Monday 14th February 2022: Autistic at Work! Neurodiverse Workplaces? Sure!

Description: Jorik looking absolutely ecstatic at being in a reasonably clean house for a change, feather duster in front of some books included.

Hi everyone!

So, after a few weeks of education stuff (and a much-needed week off!), this blog will dig into leadership and managing neurodivergent staff while working remote, as well as the idea of a neurodivergent workplace.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

The first questions we as disabled activists often have to answer from line managers and owners of businesses are:

a. “Don’t we have legislation to take care of this?”

b. “Well, we’re not trying to keep autistic people from applying.”

c. “Would you mind not using me as a strawman argument to fill out this rule-of-three quota it seems you’ve got going?”

I’m going to do this in in the following order: c-a-b.

Question c!

c. NO! I will never not use a strawman argument. I like straw men and nothing you can do can stop me. (insert picture of a straw man here). Straw is never just for summer. Please love your straw men, I like straw, I am a donkey.

Question a!

a. Well, yes, we do. We have the Disabilities and Equalities acts 2010. Unfortunately, no law has any power if it isn’t actually used for prosecution. Without previous convictions, it will not have the power to stop bad actors from acting badly.

As far as I know, no autistic person has been able to win in a discrimination case on the basis of autism. Disability legislation is nothing if it isn’t adhered to. Which, let’s be honest, it ain’t. Precedent is key. Without preceding legal decisions in favour of disabled people’s rights, there is no need whatsoever for anyone to adhere to these laws, however good the legislation may be.

Plus, there are many examples throughout history of police and organisations still discriminating by finding loopholes. No law is perfect and it requires sound decision making on every level of society to enforce these basic protections. Obviously, we don’t have that right now. At all. On the whole, minoritised people’s lives are always in the balance, whatever vote we cast, whatever we choose to do. It’s important for all voters to be aware of the power they’ve got in casting their vote. They have the power to put the lives of people less privileged than them at risk.

The 1967 partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales did not bring the liberation that queer people had deserved for decades, instead the aggressive policing of mainly gay male spaces was intensified, under the cloak of various far-right excuses. The Hiv/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s only made things worse. We are not safe as queer people even now. As disabled queer people, me and my friends are in danger still, on different levels, as our mental and physical health issues are taken even less seriously because of who we are.

So, no Toby, the laws that are in place to protect us are not sufficient. They aren’t even being used. Let’s actually bring a case to enforce our legal rights to equitable treatment.

By the way, I’d be very happy to collaborate with anyone interested in bringing that case to the higher courts, so they can comprehensively enforce that precedent. It’ll be a long road, but I’m excited to be along for the ride.

Question b!

Yes you are. In 2002, I asked my teacher at my pretty much all-white school in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, why that was. He had a professional interest in stating the school’s wider policy on inclusion (which probably wasn’t called that then, it was 20 years ago), so he stated: “No-one’s forbidding these students from applying.”

That may be true – but if your school doesn’t represent the wider ethnic make-up of society, you are making a choice. If you don’t feel safe as a person of colour in a space that’s all white, you are less likely to want to be the first person who isn’t. Your experience growing up in a racially segregated society has taught you that it isn’t.

When it comes to autistic people, though, the situation is often quite different. As I’ve discussed before, we often find our tribe later in life. We are segregated by a system that’s unaware it’s segregating between different neurotypes – its enforcers are usually unaware of there being such a distinction in the first place – nor are they aware they’re enforcers.

If you’ve trained as an HR professional over the past few decades, you have seen a movement that’s gone two ways: both towards a greater ‘professionalism’ and towards a validation of psychological techniques to get ‘the perfect candidate,’ whoever that may be. This causes a snowball effect, towards a greater sense of power in the hands of employers and a greater thirst for psychological theories that validate the views human resources professionals already hold.

That’s not to say there have been no success stories. Indeed, the greater emphasis on representative hiring has made a huge impact in the world – thank diversity and inclusion for that. The detachment of human resources away from the managers tasked with the day-to-day running of a company has on the whole been a really good thing. Ask anyone who’s worked at a smallish company where HR is just one of the many tick boxes the CEO or COO has to deal with. By definition, HR is a messy business that involves feelings, people’s personalities and creating a sense of togetherness.

