I reached out to Haley Moss a few months ago about conducting an interview around autistic self-advocacy, and I was so pleased when she agreed to correspond. As many of you may know, Moss “is an attorney, author, artist, and autism advocate who writes and speaks publicly about her journey and gives hope for other autistic people and their families and friends” (Moss, 2019). She also has a master’s degree in a STEM field, and we conclude our conversation with some great general insight about autism and college. Thanks, Haley!
Haley received both a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology & Law as well as a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Florida in 2015. From there, she attended the University of Miami School of Law and since graduating has become “one of a handful of openly autistic attorneys” (Moss, 2019). Haley wrote and published two books, which are guides for autistic students in middle school and college. Also, “her original writings about autism and her unique experiences as an autistic woman have also been featured in The Huffington Post, Elite Daily, The Mighty, and numerous other websites and publications” (Moss, 2019). She is an accomplished artist and autism advocate: “topics Haley enjoys speaking about are the importance of neurodiversity and autism acceptance, autism and women, autism in the workplace, transitions to adulthood, college, middle school, high school, and overcoming obstacles” (Moss, 2019).
In this interview, I connect with Haley Moss and have the opportunity to ask questions regarding what it is like living and working as an autistic person and advocate, as well as how her family and other professionals supported her journey towards success!
Katie Newton: A lot of parents ask me how/when to disclose their child’s autism diagnosis to them. I read that you first learned you had autism when you were 9 years old and were reading Harry Potter with you mom. When you say you had a talk about autism, specifically, how did your mom tell you? What were your initial thoughts and what was that process like?
Haley Moss: 9-year-old me was obsessed with Harry Potter, and it was at the time when the movies were extremely popular. (I think we were at the Chamber of Secrets movie release at the time.)
My mom told me one lazy day during summer vacation. I vividly remember being approached with her saying “you have magical powers, just like Harry Potter.” I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. We talked about why Harry was different – he didn’t fit in with the Muggles because he was a wizard, but did not quite fit in with the wizards because of his lightning bolt scar. My mom explained to me, “Different isn’t bad. It’s just different, and different can be extraordinary.” And then I remember going through a workbook with her about self-awareness and autism. The workbook had some professional guidance because it was written by an autism professional.
Our initial conversation blossomed to feature contributions from all the varying perspectives on Team Haley: mine, my parents, my teachers, and professionals. It felt very inclusive.
In hindsight, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to learn about autism. We focused on the strengths. I felt empowered and magical. Looking back, my parents had learned so much from when I was diagnosed through the moment they told me. I realize how groundbreaking their approach was when you keep in mind what resources existed when I was first diagnosed and in my childhood. My mom would read books from autistic authors in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was pretty awesome to realize my parents had been so ahead of their time and how they set up the framework for my own self-acceptance and beliefs in the importance of neurodiversity.
KN: When did you decide to begin disclosing your diagnosis to others?
HM: For the first few years, I disclosed on a need-to-know basis – so to teachers, professionals, and those who would benefit or be able to help me by knowing I am autistic. The place I began self-advocacy was in annual meetings with teachers where I would say I want to make friends each school year.
The first place I was publicly open about my autism was at the Autism Society of America Conference. I was 13 years old, and was on a panel of autistic self-advocates. I was the youngest one and the only girl. The panel was successful and empowering for me to speak on, and my publisher connected with me and I began writing “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About.”
I didn’t decide to disclose to my peers until my freshman year of high school – and when I did, it was a spur of the moment decision that changed my life. I was hosting an art show with proceeds benefiting a local autism organization. I handed a flyer to my English teacher, who asked aloud why my proceeds were going there, and I ended up telling my entire freshman English class I was autistic. Since then I’ve been out and proud and happy to talk autism to pretty much anyone who asks!
However, there are certain disclosures that continue to require a formal conversation for me even if I am open about my autism – those conversations have occurred with resident assistants in college, employers, and in romantic relationships. I value open communication, and feel privileged to be able to have those conversations and welcome the opportunity to have a more meaningful autism conversation while also acknowledging the risk of negative stereotyping and discrimination. I see it as a pivotal moment that helps both me and the other person have a good friendship or relationship.
KN: What types of reactions did you receive from professors and later, other lawyers who were “above you” career-wise when you were doing practicums/internships when you told them?
HM: I minored in Disabilities in Society. Needless to say, I was very popular in the disability classes that had group discussions as your friendly neighborhood person with a disability! All jokes aside, I did TA for one of those disability classes, and two of those classes would invite me to present the guest lecture on autism spectrum disorders (I happily did). I feel like my professors were accepting in college but I went to a big school, where I had very few relationships with faculty members; the relationships I did have, however, were meaningful.
