uplifts without us knowing why.

In order to achieve DEI and its full potential, we need to be willing to take chances and give room for failure or wonder. We need to be bold in standing up to the resistance of the powerful and the majority and to advocate for the marginalised.

Otherwise, we are left with a world where those who fear change, even when it is for the better, and those who scream the loudest dictate the fate of the world.

Only when we recognise that DEI is a necessity and not a choice would we be optimising the potential of DEI to make our organization a better one to work for everyone and one that can genuinely make the world a better place.


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