The Autism “Elevator Pitch” and Other Thoughts On Talking About Autism

Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? In the marketing world, an elevator pitch is how you would tell someone about your product or company or idea if you had to explain it to them while riding on an elevator, so within fifteen or twenty seconds or so. It’s intended to give the listener a brief overview of your project, enough that they understand what you’re doing without them needing to see a thirty minute presentation.

It’s useful to be able to communicate a complex topic quickly, which is why the “elevator pitch” is so renowned. And there are many things that would be useful to be able to communicate in fifteen seconds outside of the business world. As you have almost certainly guessed from the title, what I’m specifically thinking of is an autism elevator pitch.

gray-steel-elevator
A grey steel elevator with closed doors on an off-white greenish tinted wall. Image labeled for fair reuse.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. How would one describe autism in an elevator pitch format? Such a (scripted, of course, because communication is hard) quick description of autism and how it affects you as an autistic person could be incredibly useful. Question for the autistic people reading this: how many times have you been in a situation where you wished you could instantly zap information about autism into somebody’s head because them having that information would make the situation much better? Too many to count? Yeah, me too. It would certainly be useful to get this information quickly across in many situations, ranging from trivial matters such as a random person staring at you on the bus or a stranger you just met and are having a conversation with to more serious things such as working with a partner you’ve been assigned to do a group project with or explaining why you’re different to a job interview panel. This could even be a matter of life and death if one was dealing with first responders like the police or an ambulance crew.

Indeed, having an autism “elevator pitch” ready could make things a lot easier in situations like I mentioned above. The trouble is, it’s really really hard to come up with a good short description of autism. Autism is such complicated and nuanced thing that affects people in non-obvious ways that cause non-intuitive things to happen, and it’s very often extremely difficult for non-autistic people to understand. This problem is compounded by the fact that autism is a spectrum, meaning that no two autistic people are exactly the same. What autism is for one autistic person might be very different for another autistic person. There is no “one-size-fits-all” definition for autism, or at least anything that comes close would be too vague to be useful.

Therefore, an autism elevator pitch would have to be personalized to meet the needs of the individual expressing it. I started thinking about what mine would be. I started off with what I usually define autism as: “autism is a neurodevelopmental difference that affects the way my brain processes incoming information.” I then thought I should elaborate a bit on what this actually means for me. I figured it would just be easy to list things. I also wanted to include my preferred identity-first language. Written of course as if I was talking to a non-autistic person. So now I have “I’m autistic, which means I have a neurodevelopmental difference called autism that affects the way my brain processes incoming information. This means that I perceive the world differently, think differently, sense differently, and communicate differently. My sensory system is tuned differently than yours. I feel emotions differently than you do. Because of this I sometimes do things that you might find strange. But just like anyone else, I’m a fully developed person that just wants to be accepted.” Awesome! 78 words, could probably be said fairly quickly. Obviously, you can modify your own to fit your experience and needs.

Except…

Except, well, there are several problems here, not just with my little pitch but also with this as a concept. The most major one is that not every autistic person is able to reliably speak the right words out of their mouth at the right moments. Heck, I can’t always do that. Also, that little bit might be just fine if you’re just talking with someone at an event, but it’s way too vague and way too informal for some of the other situations, like a job interview, and doesn’t even come close to working in an emergency situation. It also doesn’t give any practical tips about what should be done to support me.

I’ll address each of these, starting with the last ones I just mentioned. Honestly, I think autism is just too complex to be summed up in any good way in thirty seconds, even in a personalized format. I’ve written maybe fifty or sixty thousand words on this blog about autism, and I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of everything I could explain about autism or how you can best support myself and other autistic people. And, even if you could come up with a spiel that works, it’s probably limited to a very specific situation, what you’d need to say would vary by situation, and it’s not very practical to memorize hundreds scripts just to inform people about autism in every situation.

Therefore, it’s probably best to limit a pitch to very specific information. One line I’ve used a lot is to simply tell people “I have a sensory processing disorder” because often it explains what’s going on without me having to tangle up matters with the “a-word” and whatever connotations and misconceptions that carries with it for the listener. On this note, one common strategy that some autistic people use is to carry a card around with them that tells people about autism and what that means. This is particularly useful for emergency situations. I actually carry a card in my wallet with some info on it in case, say, I’m ever in a trauma situation and am taken to the ER and I’m not communicative. A card like this also helps surpass communication barriers, as it’s simply pre-written words. A card works even if you’re non-speaking. There’s also an app on the Apple App Store (and perhaps other places as well, I’m not sure) called “Emergency Chat” that displays a pre-written message on your phone screen, which can also be useful in a variety of situations.

