Breaking stigmas of Autism, advocating awareness

Posted at 5:03 PM, Apr 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-21 11:53:52-04

Imagine going to your doctor and having them tell you a diagnosis that would change your life. While it would explain the challenges you faced growing up,  your world changes as the pieces start to come together. 

That's what happened with Jeffery Ford, who was recently awarded the 2016 World Genius Directory's Genius of the Year for America. Ford is 53 years old, has a 23-year-old daughter and is a published author, was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in 2014. 

Ford, who belongs to 15 different high IQ societies, thought the doctor's diagnosis was wrong, or misinformed.

"At first, I thought it was a joke. I thought it was hilarious," Ford said. "I am a member of all these high IQ societies."

Asperger's Syndrome is in the Autism Spectrum. For Ford, who has friends with an Autistic child, viewed it as being non-verbal, needing to be watched after, but then he started to do research.

"Maybe a day or two [after the diagnosis], I got mad, so I did this thing called educate myself so I could argue about it," Ford said. "I started tearing up. It explained so much of my life to me."

Ford explained how loud noises and groups of people cause him anxiety. Walking in a mall, or in crowded hallways like schools, Ford said he would see these shapes, objects, moving at him and then loud noises all around. Imagine being a young child feeling this anxiety, and not knowing why.

In 1962, when Ford was growing up, there was no such thing as Asperger's Syndrome. Ford had support, including speech therapy and counseling, but having the knowledge he has now from the diagnosis, it would have helped him understand more about himself.

"I figured I was a nervous and anxious person, and that is why I couldn't handle it," Ford said. "I just didn’t know. I had no idea that other people perceived the world differently, and I didn't know how to communicate with that, because of that."

"I know [being diagnosed younger] would have helped me. One, I wouldn't have hated myself, or thought I was a coward because I was scared, and you are going to be scared if that is your reality. Also, if I would have known there were other people like me, that would have helped. It would have helped to know a lot was not my fault, and it was normal for my situation."

It also would have helped Ford's parents and teachers growing up, and other people throughout his life if he would have been able to be diagnosed at an early age.

Ford said there are schools now who are being supportive, and organizations that have a focus on children with Autism and mainstreaming their education. Classrooms are focusing on the student's needs.

Now, Ford is wanting to shed light on Autism and his unique situation. Aside from speaking publicly at schools, he also spoke at TEDxMSU, and is working with representatives to educate them on the benefits and struggles of being a person with Autism and trying to enter the workforce.

"It's estimated that about 90-percent of adults who are Autistic are underemployed," Ford said. "A lot has to do with behavioral characteristics. They are not understood in interviews, and people have a pre-existing notion of what [Autism] is."

As the educational system is recognizing and changing how to educate children with Autism, more are graduating and going to college to receive degrees. Ford said he knows engineers and other graduates who have been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. 

For Ford, the next step is educating managers, supervisors and the workplace to understand Autism better, and to break some of the stigma that it carries.

"We are statistically more loyal, dependable and far less likely to leave a job early," Ford said. "And the focus while there is far more efficient. If we can show the strength we have to employers, then the very small accommodations needed can be shown to be worth it."

To also help educate people, Ford has started a YouTube channel to go along with his public speaking events. He has also written numerous pieces to help generate education, especially during April, which is Autism Awareness Month. 

"As it is Autism Awareness Month, a lot of people wish it was called Autism Acceptance Month. What we need are both, Ford said. "I really want to break these misconceptions that some people have, including some doctors. [One is that] we are robotic and without feeling, that we lack empathy.

"I want people who are Autistic to feel better about themselves, as well," Ford said, explaining that in a lot of pop culture Autism is used as a negative slang-term, or used offensively. "I want to be a counter-balance, a message of hope. Someone who can inform a family member, an employer or just someone who saw my video on a whim. It opens the hearts and minds to help other people."