Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I used to dream about becoming a lawyer.
Law was one of several career paths I was seriously considering while I was in college. I imagined going to law school and practicing a type of law that required me to be detailed-oriented, but didn’t necessarily involve a lot of time arguing in court.
I pictured myself working as an attorney for a nonprofit or legal services clinic, focusing on making legal services accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to get it: people with disabilities, poor and low-income people, people of color, immigrants, gender minorities, LGBTQ+ folks. I wanted to fight for changes to legislation and legal practices that would make society more equitable. I imagined myself acting as a mentor and educator, maybe teaching community courses to help people understand their rights.
I ultimately decided not to apply to law school for many reasons, but I’d be lying if I said one of those reasons wasn’t because I’m autistic.
When I learned that Haley Moss, a Parkland, Florida, native and graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, became the first openly autistic person admitted to the Florida bar, I was overjoyed.
Autistic people have to contend with serious barriers to employment. According to 2017 research from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, only 14 percent of autistic adults held paid jobs in their communities.
Haley was diagnosed with autism when she was 3 and was nonverbal as a toddler. She wrote her first book when she was 15, and in the decade since then, she’s written another and contributed to a book of essays.
In May 2018, Haley graduated from the University of Miami School of Law. She had a job lined up after graduation, contingent on her passing the bar, which she did. Her focus as an attorney is on healthcare and international matters.
“I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to make a difference for other people,” she explained to CBS News. “Lawyers help their community. What better way [to make a difference] than to become a lawyer.”
In 2019, autistic people still face mountains of discrimination and ableism. Every individual or collective win feels like a necessary step forward.
Part of the reason I was hesitant to become a lawyer is that I’ve faced a lifetime of discrimination and hatred as an autistic person.
Some of my earliest memories of elementary school are of being forcefully secluded and restrained, separated from my peers and forced to sit on my hands in a corner so I wouldn’t move them in a way that was “disruptive” to the other students.
I haven’t been able to shake that label even as an adult in the workplace. At a previous job, all my requests to move my desk away from the middle of our overwhelming open office plan were ignored. I felt like a burden anytime I asked for an accommodation for my autism, like being able to work in one of the quiet rooms upstairs so I could concentrate.
Autistic employees can actually be an asset in the workplace, but I’ve rarely felt that way. I often feel like my autism is a hindrance, that I’m a burden who needs to be accommodated.
That’s why news like this feels so overwhelmingly positive to me. I’m used to seeing people fight over whether or not they should give their kids vaccinations in social media comment sections because they’re afraid their children will develop autism and grow up to be like me.
It’s refreshing to see people celebrating an openly autistic person for once. It’s a reminder that I’m just as worthy of love and respect as my non-autistic peers, and that there’s nothing wrong with living life exactly as I am.
Haley also isn’t the first openly autistic person to pass the bar in this country. Lydia X. Z. Brown is an autistic attorney, disability justice advocate, and organizer who’s a justice catalyst fellow at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
I’m grateful to know Lydia, and they’re currently working to defend the educational civil rights of Maryland students with disabilities who are facing disproportionate discipline — just like I did as an autistic child.
Attorneys like Haley and Lydia are beacons for the autistic community and beyond. They prove that autistic people can be lawyers — and anything else we want to be.
We shouldn’t define ourselves entirely based on our productivity or success in a capitalist world, but autistic people deserve the opportunity to thrive in any careers we choose.
I don’t regret not going to law school. It would’ve been the wrong choice for me, but not because I’m autistic. I’m happy to continue being an openly autistic editor, activist, fiancée, colorful fashionista, and friend.
Don’t we all deserve the right to pursue what makes us happy, whether in our hobbies or our careers or the relationships we build?
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She’s currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.