International Day of Persons with Disabilities is Dec. 3 and is officially recognized by the United Nations. According to the UN, “Disability inclusion is an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security.” Blue Yonder associate Jessica Bargenquast shares that not all disabilities are visible and how you can help those with invisible disabilities feel welcomed and included.

When you think of a disability what comes to mind?

You likely are picturing a physical disability of some sort. Perhaps you’re picturing someone in a wheelchair or using a walker.

Did you know that over 42 million Americans have a severe disability and 96% of them are invisible? Invisible disabilities (more recently referred to as non-apparent disabilities) cover a wide range from autism to sleep disorders, chronic pain, depression, and many more.

When many think of the word “disability” they think of the hardships, the inability to go about your daily life, and the label society puts on that person with the disability. What would you do if one day you found out you’ve been living with an invisible disability your entire life?

While I am no expert in disabilities and I have my own ableism to work through myself, this is exactly what happened to me in February 2022. Hi, my name is Jessica and I am autistic and have ADHD – both considered non-apparent disabilities.

I have always had the feeling that my mind worked differently than others. I struggle to read social cues, have an incredibly strong sense of justice, and find myself continuously practicing small talk to not seem “weird” to others. I was always the “normal” child in my family since I had brothers and a sister who had, what I considered, real disabilities. When receiving my late diagnosis in 2022 I felt seen and heard for the first time. Finally, my past struggles made more sense and there was a reason I thought the way I did. Autism is simply a difference in the brain. How our brains are wired are different. We think differently, we approach problems differently, we are wonderfully unique in the way we think.

What Is Autism?

It’s estimated that 1 in 25 people are on the autism spectrum and women are severely underdiagnosed. When you think of autism and ADHD you may think of a young boy being out of control in a classroom. That was my interpretation at least because that was my brother who I watched struggle through school. Autism in women can show up very differently. Often, we can be extremely introverted, have sensory preferences (no florescent lights, please) with taste, touch, and smell…don’t even get me started on the sound of electricity. We can have obsessive interests, trouble making eye contact, different types of stimming, anxiety, and depression.

When you look up traits of autism and ADHD often the traits focus on what many think would be negative. This only reinforces a negative perception of disabilities. For me, being labeled as autistic didn’t affect me but being labeled as disabled did. Knowing that, I knew I had my own work to do. It was the label of being judged and seen differently that I struggled with. A big one for me is that I know I’m highly capable to do whatever job or task is put in front of me, but if I’m open about this label will others see me differently?

When we become more accepting and accommodating to those with disabilities everyone benefits. Many of the accommodations asked for can benefit an entire company. You may have seen my comment ”no florescent lights, please” and thought, “sure, no one likes florescent lighting but that doesn’t make me autistic.” Florescent lighting for someone with autism is a painful experience and distracts us from our work. We tend to be more sensitive to lighting and get distracted by the noise the lights make, to the point where it can affect our productivity. Neurotypicals (those without mental impairments) are able to simply push through these inconveniences.

What’s also misunderstood about autism is that it’s a spectrum. Not a linear spectrum but more of a pie chart with different levels. This is why some people with autism may seem “high functioning” (by the way we do not like this term) while others seem to have more obvious impairments. Many autistic people, especially those that have not been diagnosed or have been late diagnosed, are incredibly good at hiding their disability – this is called masking. We can be incredibly talented at mimicking behaviors of others so that we can seamlessly fit in and many of us were doing this without knowing it was “not normal.”

Creating an Empathetic and Inclusive Experience

Now that we understand a bit more about autism, how can we integrate a more empathetic and inclusive experience for those with this invisible disability?

Language is big for those with autism. Our line of thinking is very logical and direct. We struggle to pick up on social cues so the more to the point you can be the better. Do not take offense with our direct speak, there is never any non-apparent meaning behind what we’re saying and no reading between the lines, we mean what we say.

Never tell an autistic person that they don’t seem autistic or are “high functioning.” While you are trying to be well intentioned you are actually chipping away at their identity and telling them it is in fact not okay to be autistic.

Educate yourself to become more empathetic and understanding. There is a wonderful book that speaks to the neurodivergent experience called Unmasking Autism by Devon Price.

Never out someone to a group for being autistic. Autism is so misunderstood that many with autism do not feel safe coming out to their peers, workplace, friends, or even family. Let them approach you in their own time.

When someone does come out as autistic, they may request some accommodations. Currently, Blue Yonder is offering remote work to associates for the majority of roles, which greatly benefits many autistic people. It’s also important to allow autistic people to decline social gatherings with no guilt.

How the Workplace Benefits

One thing I would like to call attention to is that we bring lots of great benefits to the team! Since those with autism have a very different way of thinking, they can be incredibly innovative in their ideas and suggestions. Autistic individuals are bottom-up thinkers, which allows us to take in a vast amount of information and form a concept from the information we’ve acquired. BTW, I encourage you to look up a brain scan of someone with autism and ADHD compared to an allistic person, it’s fascinating.

If you are looking for a solution to a problem, neurodivergent associates should be your go-to! Even though we may be more introverted we are actually extremely collaborative and empathetic in nature. We are pattern seekers, out-of-the-box thinkers, data and research obsessed, and we rarely take things at face value.

What I hope you take away from this article is that you have open your mind to those who may be different from you. That you are open to exploring those with invisible disabilities. That when someone comes to you and trusts you enough to tell you something as personal as a disability they have that you are open and empathetic to them. It is not easy living in a world that was not built for you but with empathy and understanding you create a more inclusive environment!

Interested in learning more about people with autism? Here are some great resources: