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Do great minds think alike: Are we too narrowly focused when it comes to neurodiversity programs?

I realised my son was different when he was two years old. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but in almost every interaction and situation, Archer behaved in ways that were unexpected.

After a difficult few years, in 2015 Archer was diagnosed as on the Autism Spectrum. Autism describes a diverse range of neurological differences that, at a high level, can be observed as challenges in social interaction, repetitive behaviours, sensory processing difficulties and restricted interests.  More than 230,000 Australians are currently diagnosed as on the autism spectrum and each person will have unique challenges and abilities.

Unlike neuro-typical people, Archer hears everything.  He is unable to subconsciously filter sounds: Lights humming, pens scribbling, his heart anxiously beating in his chest – he hears it all, all at the same time.  He told me once that the constant noise feels like a weight pressing down on him.  Archer spends his days waiting to be told off for not listening, trying to concentrate on his teacher, remembering to listen out for cars, and trying to engage in conversation without getting distracted and appearing rude. It is mentally and physically exhausting.

He’s only 9, but I’m already thinking about how Archer will transition into the world of work.  What will he want to do, will there be opportunities for him?  How will his auditory fatigue affect him, particularly with the growing trend for open plan offices?

I’ve been following with interest the growing number of autism at work programs on offer in Australia.  Taking their lead from the US where organisations such as SAP offer well-developed programs that create opportunities and environments for people with autism and other neurological differences, Australian businesses are staring to offer similar programs here.

But it’s not all good news.  Most programs in Australia are targeting very specific skill sets for limited roles in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM).  While I agree that there are people on the spectrum that will be talented engineers, cyber-security specialists, developers, risk analysts and statisticians, there are many others that won’t – or that don’t want to be.  A friend told me recently that these programs make him feel like he’s “even failing at having autism” and he’s not alone; many people believe that there is a broad and diverse spectrum of people and abilities being overlooked.

When we target a minority group and apply a generalist view of their skills, desires and capabilities, are we being inclusive or exclusive?

The narrative around the hiring focus and output of these programs is equally troubling.  In a June 2018 Forbes article, the director of an autism at work program proudly declared that the output of employees with autism was significantly higher than their typical colleagues because they were “less distracted by social interactions”. 

To suggest that people with autism are less interested in socialising is not only a damaging stereotype that will hinder efforts to build more inclusive workplaces, it also feels exploitative.  Imagine desperately wanting to make friends at work but feeling worried that colleagues might misunderstand your communication style.  Maybe your new open plan office is completely overwhelming, making you anxious and withdrawn.  Perhaps, like my son, you struggle to filter out ambient noise to actively engage in conversations.  How would you feel if a company hired you because of your communication challenges and anxieties, in the hope they might result in productivity gains?

People with autism have interests as varied and as valuable as any other group in society.  In terms of intelligence quotient, 44% of children diagnosed have average or above average capabilities and 25% are in the borderline range.  Despite this, the ABS reports that the underemployment rate for people with autism spectrum disorders was 32%; more than three times that of people with a disability, and almost six times the rate of people without any disability.

I don’t see the statistics changing while we limit neurodiversity employment programs to only hiring for STEM roles where we struggle to find neuro-typical talent (not because it’s not out there, but because we don’t try hard enough to find and develop it).  Is this wave of interest in autism purely down to the fact that Australia is crying out for tech talent?

I think it’s wonderful that programs such as those offered by IBMWestpac and ANZ are taking a holistic view of neurodiversity and tailoring their recruitment, onboarding and training to enable people with different abilities to shine. While we’re going to all this effort then why not offer opportunities in a wider variety of roles?

I’d like to see more focus on understanding how people with neurological differences relate and respond to the world around them and to recognise this as a natural variation in how humans think, feel and behave, rather than a disorder or disability.  Not only would this bring huge benefits to businesses of all types, we’d then be able to build truly inclusive workplaces and teams that enable people with different abilities to thrive.

You won’t hear me use the term disorder or disability to describe my son. His sister knows that when he doesn’t hug her back, it’s not because he doesn’t love her, it’s that he shows it in different ways.  We look forward to his unique observations about things we don’t even notice, his fearless and competitive streak in sports (he is in teams for soccer, floorball and skiing), and we love his quirky sense of humour.

I’m confident that whoever employs Archer in the future will be thrilled with his creativity, big picture thinking and desire to always do better.  I just hope that it’s in an industry and role of his choosing and not one that has been prescribed based on stereotypical skills and attributes imposed on him by others.

On holiday in New Zealand last year, Archer asked us why he is different.  With the help of a great book, we explained it to him in terms of computer operating systems. He’s the Mojave to our Windows 10; we’re not designed to integrate, but with some extra effort we can and the possibilities are endless.

Kate Beattie is Head of Marketing at Harrier Group.  Thoughts and opinions expressed are her own.

For more information:

https://www.autismawareness.com.au/

https://www.autismspeaks.org

https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/

Books that Kate found helpful:

Aspertools

Neurotribes

Uniquely Human

Odd Girl Out

Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults

The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time

An Employer’s Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum  – I found this book a bit over-simplified and too generalised in places, but it’s a decent starting point and there are few guides like this available.

Resources that Archer found helpful:

The Zones of Regulation – We used this framework at home, and read the book with Archer.  His school in Melbourne were wonderful and trained their teachers on the framework and rolled it out across the whole school.  A truly inclusive school to which we are eternally grateful.

Making sense of Asperger’s – A Story for Children

I’d like to see more focus on understanding how people with neurological differences relate and respond to the world around them and to recognise this as a natural variation in how humans think, feel and behave, rather than a disorder or disability.