One of my many pet peeves is being a victim. I stay away from telling my life story as it sounds like it’s made up to be laced with these many horrific moments and hardships at every corner. I try not to delve into that part, nor on being a woman, an immigrant, neuro-divergent or the mother of a trans, autistic kid. But this week, this month, when there is finally enough momentum that D&I initiates everywhere are taking notice of Autism Awareness Month, talking about some of these may be useful so I’m doing my part.
I’m neuro-divergent. My kid is on the spectrum, his dad is on the spectrum, his step-dad (is likely) on the spectrum, as are my step-kids and in retrospect a large proportion of our respective families. Furthermore, I work with technologists and teams - neuro-typical people are the exception, not the norm and I appreciate that being the case, I love seeing neurodivergent candidates applying!
So Autism and I are close, old friends. It’s a unique position, I am very fortunate. I’m surrounded by diverse thought patterns and incommensurable imagination, tremendous memory, unparalleled humour, deep insight, wisdom, intense empathy and minds that work in unusual and unpredictable but beautiful ways. I’m very grateful for that. For all the brains that work differently and see things in new lights, mine included.
When we need innovation, having alternative points of view and the ability to think in ways that do not come easy for some is invaluable, so having autism around to offer that, is a gift and a competitive advantage. There’s no doubt about the value of autistic minds logically and I don’t believe anyone would argue otherwise. Why is it then, that being autistic is so under-reported, under-acknowledged and under-represented in the workplace? And why is it that so many of us still keep it on the down low as if they had been done a favour to be employed for their brand of weird?
My theory is that collectively, as a society, we have only recently become civilised enough to compassionately notice and make way for those of us who need special provision be it for their personality, their gender, their sexual preference or their brains and that’s what escapes the small minds of those who demand to be told: “Why there were no trans kids and much fewer autistic kids in the 70s?!?”
Let’s not forget being on the spectrum can be utterly invisible and whereas the other topics have some tradition of pride around belonging to the community of individuals with shared life experiences, there is no “autistic community” per se, not even a genuine “autistic techies” community. There is nowhere that neuro-divergent people truly belong. There are some smaller splinter groups in the realm of social media when it comes to being a professional with ADHD or sensorial challenges, but by and large, there is nowhere to genuinely belong and in particular nowhere in your immediate peer group, team or even enterprise.
But while you may not feel like you belong you still know you’re useful and your contribution translates to amazing outcomes, any decent workplace that measures results will be able to show you that. And you may find yourself wondering how can your brain be this efficient when the way it thinks and the scaffolding of hacks you have had to put in place to conform to the norm, are so hush-hush and unappreciated. And when your type of “diverse” is utterly invisible despite it being a major contributor to success, it can feel starkly isolating.
How isolating not to be able to congregate with “people who think like me”…
How hard to have the demands of politics when even wholesome and unmalicious interactions completely devoid of risk and deviousness can be challenging…
How tiring to apply cognitive empathy …
How much more fearful of conflict and of authority when every sound is triggering and every reaction is hard to read and when so many inauthentic pleasantries go into the superficial social contact that it will take to fix it…
How defeating to always deplete your emotional and mental reserves when you have to do the human work that comes so easy to others …
It’s hard and it’s hard in a billion different ways but we all learn to develop coping mechanisms and personal techniques that help us get through, I’ve compiled some of them in the “Presumptuous Advice for Surviving Autism in Technology” article my subscribers on Substack can find here but there must be as many hacks as autistic professionals and it is perhaps high time we stand and talk about them and about the journey.
When you’re neuro-divergent you know you are “even more unique than others” -as my grandpa used to call it- very early on, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, GenXer or even an early Millennial formal diagnosis wasn’t common in your day -or indeed it didn’t even exist at all if you lived in communism as I did at the time- so most of us are undiagnosed. Over the last 5-10 years, thanks to the tireless awareness work that some organisations -and even governments- have invested in the general population, the level of adults to have sought a mature diagnosis of autism has risen exponentially as it finally becomes acceptable to be on the spectrum in society at large even if the workplace still holds it as “semi-taboo”.
“High-functioning autism with ADHD. No further remarks” is how they described it in my NHS letter and followed it with 20 pages of various print-outs about “Autism and Neuro-Divergent Conditions” but I wasn’t surprised by this rather stoic flippancy - the therapist that had performed the two tests had incessantly repeated to me that they are not sure what good it will do me, in my then 30s, to “know for sure” and confirm something I seemed to be already clear on and that I had “clearly overcome since you’re in the top percentile of successful individuals”.
Usually, diagnosis reports are much more in-depth, the terminology is far more detailed and a lengthy explanation regarding what functions of the brain are different follows, but mine didn’t contain anything other than the equivalent of “Here’s your diagnosis lady, now get lost, you wasted our time so you can say you were right and it’s not like you even need anything”.
But they were wrong. I did need something.
