Woman is 1st openly autistic person to practice law in Florida

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - At 3, Haley Moss was diagnosed with autism and doctors thought she may never be able to work a minimum wage job or live on her own. Last month, she became the first openly autistic person to be admitted to the Florida Bar.

Not only did the Parkland native graduate from the University of Miami School of Law and pass the Florida Bar, but she has also published multiple books, lives independently and works at a top law firm in Miami, though like many of us, she still sometimes forgets to do her laundry.

A few weeks into her legal career, she has already seen how some of her strengths and struggles affect her work.

"I'm very passionate about things I enjoy and I love to write," Moss said. "That's also part of why I went to law school, and I love to be able to help others, so even with writing, I love that I'm able to express myself completely and what I can say has the ability to help someone else."

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh administered the oath to Moss at her Jan. 11 swearing-in ceremony in Miami.

Joseph Zumpano is a co-founder and managing shareholder of Zumpano Patricios, the Coral Gables-based law firm founded in 2003 that offered Moss a job before she passed the bar exam. He said his firm's practice areas, which include anti-terrorism and managed care law, are "intrinsically related" to his decision to hire Moss.

Zumpano's firm's notable victories include a 2004 lawsuit against the Cuban government for the killing of an American pilot flying missions for the CIA and a 2015 suit in which he represented Antonio Caballero, whose father, Carlos Caballero, the Colombian ambassador to the United Nations, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by Colombian guerrillas and drug-trafficking groups.

"When I was introduced to Haley by a former lawyer at our firm, I immediately picked up on the fact that she was obviously brilliant - brilliant and a good person," Zumpano said.

"As a core value, we wanted to be the first firm to bring in an openly autistic lawyer and make the point that if you align people to their strengths then given the chance, they excel," he said. "To our knowledge, Haley is the first lawyer that we know of in a substantial law firm in the state of Florida that is openly autistic. There may be others but we haven't found them."

For Zumpano, the decision also comes from a personal place of understanding and a desire to increase diversity among his firm.

"I have a child who is severely autistic," he said. "He is largely nonverbal, he will speak a few words, but he is an angel, and it's been my honor and my wife's honor to have him in our lives, and we raise him and we love him and we hope for a day when there's a better future for what we would consider neurodiversity in our country."

Moss and Zumpano offered a few points of advice for potential employers of people who may be living with autism or other diagnoses.

"To employers, I would say 'don't put limits,' and 'you're investing in what someone can do, and you need to look at what people can do as opposed to what they might not be able to do,'" Moss said. "A disability generally is not all-encompassing, it is just part of who someone is, not everything they are. Everyone is unique, everyone has strengths and weaknesses and everyone has talent."

To those who may be reluctant to increase neurodiversity among their employees, Zumpano says "get ready, here we come."

"The advantages that I'm going to have, tactically, when I open up my firm to people with neurodiverse conditions, with strengths that may be overlooked, I'm going to get the benefit, this firm is going to get the benefit and the clients are going to get the benefit," he said. "Our firm is at a level where we can actually align people with extraordinary strengths to achieve extraordinary outcomes."

They also encouraged people seeking jobs to never give up and capitalize on their strengths, rather than be limited by their weaknesses or perceived weaknesses.

"My advice for people with disabilities and people with autism that are looking for jobs or anything is don't place limits on yourself and knowing what you're good at helps a lot, too," Moss said.

"If you're an autistic individual or a family with an autistic family member, don't let anybody else's perceptions of your limitations dictate your own," Zumpano said. "Haley has broken through this glass ceiling, and the firm is proud to be the hammer that shatters it, there's hope for everybody."

Moss said "even with parents of young children, I always tell them, 'you're going to be amazed at what your child is able to do. Their journey is just beginning when you get a diagnosis. They're going to be so talented and you're going to be constantly surprised and amazed,' and to really embrace that and embrace what makes them who they are, and what they're good at and what makes them special."

For information about the Unicorn Children's Foundation, visit UnicornChildrensFoundation.org.


Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/