Extraordinarily different

Alumna Haley Moss, known as the first openly autistic attorney in Florida, uses her platform to advocate for people with disabilities and to promote awareness of neurodiversity.
Extraordinarily different
Photo: Courtesy Talilly Photography

When Haley Moss was nine years old, her parents told her she was like Harry Potter – different, but a hero, nonetheless. It was their way of explaining to the young Moss that she had autism spectrum disorder while never making her feel like there was something wrong with her. “My mom told me different is neither better nor worse,” Moss said. “It’s just different, and different could be extraordinary.”

And that’s exactly the message that Moss, a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, wants to share. As an educator, speaker, artist, and author, she advocates for individuals with disabilities and promotes awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity – the idea that cognitive differences, like those seen in people with autism spectrum disorder, are normal and should be recognized and respected like any other human variation.

Moss was three years old when she was diagnosed with autism, a condition on which little information was available at the time and with which one in 54 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed. Her parents had expected to learn that she was gifted: though she couldn’t speak, socialize with her peers, or even drink from a cup, she could finish large jigsaw puzzles and read anything that was in front of her. Instead, doctors told them she would be lucky to graduate high school or even make a friend.  

That was far from the case. With the support of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of Miami, Moss began therapies and interventions to help her learn how to speak, how to interact with others, and how to develop some of the other skills that children with autism spectrum disorder may find more challenging than others.

She not only graduated high school, she also went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in criminology and law and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Florida. She then attended the University of Miami, joining the Miami Scholars Public Interest Program, a program for students with exceptional academic and public interest achievements and a passion for public service and advocacy. When she was sworn in as a member of the Florida Bar, Moss became known as the first openly autistic lawyer in the state.

Now, she uses the legal and policy knowledge she acquired at the U to search and advocate for ways to improve the lives of those living with a physical or other disability. “When I first went to law school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to make a difference for others,” she said. “Law school gave me the tools to be more conscious of different issues, and to be able to advocate for myself and for others far better than I could have otherwise.”

She focuses on education, believing that much of the discrimination and exclusion faced by people with disabilities comes from a lack of understanding. “It’s the work that I always wanted to do but didn’t realize there was a place for,” said Moss, whose passion for advocacy began in her teens.

Whether it’s through formal education, like the undergraduate course she teaches on autism, speaking engagements at companies, organizations, and universities, or even just informal conversations, Moss’s message is clear: that we can benefit from being around different kinds of minds, that neurodiversity is normal and natural, and that we can all do better at being more accepting and inclusive of people with disabilities. Her speaking topics include disclosure (how you tell or who you tell about having a disability) and accessibility issues in higher education and in the workplace.

Much of her impact comes from her willingness to share her own experiences as a young woman with autism, navigating a world that is not always designed with people like her in mind. She recalls, for example, masking – a term referring to the more neurotypical persona some people with autism may take on to be more socially accepted – in high school, her own difficulties with certain aspects of life as an independent adult, and even being left out of parties as a kid.

She shares some of those stories in two books which are part memoir and part guide for other autistic people as they navigate middle school and college. In her third and most recent book, Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals, she provides the tools for more inclusion and understanding within the legal and other professions.

“I think a lot of autistic people feel that they're being forced to comply with neurotypical society,” she says. “And in many ways, you do have to develop social skills and know how to interact with people, but it's okay to interact with people on your terms. It’s okay if you don't communicate the exact same way as somebody else does. It doesn’t mean you have a deficit. It just means you have a different set of social and communication skills, and a different way to approach the world.”

Moss serves on several nonprofit boards, including the constituency board for CARD. “It’s important and powerful to have a voice at that table and to help make sure to bring in more voices,” she says. “I don’t see myself nor do I want to be the voice of autism. I want to use my platform but also know when to pass the mic and continue to amplify our community.”

Moss’s next book, The Young Autistic Adults’ Independence Handbook, will be out in November.

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