Meet the Keynote: Haley Moss, Esq.
Posted on 04/19/19 in Milestones Conference by Milestones
As a lawyer, author and artist, Haley Moss, Esq., is using her experiences and talents to empower other individuals like herself on the autism spectrum. She recently became the first person in the state of Florida with an open diagnosis to pass the Bar and is now fulfilling her dream by practicing law and traveling the country to share her perspective with others, working to create a more inclusive future for the autism community, especially females with ASD.
Milestones is honored to host Haley as one of our 2019 keynotes, and recently sat down with her to get to know a little bit more about her journey from a nonverbal child to law school graduate and autism advocate.
Can you describe what led to your diagnosis and what sort of obstacles you had as a child?
By age three, I was still nonverbal. But I was doing 100-piece jigsaw puzzles, reading things from the TV and understood the books my parents were reading me too. I was a difficult toddler; I screamed and cried a LOT. To illustrate, I was screaming and crying so much on a flight that the other passengers clapped when we got off the plane. We were kindly asked to leave many restaurants. I also had sensory overloads, meltdowns, and executive functioning issues amongst other things.
What strategies did your family and professionals use with you to help you achieve your goals?
I was incredibly lucky to have a stay-at-home mom growing up. We did a lot of floortime and I had speech therapy as a kid. I was mainstreamed fairly quickly. My family always encouraged me, and didn’t limit what I could do. We did a try-and-see approach to most things – we said yes when the rest of the world said no. My family was also always positive talking about autism so I attribute their acceptance and celebration of who I am to be a really integral part in how I perceive autism and how I am able to have the confidence to pursue my dreams.
How was your experience in law school as an individual on the spectrum?
I can’t compare it to a neurotypical law school experience, but law school was arguably the most challenging academic undertaking I’ve ever done (other than the Bar exam)! Most of my challenges in law school came from autism-related independent living skills type stuff and trying to balance many different things at once. I think something to keep in mind is I wear a lot of hats – I was a full-time student, but was also involved in lots of organizations, worked/interned, was creating art, advocating, and trying to take care of myself. So I struggled a lot with independent living skills and “adulting.” Law school is physically and emotionally challenging for anyone but adding autism into the mix I suppose meant just a few extra hurdles to clear.
There are a lot of changes that come with graduating with a new degree like you recently have – what advice would you give to individuals on the spectrum who may be nervous about looking for employment or living independently?
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and also your limits. Part of being on the spectrum for me has been being incredibly self-aware. I knew I didn’t want to be too far from home – far enough to be independent, but close enough to come home or have my parents visit if and when I needed something, felt homesick, or I just wanted to be with family too (I’m very close with my parents). Knowing your strengths gives you confidence in your abilities and is something that others should focus on too. Knowing your weaknesses shows where others can accommodate your needs and also what you might need to work on too. Understanding yourself is the first step to helping others understand you as well.
How do you plan to be an advocate for yourself and others through your practice of law?
My everyday practice is actually unrelated to autism advocacy. But advocacy comes in many flavors and part of being open about autism at work means I feel comfortable advocating for myself in the workplace. Being a lawyer means I have a lot of privilege – I have this educational background and am gainfully employed in a way that aligns with my education – while many others on the spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. I often think how we can all change that conversation. I hope being open about my autism and being in the different spaces I occupy helps make it easier for others on the spectrum to find meaningful employment and for employers to change their perceptions from what people with disabilities can’t do to what our abilities and strengths are – after all, disability is not all-encompassing of who somebody is.
What motivates you to be an active autism advocate and speaker?
My motivation has changed over the years. I began in advocacy and writing hoping that if one person was able to learn something or gained hope because I shared my story, it was worth it. I still feel this way that being able to change one person’s life for the better is a wonderful life mission and it keeps me going. However, my autism advocacy and speaking mission has had an overall shift more towards opening dialogue and changing conversation. Much of the autism conversation happens without autistic people and is dominated by parents of kids on the spectrum, and professionals. This needs to change to involve autism’s very own experts – the people who are on the spectrum and live with the various joys and challenges every single day!
What is your best advice for parents? Best advice for professionals serving the autism community? Best advice for self-advocates?
Parents – every person on the spectrum is so diverse and talented. It’s up to you to discover your child’s talents and gifts and nurture them. You will be amazed what you uncover. Being supportive of these talents can help with self-esteem, confidence, future careers, etc.
Professionals – be patient with us and learn from us. Some of our behavior might not be normal but it isn’t bad. I wish you can see some of these things from my point of view, like hand flapping. You can only imagine the sheer joy I feel that my body involuntarily is so excited that it has to partake in being happy. Please, don’t take that away from me and others. Also, be empathetic towards us. We’re trying our best.
Self-advocates/people on the spectrum – only you can set your own limits. You know yourself better than anyone. This also goes for parents and professional, don’t put limits on what a child can or can’t achieve or do. Trust yourself.
What do you wish people understood more about ASD?
There is so much to unpack here, and I could give you a laundry list of things I wish people knew. I wish people knew there is no stereotypical person on the spectrum (television and movies gets this very wrong, I think). That women exist. That adults exist. That we don’t all end up in STEM fields if we have fewer support needs. That behavior is communication, and not speaking is not the same as nothing to say. That there are lots of systemic barriers in our way that make the world harder to navigate. But almost all of that ultimately boils down to if you know one person on the spectrum, you know one person on the spectrum.
How do we help others understand that “autism isn’t bad, it’s just different?”
I think the best way is to listen to the voices of those on the spectrum. We are all part of a human spectrum. You can see our diversity by engaging with us and you can understand that we’re just different (but not less, or bad) by seeing how we are not afraid to be exactly who we are.
What should our community know about females on the spectrum?
Uh…that we exist! I find myself saying that the biggest misconception of autism is that the image is always of a young boy. Girls and women are more likely to be undiagnosed, self-diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, simply because we pass and present differently. We get written off as quiet or quirky or some form of anxious, rather than as being on the spectrum. Our community needs to do a better job overall supporting girls and women on the spectrum as well as empowering them.
You talk about it taking a village to raise a child with autism – who/what was YOUR village like growing up and what does it look like now?
My village is ever-evolving. However, we still have the same mayors and architects: my parents. They began building the village and are integral parts of it as my everyday cheerleaders, support systems, and sources of endless love. They never gave up on me. The other people who contributed to my village throughout my life are the folks at UM-NSU CARD here in South Florida, who have given me services, assessments, and various types of support since I was 3 years old. Another thank-you to all of the teachers I have had in my life. My friends have changed throughout the years but some have been a part of my village for a while. Today, my village is my family, my CARD family, lots of others on the spectrum who educate me and work alongside me and who have become friends, and other community partners throughout my local community and the world. My village has one very, very important addition though – my work family! I work for two of the best men – Joe Zumpano & Leon Patricios. They are not just my employers, but are also my friends and mentors – and we learn a lot from each other. More work family love to all of my fellow lawyer colleagues and our staff for all of the support too.
Join us June 12 at the 2019 Milestones National Autism Conference to attend Haley's keynote and breakout sessions! All session topics may be found here.