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Dr. Yulanda Harris

Dr. Yulanda Harris was diagnosed with autism at 58 years old.

ASD misconceptions and embracing all forms of diversity.

As Dr. Yulanda Harris sat with her boss at Gleaners Community Food Bank, she struggled to hide the overwhelming anxiety coming over her. After sharing her diagnosis with other employers and getting negative responses, she had no idea what kind of reaction or potential consequence would result in her reveal.

When she was finally able to muster the courage, Harris let it out: “I’ve been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.” 

With the weight lifted from her shoulders, it became that much sweeter upon receiving overwhelming support, not just from her superior, but from Gleaners CEO Gerry Brisson.

“He told me, ‘Yulanda, we hired you because of your skills and qualifications. We know you’re doing your job well.’ It was just what I needed to hear.”

Growing up, Dr. Harris always knew there was something different about her, though she couldn’t pin-point it. She often struggled with comprehension and didn’t always want to play with other kids. Through years of therapy with several different therapists, Dr. Harris was diagnosed with a variety of disorders, none of which quite explained this situation. After changing therapists, she was diagnosed through Easter Seals with autism in 2018.

Upon receiving her diagnosis, Dr. Harris started to do some research where she discovered Neurodiversity – a term created by Judy Singer in 1998 -- meaning a range of differences in brain function that affect behavioral traits.

“My brain just operates a little differently. Sometimes I struggle to pick up facial expressions. For example, I can’t always tell when someone’s bored.”

Dr. Harris says that throughout her career one of the things she struggled with the most was simply being herself. 

“Whenever I would start a new job, I would watch specific people or leaders in the workplace and see how others were receptive to them. I would emulate that behavior and sometimes it was uncomfortable because I knew I wasn’t being myself. This is called social masking.”

Dr. Harris says that since she was diagnosed, she has been able to recognize certain behaviors and is becoming more self-aware. With her current employer now aware of her autism, she no longer feels like she has to hide any part of herself, and can continue to embrace who she is.  

“It’s not a disability for me. It’s an ability that has shown me the potential of what I can do.”

And the proof of Dr. Harris’s expertise is evident in her accomplishments. With over 30 years of experience in training and talent management in multiple fields, she earned her MBA in human resource management. She then earned her doctorate degree in educational leadership and management, established her own businesses and now works for Gleaners as its Director of Talent Development.

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For World Autism Awareness Day, Dr. Harris wants others to hear her story and take the time to ask questions and really get to know people with autism. In the midst of opening up about her diagnosis, Dr. Harris has witnessed the misconceptions people have about the disability.

“People say to me, ‘You do not look autistic, you look normal.’ What is normal?”

Dr. Harris is working to educate the community on the common misconceptions about people diagnosed with autism, and implores people to give those with the disability a fighting chance.

“When you meet someone who is autistic, even when they don’t look like what you may picture, don’t be afraid to ask to learn more.  It doesn’t mean you have to see me different. Have patience and in time you will see that autism is a form of diversity.”