However, the problem begins with who is doing those jobs and the power they already hold in a certain business or what intersecting identity they hold in society. If your HR manager is 6’2″ cishet white guy called Toby with an Eton education, he might allow his views of which people should hold power – and who shouldn’t – influence his decisions. He might, though evidence of the past few hundred years does show otherwise.

Just to be clear, this is no shade on 6’2″ cishet white guys called Toby with Eton educations, as they’ll all complain to me in my Grindr messages. It’s just indicative of trends that are evident in UK society and have been for centuries.

Neurotypical Bias!

“Ugh! Unconscious bias? Not again!” I’ve heard it before, I’ll hear it again. Yes, the efficacy of unconscious bias training is questionable, though not necessarily because of the trainings itself. As many examples have shown (see, for instance, the recent diptych This American Life episodes on racist policing), political leanings and previous convictions are a far better indicator of subsequent racist actions in police officers. If you live in a country where half the political spectrum pretends racism is over and the other half elects overt racists to lead them, it’s pretty difficult to feel bad when you break equality legislation yourself.

Political leanings aren’t illegal, of course, but if you benefit from inequality and are married to it, you will feel you should be able to do what you want to who you want to, since those views are espoused by the most powerful people in your country.

How does autism fit into this? Well, we live in a culture where being neurodivergent is looked down upon and we are assumed to be shifty, unpleasant and a bit creepy. Our sexualities are seen as frightening and disgusting and our very way of existing shifts between a joke character on a popular sitcom and a virus that needs stamping out. When we want to work, we face barriers not faced by our neurotypical peers.

So?

If you want to run a neurodiverse organisation (that is, both neurodivergent and neurotypical), it’s important to know why you want to have that. What’s the upshot? If you’re a neurotypical manager who only hires other neurotypicals and you’re doing well out of it, why put your stability and your bottom line at risk? There’s no need to rock the boat.

The law, that’s one. Though, as discussed above, there are no real punishments for continuing to discriminate, at least, not in the UK in 2022.

Being a good person, that’s another. Here, though, we alight on another problem: white saviour syndrome. Being a white saviour means that you do things that society (at least outwardly) believes to be correct, but only for your own benefit. It’s the one time that the term ‘value-signalling’ has any validity. These people have no purpose for their disabled employees other than to make themselves look good and, as a consequence, these disabled members of staff are not supported and don’t usually last long.

Another reason is to utilise our fabled “autistic superpowers.” We are purported to be master coders, hyperfocussing on our interests, making billions in R&D without breaking a sweat. None of that is true. We shouldn’t have to advertise ourselves as superheroes in order to get a job in the capitalist hellhole that is 21st century existence. We all need to eat. But, as a community, we are so desperate that we’re selling ourselves as having superpowers in order to get our most basic needs met. Staff members hired under these pretences don’t tend to last long either, since the reason they are hired precludes them from getting any reasonable adjustments; the “oh, you’re high-functioning,” or “you’re not that autistic, right?”-defence.

I’m not blameless here either. I use the phrase “Communication is my superpower” on this website when advertising myself, mostly because I thought it was funny. I am aware of the damage it causes to others, particularly autistics who aren’t that into communicating with neurotypicals. Neither am I, on my bad days. I do like to make them laugh, though. That’s pretty nice. I’ll keep thinking about it. I look forward to hearing your views on what I should put instead.

The last reason is the best reason I’ve heard for including autistic and neurodivergent members of staff is “Just because.” That sounds weird, I know, but stick with me on this. The managers and businesses who adhere to this philosophy understand: there is no upshot.

That sounds totally counter-intuitive; in a capitalist world where diversity is punished, why invest in something that’s only going to do damage to your bottom line, especially in the short term?

Because there is more than raw earning potential to including autistics and neurodivergent people. If you want to be in a world where you are catering to a neurodiverse client base, then it’s healthy to represent that in your staff. This will lead to higher customer retention rates and greater staff satisfaction, long term.

Conflict?

