The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

‘Our needs aren’t special, they’re human’

Senior Editor Top Stories

Program focuses on neurodiversity in the profession

Haley Moss

Haley Moss

The nose is the key for Coral Gables attorney Haley Moss.

Moss, who is an ex officio member of the Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors, also is autistic. One part of that is when she talks with people, she finds it difficult to make eye contact because instead of listening to what the person is saying, she tries to read their facial expressions.

By looking away, she can concentrate on what was being said, but it leaves the impression she’s not paying attention — exactly the opposite of what is happening.

Haley appeared at the November 19 CLE, “Empowering Neurodiverse Professionals through Mentoring,” sponsored by the Bar’s Standing Committee on Professionalism. Committee Vice Chair Jason Berger questioned Moss about her experiences and observations.

She explained that people should not assume because someone acts a little differently, that something is wrong. Moss also said she ultimately “learned to look at people’s noses [when talking with them], because then they think I am looking at them. That is my emergency life hack.”

Berger asked about challenges facing those with neurodiversity issues, which he said some studies have estimated affects as many as one in seven people.

“Our needs aren’t special, they’re human,” Moss said, explaining she doesn’t like euphemisms for disabilities like “special needs.” “We all have the same needs, we all want to be loved, we all want to be respected, we all want to be successful in whatever way that means to each of us individually. Just some of us need a little more support to get there.”

Neurodiversity covers a broad range of conditions and ailments that basically affect cognition, she said, and each can bring their own needs. Asked by Berger, she explained neurodiversity and neurodivergent.

“When we’re talking about neurodiversity, we’re talking about that all of us have different brains. That’s not a bad thing,” Moss said. “That’s something we should be expecting, accepting, and also respecting. We all work differently, we all process things differently. For me, my autism makes my world a very loud and crowded place, so I struggle a lot with different sensory things….

“When you’re neurodivergent, you brain does not act in that expected neurotypical way. People who do fall into this are people with autism, ADHD, acquired brain cognitive issues that happen later in life, or through something like a traumatic brain injury from an accident. We are talking about learning disabilities, psychiatric and mental-health disabilities, and I also try to point out this includes intellectual disabilities as well.”

All will have their own needs to be addressed, and Moss said many people who are neurodiverse may be reluctant to discuss their issues or feel they aren’t worth accommodations and mentoring assistance to make them successful at work.

She said depending on her comfort level, she may or may not talk about her autism with others, but has learned how to communicate her needs.

For example, Moss said she will encourage someone to communicate with her via texts and emails instead of phone calls, which can make her anxious. Likewise, if they want to set up a meeting, she’ll ask for a Google Calendar notice with an agenda if appropriate, which helps her ensure she doesn’t have a conflict and prepare for the meeting.

Some things are simple. Moss said her hearing sensitivity means the hum from neon lights is distracting, but wearing headphones is an easy fix.

When taking in information in a classroom or other setting, Moss doodles or fidgets with her hands. That’s not a sign of inattention, but bleeds off anxiety and “that is the only way I can pay attention.”

Social situations are a continuing struggle, she said, including that “I am someone who is extremely honest and blunt. That is something that is normal for autistic people, and people think that it’s rude.”

Berger asked about accommodations and mentoring relationships with neurodiverse lawyers. Moss replied that requires skills that lawyers should already possess — communication and empathy.

“It’s OK to be curious,” she said. “If someone does share [their condition], you can ask…. One of the greatest things that people do is they ask how they can be supportive….

“I think normalizing how we talk about disabilities, that we all have strengths and weaknesses and things that are hard for us, even if they are not hard for others.”

A good mentor, Moss said, is someone who is “affectionate and understanding and genuinely cares and someone who wants to learn with you. The cool thing about mentor and mentee relationships, at least in my fantasyland, is that everybody learns from each other. It’s not one person gives and one person takes…. “It would be someone who is understanding and willing to advocate with me, rather than just for me. Realizing this is a team effort is something I really value.”

The free CLE carries one hour of credit and shortly will be available for free viewing on the Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism webpage.

News in Photos