Looking at the workplace through a neurodiverse lens

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Neurodiversity is a term we’re hearing more and more.  

La Trobe academic Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, who is Founding Director at Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, describes neurodiversity as, “a different way of being – thinking, feeling, acting – to so-called neurotypicals.” Neurodiversity sees Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and other neurological variances as different ways of perceiving the world that should be understood, not as conditions to be cured.

In the workplace, Professor Dissanayake says neurodiverse people “bring different perspectives.” She adds: “This can be very useful in problem solving as they see things differently and may think out of the box, seeing solutions to problems that we may not see. They can also be very singular in their focus, and committed – and make great employees as a result. However, they do need to be supported to thrive.”

An individual perspective

In order to provide that support, it helps to get a first-hand account. Here, Kathy Isaacs – an Autism advocate, Secretary at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN – Australia & New Zealand) and someone who is herself Autistic, describes her unique – not universal – perspective of the workplace as she sees it.

“Workplaces are designed around getting the most cost-effective distribution of people.  This usually means that offices are open plan, with several people in a space, where there’s no noise reduction and frequent movement and interruptions.

“I don’t have any “special” needs at work.  No human needs are “special”, and Autistic needs are human needs. Most people, no matter how typical their neurology is, find our needs relatable to a degree.

Everyone has days when they can’t focus or when ambient noise seems loud and distracting.  For most people, this comes with being on edge or unwell, but I am just wired like that. 

“A lot of the struggles that I do have at work come from something a doctor once labelled ‘low latent inhibition’.  Most people have a reasonable degree of ‘latent inhibition’ – meaning that their brains inhibit or ignore ‘predictable stimuli’. If a tap is dripping, if a light is buzzing or flickering, if there is a strong smell or a tag on your shirt is sticking into your neck a little, these things become background noise after a while.  I – and other Autistics I know – don’t seem to have the right wiring to suppress this input.  The noises, the difficult lighting, someone’s perfume three cubicles away – these are always present as an ‘alert’ to me and others.  They’re like a repeated mini assault on me via my senses. If you imagine going through life with a migraine – but without the actual pain of the headache (most of the time) – it feels like that.”

The most important thing

“The most important thing I could ask for from my co-workers and managers is acceptance.  I know I can’t always have everything accommodated in one place – it might take a week to get maintenance to fix the light.  It is impossible to have a perfectly quiet open-plan office, and I don’t expect it. 

 I need to be given the freedom to work out my own solutions to these issues without it becoming a management issue. 

“If I need to move out from under a light, or wear a brimmed hat inside, that shouldn’t be something to be discussed with stern looks and one of those, ‘I can’t treat you any differently from anyone else,’ conversations.  Wearing earplugs or sound-reducing headphones isn’t being anti-social; it’s caring for my needs.

"I have an auditory processing delay (this is nothing to do with hearing, but affects how quickly I can process spoken conversations).  This means that I deal with text better than speech, particularly phone speech, so if I say, “could you email me with this request”, I’m not being a pain or lazy.  In fact, I’m being proactive and reducing your work later when you have to explain it to me again because I missed aspects of it.”

The perfect workplace

“A perfect workplace would involve having a workload that I could start at the beginning of the day and work through uninterrupted.  However, the type of work I’m doing involves several different projects with many little tasks involved, and breaking the workday to discuss new priorities. 

Giving me a moment to collect my thoughts and move from one task to another is really important, or I’ll miss the first few points of what you’re saying.  Also, a very clear list of priorities and deadlines makes the workload much easier to manage.

Learning and skill aquisition

"Right now, I’m learning a completely new area of work. The level of competence required for independence is still some months or years ahead of me.  In learning a new task, I am very happy to go and find the information I need.  I do a damn good Google search, if I do say so myself.  But that takes a long time. 

I need to know when I can ask for help, and when you need me to work it out myself. 

I don’t necessarily recognise subtle cues, and telling me clearly reduces the likelihood of issues down the track.  Written lists are even better – I can write these, but I need to be allowed to do this; getting it clear.

“Essentially, every need I have in a workplace comes down to one thing: I need to have my environmental and personal needs respected.”

Listen to our podcast, Willing and Able: a new narrative for disability.

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