Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
Maisie Soetantyo, M. Ed., is the founder of the non-profit Autism Career Pathways, an organization located in the San Francisco Bay Area that works with autistic individuals and families to promote autistic-friendly parenting practices and encourage authentic living, as well as provide support and guidance for autistic individuals, especially when it comes to employment and the workplace. To reach these goals, Maisie works as a therapist, employment specialist, and parent and professional coach. Through Autism Career Pathways, she works hard to show companies the value that neurodivergent employees can bring to the workforce, both individually and as part of a company’s teams and culture.
Maisie herself is a late-diagnosed autistic who has experienced sensory and auditory processing disorders and learning challenges. She says that “her greatest enjoyment and gift is to advocate for her autistic clients through learning their ‘native language’ and translating autistic communication to family members.” She uses these passions to make a difference in the world of autistic people, and using her own personal experiences helps her connect with others, and to help others connect with each other.
What does a typical work/regular day look like for you?
My day must start with a cup of coffee, then I usually do my advocacy and creative projects related to Autism Career Pathways. That may include networking, working on online presentations, interviewing other autistics on their career journeys, or Zooming with clients. In between my “focused” time, I get up to pace and stim to reset.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your work?
I make time for my special interests in baking, and watching or catching up with sports. Baking forces me to pay attention, use both of my hands, follow instructions, and take a screen break. For someone who struggles with executive functioning issues, baking is a way for me to engage, stay productive, and my family loves the outcome (most of the time)!
My second special interest is sports. Not playing sports unfortunately, but more sports watching and knowledge mining. This has been almost a lifelong passion. I have fond memories of me and my Dad watching Mohammad Ali, Serena Williams, Diego Maradona, and many more when I was young. I try to schedule work activities around my NBA and NFL teams’ schedule!
How does being autistic help or hinder your work or hobbies?
I think as an empath I connect very well to other autistic individuals, even with non-speaking autistics. My strength is showing parents how to connect and be in the moment with their autistic family member. I work hard to advocate on behalf of autistic children, so they can have unconditional love, respect, and a safe zone at home. Currently I have big projects to create an online platform with other autistic adults to change the early intervention landscape for autistic children and their parents.
“It’s time to leave behind the pathology model in autism understandings.“
My ability to pay attention to details is helpful when supporting my autistic clients explore special interests, or to find new strategies for family members to best accommodate their autistic family member.
I am definitely a dreamer and an out-of-the-box thinker. I am always thinking about new ideas and I am not afraid to ask and connect with others to initiate a new project. However, not everyone can see my vision, and my pace may be too fast or too scattered for others. I struggle with my communication with others especially during a period of sensory burnout. And I often “react” with my intense feelings and I can be quite explosive when I think I am right. Post diagnosis, I am still going through the process of “unlayering”: learning to self-regulate, to be kind to myself, and to set boundaries.
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
Post diagnosis, I try to pay attention to my sensory triggers better. This means if I have to drive to visit clients at home or do lots of online meetings, I need to take a few days’ break. Sensory burnout is difficult to come out of, so I try to minimize it as much as possible.
As far as work accommodations, I don’t stick to a regular 9-5 schedule; instead I work any time my mind feels “sharp.” I depend on colored sticky notepads and alarms to cue me of important tasks I need to do daily. Lastly, I adjust my expectations all the time, so that if I could only complete 30% of my to-do list, I just have to keep going.
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
Not so much bullying, but more being manipulated by others, and I don’t know how to get out of the situation. I am an easy prey, and people often call me “gullible”!
What advice would you give to a young or teenage autistic person to help them live their best life, or what advice would you give an autistic adult to help them feel supported in their continuing journey?
Exploring special interests and creating your own safe space is so important! Something that is your own unique way to express yourself in your own time and space, something you look forward to doing each day, something that motivates you to keep learning and connect with others. I truly marvel at other autistic adults’ special interests. Here are some: mushrooms, public transportation maps, photography, dinosaurs, life insurance, jewelry making, painting, animal massage, skateboarding, solo diving, aviation, etc.
What advice would you give parents of autistic kids about the best ways to support their kids in becoming their best selves?
Once a child receives a formal diagnosis, parents begin to start looking outside of themselves for professional help. Instead of parenting intuitively, a parent of an autistic child becomes a therapist, driver, financial provider, schedule manager, homeschooler, or an online researcher!
“What professionals do not tell parents is that autistic children need their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance of their autistic identity. I firmly believe that a diagnosis without self-acceptance is a tough trajectory.”
My number one advice is to fall in love with our autistic child’s uniqueness every day. We have to be our child’s BEST detective and advocate, and yes, without using a functioning label or a deficit model. How do we do this when we are so worried about the developmental gap? By slowing things down, simplifying our schedule, and spending quality time together at home. Find time to just be a mom or a dad and hang out! When we let go of our need for our children to perform, only then we can connect with them.
