Most minority groups in Asia usually have an organisation to represent themselves and advance their interests. However, the nature of autism itself (i.e. difficulties with social, communication and executive functioning) prevents autistics from taking charge of their communities as leaders. Worsening this issue is the brain drain where the most adaptable and brightest autistics leave the autism community as soon as they have overcome the limitations of autism to continue their lives without stigma and discrimination.
A good leader requires cognitive insight and emotional maturity. A good leader must be able to connect with and understand people of different needs, beliefs and backgrounds. A good leader must speak clearly to explain and convince people of his/her cause. A good leader must be able to adapt to envision novel concepts, lay out realistic plans that can handle different contingencies, and quickly take advantage of new developments. A good leader must be able to handle difficult people out to create trouble, cunning people out to exploit, and partner with genuine people who have different needs and concerns. A good leader must be able to deal with unexpected setbacks and be prepared to start from scratch again when he/she fails.
Such skills cannot be acquired through robotic behavioural techniques meant to eradicate inappropriate behaviour and teach pre-programmed sequences of behaviour. Masking/camouflaging can only make one a worker, not a leader. Without leadership skills, even if autistic people are fortunate to obtain control of a business, they will not be able to sustain it. Autistic entrepreneurs tend to succeed with a single brilliant idea but always stick to their strategy even when the environment has changed to something unrecognisable.
Even though leadership is such an important and strategic ability, there has been surprisingly little interest in developing the leadership qualities of autistics. Those that do exist seem to focus exclusively on advocacy, as if increasing awareness and political lobbying will solve all the problems of the autistic community. Perhaps people think that autistics can never develop leadership capabilities.
Instead of trying to babysit autistics, it is time for the world to invest in research on how autistics may become leaders so that they can attain Inclusive Equality. This can start by assembling a group of autistics who are mentally healthy, living the growth mindset and who are confident enough to declare their autistic identity to the world. From this group of people, we then can cultivate a core team of autistic leaders who are:
- Able to empathise, collaborate and network with diverse people including non-autistics
- Able to communicate clearly and persuade others to support the community’s shared vision and projects
- Able to formulate strategies, execute plans and deal with unexpected contingencies effectively
4 Core Leadership Capabilities
- Goal: Know what we are meant to do and what we want to achieve
- Pathway: Create strategies on how we can realistically achieve these goals
- Alliance: Know who we can ask to help us achieve these goals
- Unity: Persuade people with diverse agendas to support these goals
4 Core Leadership Qualities
- Charisma: Be authentic and inspired in a way that rallies support from all
- Compassion: Foster compassion, empathy and understanding for all
- Resilience: Accept failure as part of growth and use of learning experiences
- Wisdom: Use knowledge, resources and people to get the best results with the least effort
4 Aspects of Leadership Training
- Transactional Leadership to become a good manager
- Servant Leadership to care for others
- Democratic Leadership to collaborate with others
- Transformational Leadership to set an example for others
Since the very nature of autism (i.e. the Trinity of Social, Communication, Executive Disabilities) impedes the development of leadership capabilities, autism leadership training must employ novel and unconventional approaches instead of just getting autistics to sit through lectures and play team-building games.
Only when autistics can be responsible for themselves, will they be willing to reach out to the world around them. Only when we have a team of leaders who work to bring about change with a positive attitude, can there be a self-determined future for the autistic community.
It is necessary to address the root cause of challenging behaviours by developing self-awareness (such as letting them work with other autistics so that they can see their undesirable behaviours in others), addressing the obstacles to unleashing their potential (e.g. nutritional deficiencies, lack of a time management system) and healing their emotional traumas through a lengthy process of self-reflection and mutual support.
In this way, autistics can feel safe and open themselves up to the world, while understanding why they need to change themselves instead of being forced to change by others, allowing them to progress naturally to the next stage of their developmental cycle. This is not about the mastery of social camouflaging/masking (and pretending to be normal), but multiple leaps of cognitive insight that collectively activate/enable entire classes of native social interaction, executive functioning and sensory processing abilities.
[This is based on the hypothesis that the autistic developmental cycle continues into adulthood on a different path which can end with roughly the same outcome as emotionally mature non-autistics.]
In this era of constant change, it is not enough to set up a business for autistics and expect them to continue doing the same thing for the rest of their lives. Leadership is a strategic meta-skill that enables autistics to fend for themselves, create their desired lifestyle, live purposefully to make the world better and collaborate effectively with diverse people. Successful autistic leaders are then able to inspire other autistics to do the same, eventually lifting most of the autistic community out of their rut.
People usually conduct leadership training workshops and programmes, but such classroom teaching tends to be disconnected from the real world. Being able to understand the concept analytically and persuade people verbally are insufficient. It is necessary, especially for autistics who have difficulty relating abstract concepts to concrete reality, to become leaders by serving the community.
Through serving difficult people, we develop tact, empathy and maturity. Through accepting conflicting beliefs that question ourselves, we develop openness and reconciliation. Through failure and making mistakes, we develop resilience. Through reflection on our behaviour as well as that of others, we develop awareness. Through making difficult choices, we develop decisiveness and strategy.
Eventually, a significant number of autistics will be able to develop the emotional maturity, resilience, proactivity, and equanimity that can allow them to be at least as competent as their non-autistic peers. Once autistic leaders are capable of creating change effectively, they can join forces with caregivers, autism support professionals and other leaders of the disability community to create change together for the benefit of all autistics, including autistics with high support needs who are unable to advocate for themselves.