I think the point of all this is it’s difficult to talk about autism and how it affects someone (or yourself) just due to the complexity of the topic. You can’t accurately elevator pitch autism. The point of me writing this post is really just to get some of the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head about communicating autism down in writing and concrete words. Honestly, I think the best solution to this is greater autism understanding. I specifically mention understanding because awareness isn’t enough. There’s plenty of “awareness,” but for many that means awareness of a very stereotyped, stilted, and myth-ridden understanding of what they think is autism. A big reason I write is to help bring forth a broader understanding of autism and all its diversity and variety. If the world understood autism a bit better, talking about it and communicating it to others would be much easier, perhaps no one would need an “elevator pitch.”

A note to parents:

A big portion of this blog readership are parents and other caregivers of autistic people. For many of you, your child is not at a point where they can independently communicate and so you’re the one doing much of the informing about autism when it comes up. Therefore, I’d like to remind you that good judgement and sensitivity is a must when talking about others. Your child’s life is their own, not yours. Your child’s privacy is their own, not yours. Your child’s identity is their own, not yours (and yes, autism is often a very important and strong part of identity). Therefore, take care in how, and if, you disclose a diagnosis or information about autism to someone else. If you can get any input from your child that input should take the top priority. They may not speak but that doesn’t mean they don’t have preferences or something to say. And there are plenty of ways to communicate outside of just words. And, it’s probably not always a wise idea to immediately introduce your child as “this is my kid and they have autism,” or “this is my autistic child” unless you anticipate that would be immediately relevant. For as much as some parents insist that autism is not their child’s only identity they do seem to make it their entire identity…

These are just some thoughts. I hope they are coherent and make sense and even though this post probably asks more questions than it answers it will hopefully give you something to think about and a perspective to mull over.

5 thoughts on “The Autism “Elevator Pitch” and Other Thoughts On Talking About Autism

  1. very useful. I had not thought about the idea of an ‘elevator pitch” and your other ideas here before. I have a special interest in advocating for diagnosis of senior adults… newly diagnosed myself I feel like I have “autism training wheels” at age 68. I too carry a wallet card with useful info in case of accident or debility.
    I am having T shirts printed that simply say “autism” ( to provoke discussion) and the idea of refining an ‘elevator pitch’ is a great concept I can use to inform others of the plight of those of us who remain undiagnosed into old age. Keep blogging, I’ll keep reading!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. ha.. have to admit my mind got me thinking of standing in an actual elevator talking with people. sighs.. literalness is a pain. but I get what you’re saying. Whether I discuss AS depends on the people involved, if I think they need to be informed more I do that. its not an easy topic at the best of times. I was undiagnosed seeing that none were aware of that I a female of the 70’s could be on the Spectrum. Its been a long road but Ive learned to compensate the hard way best I can..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article. I’ve thought a great deal about the elevator pitch for a long time. My response is more for those day-to-day friend/colleague/extended family who ask ‘how does autism affect you?’ my response is:

    ‘you’ll figure it out if you hang around long enough’

    Sometimes with this on the end (if I can afford a little flippancy):
    ‘…read a bit, watch closely and think carefully.’

    Three reasons really:
    a) It’s not my job to help you understand, it’s your job to put in the effort if you want to. It’s the same by me to you and any other two people/group.
    b) The emphasis is on you to fail to define, not me.
    c) We all understand the world through our own lens based on all our unique values, experiences etc. If I’m trying to explain my autism to you, deep down, I ought to be asking why I feel the need to do that? They’ll figure it out if they want to. If they don’t want to, no explanation will overcome that. We should take people as they are. No if’s, no but’s.

    It’s ‘guided discovery’ in teacher terms I guess. The teacher hat I find helps albeit exhausting and unrelenting. If you’re giving a talk about autism (or similar) clearly this will not suffice as the setting is different.

    The retort is short and disarming. It helps me, I mention it only if it may be useful to others. I enjoy reading how other people approach the question.

    Like

  4. “An Aspergers/Autistic brain is wired differently so I process the world differently than you do. Sometimes it is hard for me to understand you, sometimes it is hard for you to understand me.” This is as to the point that I have been able to invite a person into who I am. Most often it generates one or more questions, which can be a good thing. Autism and Neuroscience has become one of my “Hyper-focused” studies. So if need be, I can articulate just how the brain is wired differently and individually unique. (I try to avoid such a conversation because I will go into too much depth.) But such an opener can generate enough curiosity that one can make the other person comfortable after a few questions.

    Liked by 2 people

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