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May 2024
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Breaking the Barriers of Autism

My experience speaking at the United Nations World Headquarters.

By Thomas Iland, DTM, AS

Thomas Iland poses with Toastmasters plaqueThomas Iland, DTM, AS

My experiences as a person with autism, along with a recommendation from the head of the Global Autism Project, led me to speak in front of the United Nations (U.N.) not once but twice in the last year.

In December 2019, I addressed the U.N. on International Day of Persons with Disabilities at an event promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership. With my Toastmasters experience in mind, I prepared a speech pertaining to the power of people with autism when put into positions in organizations with the objectives of permanent, gainful employment. I started with myself, explaining how during my time as a property tax intern at the Walt Disney Company, my managers were both understanding and accommodating when I disclosed my diagnosis after starting the position. I was eventually promoted to a lead intern position and oversaw the progress of a team of interns. Under my guidance and leadership, the department completed its workload faster than ever.

The U.N. has sustainable development goals that it plans to accomplish on a worldwide level over the next 10 years. These goals pertain to persons with disabilities and include, but are not limited to, quality education, work and economic growth, and reduced inequalities. The U.N. continues to take vital steps toward improving quality of life for those with disabilities and beyond.

“We have so much to offer,” I tearfully told the U.N. audience regarding the possibilities and potential that people with disabilities can bring to employers and other organizations but often get overlooked and underestimated.

Earlier that year, in April 2019, the U.N. had invited me to speak for World Autism Awareness Day and share my stories of law enforcement interactions. As a person with autism, I’ve had to learn how to communicate differently with people, especially during encounters with police officers over the years. For example, shortly after getting my driver’s license, I was pulled over for speeding and nearly got myself shot for reaching for my driver’s license in my pocket before the officer asked me to get it. Thankfully, I’m still alive and have never been shot, arrested, or imprisoned. However, people with autism are often unfamiliar with expectations of law enforcement officers, first responders, and other emergency personnel and may not understand nor adhere to verbal instructions, hand gestures, or personal boundaries.

The theme of World Autism Awareness Day at the U.N. was “Assistive Technology, Active Collaboration.” With this in mind, I took the opportunity to use my skills as a Toastmaster to discuss why it’s imperative that people with autism receive direct, explicit instruction when it comes to learning how to interact with the police and first responders. One way people with autism can learn about police interactions is through video modeling—a learning style that features the use of video recordings and images to teach communication and social skills. People with autism can and do learn through video modeling, and it has proven to be effective in improving interactions. In addition, first responders should be trained on how to instruct and interact with a person with autism. When both parties collaborate and better understand one another’s expectations, the relationships get stronger and the outcomes are better than ever.

With my platform as a professional speaker, I want to teach audiences all over the world how to bring about and create opportunities for people with autism and other disabilities so they may shine. Thankfully, Toastmasters has helped me to be more articulate, improve my impromptu speaking skills, and find both the confidence and the calmness to speak on vital issues impacting the autism community at the U.N. and beyond. In just the last year, I became an Accredited Speaker and a human potential coach through the Human Potential Institute. My accomplishments highlight how, with the right support and opportunities, people with autism can and do shine.

On behalf of people with disabilities, let me say that we are capable of so much more than the world gives us credit for, and it’s time for society to help us not only come to life, but live a life of happiness, purpose, and prosperity!

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