I never really had the disclosure issue in law school because I was openly autistic then. It’s hard to hide when it’s the first thing people can learn from Google, or if you tell them you’ve written two books or for places such as HuffPost or appeared on CNN before. I lost my many social icebreaker “fun facts” if I decided autism was worth not disclosing explicitly, and I always found subtly mentioning my advocacy in some way was a much more interesting “fun fact” than admitting I’m 25 years old and still have never seen snow. I also felt especially accepted in two of my workplaces. I interned for a judge who has an adult son with Down Syndrome, and the managing shareholder of the firm where I work now has a 16-year-old son on the spectrum. I think those personal connections made acceptance far easier and opened each of us into realizing how much we could learn from each other as people and professionals.
A reaction that I notice with other, more experienced lawyers is a slight cognitive dissonance. Every so often, I meet a lawyer who is also the parent of an autistic person (sometimes the person is a young child or is someone around my age). Sometimes, the other lawyer who is also a parent of an autistic person does not know how to react or which box to place me in – am I one of their colleagues, or am I like their child? I don’t fault those lawyers because we naturally categorize and stereotype, and most had never met a lawyer they were 100% certain is autistic. I love the light-bulb moment when the lawyer realizes I am both their colleague and like their child – it is heartwarming to see the hope and excitement each time I disclose with more detail in those situations.
KN: What are the biggest communication challenges, if any, you face on a daily basis?
HM: Asking for help. Finding the confidence and courage to “know what you don’t know.” Getting past the social anxiety of assuming asking for help is an admission of failure (it’s not). I think with independence comes a desire to do things alone, and for people with disabilities, there’s also a concern that maybe you’ll lose independence in a sense. I’ve found asking for help is something I continue to work on in various situations – whether it is how to change a light bulb or how to best research and draft documents about complex legal issues!
KN: Have there been any mentors, teachers, or other people who have been integral in helping change the way you think about autism or in helping you on your path towards success?
HM: Overall path to success – my parents, hands down. They are my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. Love you, Mom and Dad!
As for how I think about autism, I’ve learned a lot from different folks over the years and continue learning. I learn from parents, professionals, and other autistic people. I find it important to constantly learn from people who are different from me within the autism community – autistic people of color, people from different nationalities and religions, nonspeaking autistics, LGBTQ+ people on the spectrum, etc. Autism is intersectional, so my autism education beyond my own experiences should also be intersectional however possible.
KN: How do you think the college process was different for you, if at all, than from a neurotypical student’s journey?
HM: I still had to take the same prerequisites to graduate high school, the same SAT and ACT, and complete the same college applications as other students. Similarly, compared to my law school classmates, I had to take the same LSAT, the same classes, graduate, and take the same Bar exam. I find myself reminding people in my life I was held to the same neurotypical student standards for admission to college, law school, and the practice of law.
I do think in college and law school, my prospective school choices were more limited. I did not feel ready to go out of state. I knew my strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to be relatively close to home. In hindsight I think I made my best choice when I chose University of Miami for law school – it was far enough from home to be independent, but close enough to come home at a moment’s notice, and I also had a support system in the city (the folks from UM who provided services and support to my family during my childhood are based out of here).
I think autistic students need to think about everything else that goes into the college decision process – independent living, learning independent living skills, what supports or accommodations they do or don’t need, etc. The academics isn’t always the most important part of the decision the way it may be for a neurotypical person.
KN: What strengths do you believe you bring to your career that are unique?
HM: I’m using a lifeline here. The people I have worked with have, in some way or another, commended my attention to detail, creativity, drive, and focus on tasks. It’s important for us to be in careers that align with our strengths and passions so we can excel.
KN: What are the hardest parts of your career or areas you struggle?
HM: I struggle the most with the everyday life skills by far (says me, who is looking at all the objects to put away, laundry to be run, and other life things as I sit home answering these awesome questions)! Oh, and driving. I still haven’t figured out the spatial awareness surrounding how to park, so not driving is probably one of my most limiting struggles.
KN: How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
HM: I’m still learning this one! I get asked all the time “how do you do it all?” and sometimes the answer is, I don’t. Or, “I don’t do a great job taking care of myself.” Something I try to do is set aside an hour each day to do something just for me, and one day on the weekend that is just for me if I can. I have to remind myself it’s okay to take a break or not do everything all at once.
KN: What tips do you have for autistic students who have autism who may have not considered college initially but are beginning to become curious about it?
HM: Embrace your curiosity and look to the people who support you to help. It’s okay to find out if something is or is not for you. You do not have to do this alone.
Questions or comments? Join the conversation!
Moss, H. 2019. About Haley Moss.