Sure, there will be conflict internally. There cannot but be conflict when society skews so strongly in the direction of neurotypical economic power and those who aren’t seek to, y’know, not die.

This is tough. When disabled people receive reasonable adjustments, this is usually misconstrued as “reverse discrimination.” That has always been a bigoted get-out clause by those who wish to continue discriminating against human beings they don’t like. Yet, it has seeped into corporate culture on all levels. I’d argue that in practice, this defence, rather than the Disabilities and Equalities Acts 2010 is now the law of the land on disability and equity in the UK.

Inclusion by Force?

I once tried to set up a mentoring programme for neurodivergent and learning disabled students at an English Language school I worked at. I highlighted the possibility of extra earnings, greater customer satisfaction and for there not to be a diagnosis requirement, since many students would be coming from countries where diagnoses are highly stigmatised. It would make the school a valuable destination, since ND and disabled students were already coming to the school, but without diagnosis and adequate support, they often dropped out. I tried to write the proposal in my best managerese. I seem to recall I even put in projected earnings increases.

I comprehensively failed. The school leadership said it my proposal was too cynical, as well as discriminatory against non-disabled students.

Yeah, that happened.

My own manager didn’t agree, it has to be said, but that was the decision from higher-up. Not long after, I started work at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, so I had less time to set up an entire new venture at the school myself. The idea was quietly binned.

Neurotypicals?

This is a secret you should know: privileged people in positions of power want it both ways. They want the adulation of having done something through altruism, at the same time as wanting to receive the cold, hard cash that comes from greater inclusion. On top of that, they also want the credit for coming up with the idea. You might find that a tough conclusion to draw – aren’t company leaders people too? Well, look at it from their perspective. If you’ve been brought up with all kinds of privileges, while also being told that you have to make your own way in life, then such an outcome is inevitable. It’s a strange way of being in the world, autistics aren’t usually very good at it (with the exception of Elon Musk, who – and I’m not afraid to say this on the internet – is a bit of a toolbelt).

Instead, what you should seek as a leader of a neurodiverse workplace is a sense of humility. Not everyone is like you, neither should they be. Additionally, it is about making place for less privileged people to you. Step aside. If there are only so many places at the top, maybe it is time for those in power to not be, for a while. You shouldn’t starve, just not be in control of everything anymore.

To be a leader of a neurodiverse workplace is to be aware of that and lead accordingly, with kindness. Should it still not work, I am happy to provide conflict resolution solutions – please contact me using the email address plastered absolutely everywhere.

Sorry – what?

As someone who’s kinda super against capitalism, that may come as a shock for me to say that. But until the revolution comes, we can at least be hyper focused on increasing union power in the workplace, be inclusive in hiring and promotion and pay everyone in excess of the living wage, rather than just the shareholders. Each to their own strengths, to their own capacity, I think the saying was. Can’t remember (strokes big bushy 19th century beard).

What about Remote?

Ok, sorry, that’ll be one for next week. You’ll keep that in your back pocket for the time being.t

*At Autism Pride 2020, the amazing Yo Dunn spoke about the focus that autistic groups have towards changing legislation, rather than changing the implementation of what’s already present but not adhered to. I learned so much from her. Please check out her website: https://www.yodunn.co.uk

ALSO:

I am planning to have a reset myself, in September this year. In 2021, during a fallow work period, I was mainly terrified that no work would actually materialise. I’ve written about that period before. Things ended up alright, though we did have to dip into my savings.

This year, I will be taking rest breaks, though. I will do so over the next two weeks, when the different schools I’m tutoring for are taking their respective half term breaks. I’ll have a quieter period in April, which includes (finally!) that long-awaited trip to introduce my partner to my family and friends back in Holland.

For today, though, that’ll have to be it. My brother told me yesterday that he and his partner are expecting a child! I’m going to be an uncle. That’s going to be a whole thing.

Categories Autistic at Work/Uncategorized

Post Author: jorikmol

Professionally Autistic

2 Replies to “Monday 14th February 2022: Autistic at Work! Neurodiverse Workplaces? Sure!”

  1. Who is this Toby, you speak of? Or is this a name that has been made up, or I’d there significance to this?

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