My second advice is very important: meet your child halfway to set the “new normal.” Do set expectations but make adjustments on an ongoing basis. My personal story was my Mom who helped me with my homework every day after school. She saw my learning challenges, and she supported me as best as she could. I was never bribed or punished for doing my best, even though I got a C-. I hang on to this memory today, that unconditional support from my parents helped me to do my best to overcome. Getting As was never discussed when I was a child, only doing my best.
I used to say to my clients “Don’t let autism define you.” Post diagnosis, I now say the opposite. “I am autistic, and the good and the bad that comes with it. I would not change a thing!” Knowing who you are as a person with or without autism is so important, and this applies to parents, children, and, also, autistic adults. Autistic children will grow up to become autistic adults, and a best scenario is when they have a positive autistic identity!
What advice from the so-called “experts” do you think parents should ignore?
Ignore any professional advice that makes you feel inadequate as a parent, and follow your gut instinct more. You are an awesome parent! Keep in mind that professional advice or social media information cannot “fix” problems quickly. It takes compassion, understanding, and a one-step-at-a-time mindset from the whole family to be able to implement a strategy.
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
Be kind to yourself, even more so when you struggle. Keep moving forward even when things are not according to your normal standards.
Coming from the perspective of an autistic person yourself, what do you find most rewarding about advocating for autistic people?
If I could somehow help connect the dots for autistic individuals and their families to have a better understanding of each other, and same for our community to be able to become a proactive supporter and employer of neurodivergent people, that would be a dream come true!
Tell us a bit about what your organization Autism Career Pathways does to help autistic people. What ages does it serve? What services does it provide? Why is it an important service to the autistic community?
I created an all-activity-based career screening tool called CAPABL to replace commonly used verbal interviews for autistic adults 18 years old and up. Job seekers who participate in CAPABL would be able to use a personalized video resume to job hunt. This type of alternative career screening is important for non-speaking autistics who are more impacted by their autism conditions. I also want to spotlight all kinds of autistic talents, not just tech and science skill sets.
In addition, I created a strength-based career readiness training curriculum for autistic job seekers, family members, employment specialists, and businesses.
ACP hopes to promote workplace inclusion in all types of businesses. Our long-term goal is to build an online platform featuring a robust video training resources for small- to medium-sized businesses, as well as for home-based entrepreneurs. If more businesses in our neighborhood know how to hire and support neurodivergent individuals, that would be a game changer!
While we know this to be vital, why do you feel it’s important to involve autistic people in the creation of the Autism Career Pathways programs?
The long-term goal is for companies of all sizes to be equipped to build their own full, inclusive culture, and, to make this happen, the building blocks and frameworks for best practices need to be designed by autistic people. If autistic and neurotypical employees can collaborate to create a successful neurodiverse hiring and support process, this is going to increase employability!
How do you help families work together as a team to help the autistic member be their best self?
My job is to help parents to reset their expectations of themselves as capable guides to their autistic family member. I help family members to move away from a “fix it” mindset to discovering autistic differences as a valid way to connect with one another. As parents, we can only plant seeds of change and grow together as a family, and nurturing everyone’s authenticity is the best way to go.
How do you help companies provide the best possible environment for autistic employees?
It’s important to tell autistic employees that co-workers are willing to listen and be proactive when problems arise. Inclusivity needs to be immersed as a culture, and it’s always a two-way street. Mentoring a neurodivergent apprentice brings out the best in everyone and cultivates excellence in leadership at work.
A quiet work environment with access to various sensory break opportunities, such as movement or fidget objects, is important. Allowing autistic employees to communicate their accommodation needs through written formats is really helpful because this process allows both sides to revise and take part in solutions, and at the same time be held accountable as well.
In general, when hiring an autistic person, adhere to respect, honesty, flexibility, and clarity in expectations and outcomes from both sides as best practices.
Do you work with companies who have autistic employees already?
We work with families to explore and build successful home businesses. Post COVID, ACP will be ready to train small businesses to implement CAPABL and mentors at work.
What are some of the most useful work skills you see already present among autistic people?
The ability to pay attention to details, to learn new skills efficiently, to show up to work on time, and to creatively problem solve.
Can you share one or two of your favorite success stories of autistic people gaining rewarding jobs or careers, or finding a rewarding life path?
Yes! One of my longtime clients is a talented musician, and based on the CAPABL assessment we figured out that he was also a good mentor. He is now building his own business as a music teacher, and he creates cool videos to teach autistic children to learn percussion and guitar!
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
- Autism Career Pathways website: https://autismcareerpathways.org/
- @maisiesoetantyo on Instagram
- @autismcareerpathways on Instagram
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