This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell MarketWatch how they broke down professional barriers.

The woman widely recognized as likely the first openly autistic person admitted to the Florida Bar is laying down the law against harmful stereotypes.

Haley Moss, 24, was sworn into the bar in January and now practices health-care and international law at the Miami law firm Zumpano Patricios. But while the South Florida native agrees it’s important to show that people with disabilities like autism can accomplish big things, she also welcomes a future in which their success isn’t viewed as an anomaly.

‘I want to see a day when it’s really normal and not an exception to see people with disabilities doing great things.’

—Haley Moss, 24, a Miami-based lawyer who also has autism

“I want to see a day when it’s really normal and not an exception to see people with disabilities doing great things,” she told MarketWatch in an interview ahead of the U.N.-designated World Autism Awareness Day on Tuesday. “We tend to set the bar really low for people with disabilities, and I think that’s a really big problem.”

Moss was nonverbal for the first three years of her life, relying on screaming and crying to communicate. At the same time, she said, she was completing 100-piece jigsaw puzzles. When Moss was three years of age, doctors diagnosed her with autism — suggesting to her parents that she might never get her driver’s license, hold down a job or even make friends.

“Back then, autism was not the 1 in 59 that you see today,” she said. “The late ’90s were a little bit of a different time with what we know.” Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 59 kids has autism spectrum disorder (ASD); a December study in the journal Pediatrics put that frequency at 1 in 40.

Autism includes a number of developmental and neurological conditions and varies in degree, and is marked by difficulties with social interaction and communication, like aversion to eye contact or trouble understanding nonverbal cues. Behavior patterns include repetitive movements and the adoption of specific routines.

Moss shares the good, the bad and the ugly about autism

Moss’s family was able to access resources and services in Florida; she was speaking by the age of four and out of special education in time for pre-K. After eighth grade, she started writing, going on to publish two self-help books geared at young adults on the autism spectrum: “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About” in 2010 and “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About!” in 2014.

Haley Moss was nonverbal for the first three years of her life. At the same time, Moss said, she was also completing 100-piece jigsaw puzzles.

Moss says she was willing to share the good, the bad and the ugly about experiences like making friends, enduring big transitions and even learning how to do laundry away from home. “Back then, there wasn’t really a lot of resources written by autistic people, for autistic people,” she said.

Another outlet was art, which served as an escape from school, stress and struggles to make friends. The anime-inspired pop art displayed on her website is peppered with pirates, poodles, newlyweds and the scales of justice; she often donates and auctions off her artwork to help organizations that serve people with disabilities.

Moss married her passions of writing, talking and helping others by pursuing a career in law. She earned a joint degree in criminology and law and psychology from the University of Florida before attending the University of Miami’s law school.

She then went on to intern with a Florida appeals-court judge during law school. Following a chance meeting before her second year with a lawyer who then worked at Zumpano Patricios, Moss landed a summer associate gig at the firm. She now works there full-time.

Courtesy of Haley Moss

Moss works at the Miami law firm Zumpano Patricios.
Many adults with autism are unemployed

Lawyers like Moss are rare. Women make up about 37% of lawyers in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and while data on lawyers with disabilities at both the associate and partner levels are sparse, just 0.53% of all lawyers self-reported that they had a disability, according to the National Association for Law Placement. (Research also suggests autism remains under-diagnosed in females, who may exhibit different symptoms than males.)

In fact, just 14% of adults with autism who use state developmental-disability services hold a paying job in their community, according to Drexel University’s 2017 National Autism Indicators Report. Labor-force participation among people with disabilities stands just below 21%, according to the Department of Labor, compared to about 69% among people without disabilities.

‘I could see the talent and the engagement and the intellect. Knowing that person is on the spectrum, it was joyful for me.’

Joseph Zumpano, co-founder of law firm Zumpano Patricios where Haley Moss works

Joseph Zumpano, the co-founder of the firm where Moss works, said he believes Moss is the first “openly autistic” lawyer to be admitted to the Florida Bar. Moss gives his business an edge in complex areas of law, he told MarketWatch, because of her “extraordinary” capacity for analysis and information processing.

