5 Key Lessons from the Autism@Work Summit Melbourne 2019

Photo by  Jehyun Sung  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Once again I attended the Autism@Work Summit in Melbourne, hosted by DXC Technology, NAB and the Autism Co-operative Research Centre.

This has proven to be a fantastic day (this was my second time attending) the last couple of years and it’s hard not to learn something. With speakers from a variety of organisations and insights from many angles on a range of topics there is plenty to learn about and loads of great connections to make as well!

I had previously shared a short video post on the key takeaway I had from the day, but let’s explore that in a little detail along with the other key takeaways.

1 - Bringing your whole self to work

This was the message from the video I mentioned and the story that John Marble shared (if you don’t know John Marble or his business Pivot Neurodiversity, please check it out).

Essentially, it wasn’t until John was encouraged to be himself, his whole self and to accept himself as is. In doing so, job performance, satisfaction and enjoyment and overall well being would then increase.

Having a leader who understood the value of bringing your whole self to work, who had no judgement about John’s ‘differences’, and in fact could see more clearly how those differences were a positive attribute to John’s work, was a critical factor in this situation.

Being able to accept yourself and others for who they are and providing the space for them to be themselves and not waste mental and emotional energy on ‘pretending’ is an absolute positive.

Imagine how much more productive and creative people will be if their energies are directed to delivering outcomes and not hiding. Imagine how much happier and engaged people will be when they don’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed or afraid to let their personal lives spill into their work lives. And let’s face it, life is life and this whole work / home life distinction is a false construct.

New parents, single parents, parents generally - the pressures of home and family and the stresses and anxieties you can often feel. ‘Am I spending enough time with my kids?’, ‘How am I going to get my son to footy practice and daughter to gymnastics this Thursday with the client proposal due Friday?’. Being able to be open and transparent about the whole of us is not about neurodiverse people, but encompasses all the little and big differences that make us all different.

And yet, in so many ways, the same.

Do your interviews encourage people to bring their wholeselves? Get 11 tips on how you could have more inclusive interviews.

2 - Neurodiversity Programs aren’t just for big corporates

An interesting question was raised during the employer panel discussion. It was along the lines of ‘how can smaller organisations, who don’t have the resources of SAP, IBM, ANZ Bank etc, replicate what these larger businesses are doing when it comes to hiring neurodiverse staff?’.

A brilliant question - and no, I didn’t ask it, but was so glad it was put out there!

The consensus view was that the approaches being taken by the larger organisations can absolutely be duplicated by much smaller organisations. The example being that in most instances, the hiring programs focus on recruiting into quite small existing teams or groups. Often well under 50 people in total.

So, by extension, if you’re a business of less than 100 people, then the approach could definitely be scaled down.

I do agree with the reasoning and found the point of thinking about it from the perspective of the team doing the hiring, rather than the whole organisation was an interesting counter point.

One element that wasn’t necessarily addressed as part of this was the overarching organisational resources, and let’s be specific - money, that is available to these smaller groups. The way some of these programs are setup requires an amount of additional overhead and funding that many smaller organisations might find hard to justify.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s the end of the world or a complete show stopper. It’s a matter of setting up an approach and working with partners that can operate at your level of scale effectively, to provide you with the support, guidance and help you may need along the way. Definitely a horses for courses type of thing.

I’ve previously shared some thoughts on different approaches to tackling neurodiverse recruitment, allowing for various sized organisations. And none of this had me thinking I was wrong.

3 - Challenges with neurodiverse recruitment often have nothing to do with the work

An area that many people tend to worry about is the ability of neurodiverse hires to settle into the team, to deliver work and to manage their environment.

These are all valid concerns and not something I would suggest to overlook or discount at all. Understanding how these factors may impact any individual and having those open conversations with them about making adjustments to help is definitely important.

However, what did come through was that the areas that many of the large organisations have been caught a little unawares with have been things that are not directly job related at all.

For example, for one business operates in more remote communities where staff had had to relocate away from their homes and live in places where they don’t have immediate access to the support services that would be available in major urban centres. Understanding that there will be times that they may need to help their neurodiverse staff with activities like shopping, personal grooming, cooking and even breaking into their house late at night when they’ve lost their keys!

Where there is access to services that can more readily accommodate these needs, it’s still important to appreciate that if these non work related areas aren’t effectively supported, then work performance can be impacted as a result.

4 - Mental health considerations and supports benefit everyone

In Australia alone, total spend on mental health related issues was $9b in 2017 with approximately 1 in 5 adults experiencing a mental health concern in any given year and nearly half of all adults expected to have a mental health issue in their life.

There have been many studies that have shown the above average co-occurrence rate of mental health conditions, particularly for autistic people.

What was both interesting and encouraging to hear was that this, ‘co-morbidity’ (what a horrible term hey?) is not something to be worried about or afraid of. When you consider the number of other employees that will be impacted by mental health conditions (and remember it may not be them, but rather family member for example) then having good processes, practices and supports in place is not something that is unique to neurodiverse staff.

One area that was identified as something to be understood was the support provided by existing Employee Assistance Programs. In some instances the level of understanding of neurodiverse conditions and the correlation, yet separation of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression was not sufficient to adequately support neurodiverse staff.

On a slight tangent, this was also cited as an area of frustration amongst a number of neurodiverse people when it comes to the medical and insurance areas generally. Being bounced between different practitioners who didn’t quite have a complete understanding of neurodiverse and mental health conditions. Having access to multidisciplinary support may be the solution.

5 - We’re too often preaching to the converted

I don’t mean this to be a criticism of these events at all. They are great events and provide a real opportunity to collaborate, share information and to network. However, one group that is consistently underrepresented are the ‘newbies’.

There is so often a lot of passion, head nodding and violent agreement amongst the audience, but what I’d love to see much more of is the faces of the quietly considering and learning ‘noobs’. To see light bulbs go off. To hear the really probing and ‘black hat’ questions that tell you people are keen to understand and learn more.

Extending the message and lessons from events like these is really all out responsibility. Being ready to share our knowledge, what we know, what we don’t know and working with a wider range of people and organisations to learn more.

Helping more people realise that so many of the adjustments and changes, the strategies and programs are really just about supporting people, and not necessarily specifically about hiring and supporting neurodiverse people.

To demonstrate that neurodiverse inclusion, is just inclusion.

Someone shared an analogy with me that is both a little disturbing, but currently also quite accurate.

“Neurodiverse staff in the workplace are the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine”.

If there is an environmental issue, a cultural problem, flawed processes or a leadership issue, it will often be the neurodiverse person that will be impacted first.

This could go a few different ways. They might be the first to speak up and point out the problem (quite likely followed by a firm opinion on how to fix it), or going back to point 4 above will be impacted adversely by it, or it may manifest through a drop in performance or worse still, attrition.

You most likely already have neurodiverse staff, you may not realise it, they may not realise it. There could be a range of small things you could be doing to create an environment that is more supportive of them, that allows them to be more productive and effective.

Are you curious enough? Will you join the next session on neurodiverse recruitment and inclusion near you?

chris turnerComment