Autism Awareness Month: Neurodiversity - My Gift, My Story.
Updated: May 5
The following blog post was written by WillowWood graduate, Paul Walderman for argonauts.ca and is being re-posted here, with his permission, as a part of our Autism Awareness Series.
Life is like a million little pieces. Every walk of life has those pieces scattered everywhere. The goal is to locate those pieces and fill in the large puzzle. My name is Paul Walderman. I am a young professional working as a digital content specialist at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. I have written about some of the biggest moments in the history of the Toronto Argonauts on Argonauts.ca. I have worked in the professional sports business for the past six years. Most importantly, and more inspiring, is that I managed to excel in the industry while living on the autism spectrum. For those living with autism, the journey can be challenging, and complex and requires the proper support, effortless commitment, hard work, and resilience to become successful.
I am going to take an opportunity to share my own personal story of living on the autism spectrum and working with the Argos/MLSE. Most of all, I have transformed into an autism advocacy leader to educate and enact change in understanding autism.
The primary goal of this story is for the readers to learn about the impact autism has in professional sports, the workplace, and across society. To break down barriers and shatter stereotypes regarding the way autistics are perceived.
Before proceeding, I want to give a shout-out to the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) team at MLSE for collaborating with me on the structure of this article, which is broken down into five segments. Let us begin by understanding what autism is and the links which the Argos/MLSE and my own personal story have together.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong complex neurological condition that is usually diagnosed from a young age. Autism affects those living in all cultures, ethnicities, races, and gender identities. Those living with autism will either have similar or opposite behavioural patterns, traits, and challenges. Among the challenges individuals on the autism spectrum face include the following:
Sensitivities to noise environments
Difficulty with social skills
Making eye contact
Struggling with anxiety
Dealing with the realities of unpredictability/uncertainty
Complications with reading social cues
Resistance to change
Fixation on subjects
It is important to note that autism is a broad and sophisticated spectrum, meaning the condition can be different in many people who receive the diagnosis. The spectrum varies from high to low functioning or moderate to extreme and appears in many different forms. In my case, I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a mild form of autism. It impairs an individual’s developmental growth by a few years. Currently, in my early 30s, I have the mentality of a 26-year-old. Uniquely, I can also possess the personality of a 40-year-old, providing a universal personality of being wiser and charismatic.
What is the tie between sports, the Argos, and ASD?
Doug Flutie came off successful runs with the BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders, capturing a Grey Cup during the 1992 campaign with the Stampeders. Flutie arrived to captain the Boatmen in 1996 & 1997. In two historic seasons with the franchise, Flutie successfully led the Argos to back-to-back Grey Cups before departing for the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League.
In 1998, Doug Flutie launched the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. The organization was launched in the name of Flutie’s son, Doug Jr., who was diagnosed with autism. Referred to as Dougie, he was diagnosed with a rare form of autism known as Child Disintegrative Disorder (CDD). It is a severe form of autism and those living with CDD require dependent support for a lifetime.
During my time with the Argos, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Flutie. We engaged in a dialogue on autism. Flutie had mentioned how his son’s experience living on the spectrum provided him with a new perspective on life and to always appreciate and recognize that the little things matter. It was at that point I engaged in a dialogue with Flutie on my own story of living with autism. He found my journey working in professional sports and living with autism highly inspiring.
I began my journey to becoming an autism education advocate when I was connected to Lisa Collins at the Flutie Foundation. Four years later, during my time at MLSE, I engaged with the Flutie Foundation, sharing my story with a live audience on their inaugural series Stories on the Spectrum.
How can your employment journey positively frame the ways in which persons with autism can fully contribute to a work environment as a teammate?
It can frame ways of contribution in a variety of forms. Neurodiversity represents so many unique skills and behaviours that are beneficial to the workplace. Autistic people educate neurotypicals (individuals who are not on the autism spectrum) to be able to look at life through a different lens. This practice is no different in the workplace.
My own employment journey with autism has inspired many people in my support network. I was thankful in 2016 to have high-level connections to executive leadership at Kilmer Capital, the then-ownership group of Toronto Argonauts. It took only five percent of the work to get myself in the door, the other 95 percent was my efforts under my own willpower.
My journey leads by example that employment of actual autistic individuals matters. Organizations like the Argos/MLSE can benefit greatly from the many special skills that autistic individuals can have, such as enhanced focus which can help a team or business via analytical and statistical analysis. More importantly, I have provided a unique perspective on being accepted and understood as a teammate, providing love, inspiration, and motivation to my peers.
What advice would you offer a young person navigating the systems, that are often not well prepared to offer the support needed for success?
This is a tricky one. Since the autism spectrum is neurodiverse, individuals who live with the condition will navigate the systems of employment differently (some similarly). As an accomplished young professional and leader, my first piece of advice to a young person is to always be patient. Everything happens for a reason. Life is a process and changes do not happen overnight.
The window into the professional sports industry can be narrow. As a lifelong sports fan, I dreamed of working for a Toronto-based sports organization. As someone who had the resources and connections to the industry, I found myself able to get my foot in the door, then work hard and strive for success. For those young people that may not have the same resources to enable their hopes to enter the industry, my best advice for them is to reach out and develop a network in the industry. Use social media including LinkedIn & Facebook to connect with potential employers. Autism Ontario & Autism Canada can also be great networks for individuals with autism.
It is essential for a young person navigating the systems (and especially those with autism) to take care of their mental health first. This includes activities such as meditating, exercising, self-reflecting, eating healthy, reading books, and getting outside for fresh air.
Part of the everyday process of growth and development is learning to leave your comfort zone. If we don’t try new things, adapt to new routines, or be open to innovative ideas, we will not grow. For people with autism, this is a challenge given the difficulties when being put in unfamiliar situations and without proper preparations.
I knew that for me to develop and grow, I had to take risks. I had to leave my comfort zone, and challenge myself. I am truly blessed that I have succeeded (for the most part), taking on harder challenges, yet receiving greater rewards at the end of the tunnel. This is my philosophy and something I strive to continue moving forward.
Any key learnings or best practices that you can share around community/employment-based programs that support enhanced awareness and reduction of stigma around ASD?
My experience working in the professional sports industry provided me with the opportunity to develop into a young professional. It enabled me to prove that people living with ASD can strive and succeed in the workplace and job titles don’t matter. Instead, it is about doing your best and giving it your all every day.
Working with the Argos and MLSE has been life-changing. I learned how to work at my own pace and set up my own flexibilities with my schedule. I received support from my superiors to provide me with the tools to be able to focus on the tasks at hand and fit in with the team.
Although the autism community has received more employment opportunities, the unemployment/underemployment rate for actual autistics in the workplace is staggeringly high and still has a long way to go. Here are a few important ways for company leaders to contribute to change:
Employers need to conduct more unconscious bias training programs
New hiring practices need to be implemented when it comes to autistic people who are more than capable of fitting into the workplace using their special skill sets.
More certainty needs to be provided like having a script during training sessions for autistic employees on what to say to a colleague and/or new client in person or over the phone.
I will conclude my journey by saying that working at the Argos/MLSE provided me with a chance to grow and become a leader in the sports industry. A key to learning is to be open-minded, present new creative ideas to colleagues and managers, and bring in new people. Most of all, don’t judge a book by its cover and everyone in the workplace, employers, clients and partners alike should show more empathy towards autistics by putting themselves in our shoes.
I am proud to work in the sports industry and to be MLSE’s autism ambassador leader, promoting inclusion for autistics in the workplace. My vision is to continue this practice of being an autism advocate, promoting education, awareness, acceptance, and belongingness for autistic people in Toronto and across the world.