Zephyr James.

Inspired by an actual individualized education plan (IEP) that coldly reduced a student to a list of deficits, Zephyr James (MNLEND, 2018–19) begins an autism presentation with a tongue-in-cheek clinical explanation of a neurotypical person with shallow interests.

“Any trait can be seen as a deficit if you frame it a certain way,” said James, who will address the current class of Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities fellows in October 2021. “There are different ways of framing and understanding disability, and embracing this can make a difference. It changes how you approach people and the amount of respect you give them. How we talk about disability and how we talk to people with disabilities affects their options and their lives.”

Earlier this year, James was promoted to a new position, community engagement manager, at the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), from previous marketing and communications roles held since 2015.

Ellie Wilson, AuSM’s executive director, calls James “an all-around MVP.”

“Zephyr articulates ideas, frameworks, and stories that are inherently so well-informed of the autistic experience that they resonate meaningfully with our organizational following,” Wilson said.

One current project supports the organization’s new information initiative, AuSM Celebrates Interdependence, a year-long campaign of resources and events dedicated to celebrating neurodiversity in relationships, workplaces, and communities.  

Just one example: Web resources that break down the red, yellow, and green flags in relationships, giving people on the autism spectrum tools to build better ones.

“For my first few years at AuSM I was behind a computer writing my social media posts and designing flyers. LEND said, ‘No, you have to go out and talk to people,’” said James, who was diagnosed with autism after learning more about it through work. “It’s given me a more diverse and deeper group of people to draw on for perspective and connections, and it forced me to accept that I can actually be a leader. I’m going to speak up and challenge people, and that has absolutely become part of my professional life, to push for more perspectives.”