I needed the certainty that I am not exaggerating or projecting when I recognised behaviours in my teammates or children that I believed I recognised the motivation and mechanism of and had devised clever hacks I could speed them up with too.
I needed to look back to parts of my life where I had perhaps been too hard on myself, or not hard enough, and see them through the prism of a successful neuro-divergent adult, not the lazy or lost neuro-typical young person I may have felt like at the time.
I needed to see clearer, talk about it in public if asked and help if I could.
Perhaps if I had gone to ask about my diagnosis earlier in life my apparent success wouldn’t have been held against me but I haven’t given neuro-divergence any thought at all beyond the general knowledge that “most of us in technology are on the spectrum one way or another” until my child arrived at the end of gruelling IVF tries. A common tale of woe in the UK, it took us an act of God to get it diagnosed as he was so immensely good at masking and it wasn’t until we met a world-class-autism-specialist with a particular thesis that they could test him and definitively place him on the scale that meant he could access more educational support which has transformed him into quite the occasionally-annoying-but-utterly-amazing-know-it-all-academic-fiend he is today.
The times right after his diagnosis saw both his techie father and myself hyper-fixate on learning all there is to know about being on the spectrum in true autistic fashion. Since we were late to the research, we got to see the most modern tenants devoid of “no eye contact/can not do empathy” or the “mum should have been home and breast-fed more” or even the blood-boiling “vaccines made my kid autistic” insanities of the past. Furthermore, it was soon clear that not only was our kiddo perfectly capable of empathy but he was more so than most neuro-typical kids his age and after some more research it became clear’s super-empath and emotions are his jam. I’m conscious this sounds like systematic indoctrination on my part as the coincidence is great but in my defence, the kiddo wasn’t clearly aware of what Psychological Safety in teams is or what PeopleNotTech’s dashboard was until very recently indeed so this is all him.
Being a super empath turns out to be both my USP and his. As is the fact that our brains see patterns where others don’t form un-evident connections, move fluidly between states and ideas and have neural pathways shaped by our divergence. Thankfully.
But I haven’t been audibly grateful and bullish about the role of autism in my life or the workplace in total. One subchapter in my upcoming “Tech-Led Culture” does look at neurodivergence but in a much too detached and impersonal fashion perhaps. When you are autistic and you’re in the public eye working on a different problem and carrying a different message, you often wonder if you should be out about it. Or maybe not “you” but I did.
Will it hurt or help the cause? Will it hurt or help the pocket? Will people not pay attention to the much bigger topic of teams, their dynamics and their well-being for high performance? Will it hurt the product? Our startup? My brand? Who will make fun of it? Who will think less of us? Who will think we’re less capable? Who will sympathise but pity me or us? And there are tens of other variations of these intrusive anxious thoughts if I were to let them start swirling in my simultaneous overactive torrent of daily worries. Still, the trick is to catch them early and return to the core.
In my case, the core is that this is who I am, all in, all burning with passion, all the time. And it’s this passion is for humans doing the human work at work that powers me. Whether they are typical or divergent neurologically - they are human. Whether they are straight or gay -they are human. Whether they are this or that colour, creed, nationality or shape - they are human and it is this humanity that’s the common denominator we need to build workplace well-being around.
This is why I will always advise people to build their D&I strategies around a very simple principle “Celebrate and showcase the differences in storytelling and connection but lean on and insist on the commonalities in data and team actions”.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a plea for more visibility of the autism domain in the D&I field out of an argument for human decency and kindness that would allow us to make these autistic humans of ours happier or more comfortable because that ought to be hygiene.
This is a plea for the enterprise to find a considerate, involved and all-hands-consultative way to understand the extreme value of having autism in the organisation with its sum total of superpowers and the way they translate into business results as an extra level of resource with an intrinsic and appreciable number -or KPI- being achieved by the team due to its existence.
This is also a call for organisations to think of ways to connect the exploration concerning Work From Anywhere Anytime with the exploration of diverse needs be them of typical or divergent individuals and finally arrive at the only formula worth investing in - genuine and true flexibility
A business case for diverse brains if you will. (Although of course, I expect someone can swiftly translate it into much less contentious language on the double.) So that when autistic humans prove 10x more valuable and they need the flexibility more than anyone else, we can prove the benefits of WFAA for everyone else and that way, (in yet another example of culture being Tech-Led as my upcoming book details) the need for agility would have underlined the need for collaboration and psychological safety; just as this need for performance and the resulting search that led to people on the spectrum may underline the need for workplace flexibility.
At PeopleNotTech we make software that measures and improves the wellbeing and Psychological Safety of teams, come see a DEMO. Duena holds Emotional Intelligence and Empathic Modern/Servant Leadership Masterclasses as well. Inquire here: Masterclass
“Nothing other than sustained, habitual, EQed people work at the team level aka “the human work” done BY THE TEAM will improve any organisation’s level of Psychological Safety and therefore drop their levels of HumanDebt™.”
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