Zumpano, 49, who in his early career was a vocal critic of North Carolina’s forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities, also understands autism on a personal level: His 16-year-old son is “on the severe side” of the autism spectrum, he said, and largely nonverbal.

Living with autism in his own house has sensitized Zumpano to appreciate “the wonders” of someone like Moss who is neurodiverse, he said. (Advocates for the idea of “neurodiversity” seek to frame neurological differences as human variations, instead of as diseases to be cured.)

“I could see the talent and the engagement and the intellect,” he recalled of meeting Moss. “Knowing that person is on the spectrum, it was joyful for me.”

Misguided remarks directed at Haley Moss include: ‘You can’t be autistic, because you obviously are intelligent enough to go to law school.’

Zumpano urged other employers to “get better at identifying, recognizing and aligning” to the strengths of neurodiverse people, arguing that their inclusion lends a competitive advantage.

“If you have an individual like Haley Moss that has a photographic memory, that can take in large amounts of information and assimilate them,” he said, “you may be able to align those extraordinary talents to achieve an extraordinary result.”

Many organizations appear to be on the same page. The German software company SAP’s

SAP, -1.16%

 Autism at Work program has tapped what it calls an “under-utilized talent source” since 2013, employing more than 140 workers in a dozen countries. JPMorgan Chase’s

JPM, -0.24%

 Autism at Work program, piloted in 2015 with just four people, now includes 85 employees.

Those companies, along with EY, Microsoft

MSFT, +0.44%


F, +0.11%

  and others, initiated an “Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable” in October 2017 to address autism unemployment and underemployment.

For Moss, being open about autism is a form of advocacy

But there remains an “educational disconnect” in people’s understanding of disability and there is a stigma around disabilities that needs to be broken, Moss said.

Misguided remarks directed at Moss have included, “You can’t be autistic, because you obviously are intelligent enough to go to law school,” “You can’t be on the spectrum; you’re verbal,” and, “You don’t look autistic,” she said. (Meanwhile, researchers have linked social stigma-related stress with negative mental-health outcomes among people on the autism spectrum.)

Moss says she wishes the public better understood that people with autism are an “incredibly diverse” group. “When you meet one person on the spectrum, you meet one person,” she said.

Moss herself is prone to sensory overload and avoids loud, crowded spaces. To her, hearing jazz music feels like being in a department store’s television section with every TV blaring a different channel at top volume.

‘So often, people with disabilities are trying to be as independent as possible and being robbed of that independence in some way usually feels hurtful.’

—Haley Moss

Driving is a challenge — she gets around with ride-sharing apps and help from friends and family — as are executive-function abilities like staying organized, and starting and stopping things. (Executive function refers to cognitive processes that help with skills like time management and organization.)

She enjoys the independence of her own one-bedroom apartment, but struggles with tasks like cooking, cleaning and doing laundry.

Despite her own difficulties, Moss stressed that people with disabilities are “the experts on ourselves,” recalling the doubt some expressed over whether she could succeed at a large university and whether law school might be “too much.”

“I would like to try and then realize it’s not for me by my own conclusion, rather than someone telling me before I even make an attempt,” Moss said.

And while she understands those people are “usually coming from a good place,” she said, “I know myself better than anybody. So often, people with disabilities are trying to be as independent as possible — and being robbed of that independence in some way usually feels hurtful.”

For Moss, being open about her autism is a form of advocacy. “It helps others understand, it helps me be honest, and also I think it gives other professionals and other autistic people the chance to know that it could be safe for them to be open,” she said.

Not every company, or social or professional situation may be a welcoming environment for someone with autism to be so open, she added. But, Moss added, there are many benefits: Talking openly can also help people with autism get whatever support they may need.

Employers need to focus on the strengths of people with autism rather than on their weaknesses, she added. “I want to see us being meaningfully included and have opportunities that are aligned with our skills,” she said, “as well as what we’re capable of.”

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