Neurodiversity: different not lesser than | Featuring Chris Varney

Q&A
Chris Varney standing in laneway. Text: Neurodiversity explained.

At the heart of the ‘neurodiversity’ movement, which advocates for the rights of neurodivergent people, is that ‘different’ does not equate to lesser than.

DCA CEO Lisa Annese, spoke with Chris Varney, founder and CEO of the I CAN Network – an organisation that empowers people on the Autism spectrum – to better understand neurodiversity and get his unique perspectives as a leader with autism successfully employing 38 employees with autism.

“Neurodiversity describes that all of us have different brains,” explains Chris. “It's acknowledging that the diversity in the way that people process things is like gender diversity, cultural diversity, ethnic diversity. You are neurodivergent when you have an actual diagnosed neuro-processing difference.” These can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette's syndrome, and are often co-occurring.

Recent media coverage of high profile employment programs and the fact that neurodiversity was one of the DCA website’s most searched terms last year, demonstrate that there is curiosity about this complex and evolving diversity dimension.

Chris agrees: “I think there's an enormous amount of people that are understanding more about themselves. When they hear stories of people who have a neuro divergence or when they read articles on neurodiversity, it's sparking self-understanding and understanding of a family member.”

Despite this, and the fact that neurodivergent individuals are often attributed as having many positive skills and qualities including problem-solving, hyper-focus, pattern recognition, attention to detail, commitment, honesty and loyalty to their employer, poor employment outcomes continue with 2018 ABS statistics showing declining labour participation rates for people with autism. 

While we do hear the good news stories of large organisations like IBM, Westpac and the Federal Government who are implementing neurodiversity recruitment programs, these are only able to accommodate limited groups of candidates, and there is scope for many other employers to do more to capture their skills and talents.

Regardless of their size or intention, Chris believes the main challenge for any employer in successfully recruiting and progressing neurodivergent staff is having detailed forward planning and integrating the necessary processes that deliberately match neurodivergent employees’ unique talents to opportunities within their organisation.

In consulting with a range of different employers, he recommends three main things they can do to include neurodiverse people in their workplaces.

“First thing is in your recruitment practices, provide the interview questions 48 hours beforehand to give your neurodiverse or autistic applicants processing time. The second thing is to ask your staff what their communication preferences are when you're giving organisation wide messages. And the third thing is to run your staff training systems through organisations or experts who are neurodiverse so that you can identify gaps that might be there.”

After six years leading a team of neurodivergent staff as part of Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism, he, above all, values his team’s honesty and kindness, and credits their innovation and commitment with the organisation’s survival during the challenging economic circumstances of COVID-19.

Says Chris, “You need to give your staffing groups permission to innovate and share your problems with them. And when you do, and when you can create space especially for your diverse people to contribute, I think you'll be surprised with the outcomes you receive.”

Watch the full interview below. Members can also access a range of resources on neurodiversity in the members section below. 

Read transcript

Transcript

Chris Varney (00:11):

Diversity describes that all of us have different brains. It's really just acknowledging that no brain, no two brains are the same. You are Neurodivergent when you have an actual diagnosed neuro processing difference. So I'm autistic, I'm neurodivergent. I think it's something that's being spoken a lot about. I think awareness has increased. I think people are curious. I also think there's an enormous amount of people that are understanding more about themselves when they hear stories of people who have a neurodivergence or when they read articles on neurodiversity, it's sparking self-understanding and understanding of a family member. All of us know someone with, with autism, with ADHD or dyslexia and that is sparking us to seek information. When you look at a lot of the large employer, autism programs they're still a drop in the ocean. And I don't think any of them, if they are listening with mind me saying that, you know, these are typically programs that are taking on maybe six to nine autistic or neurodiverse people and taking them through an assessment internship process, and hopefully at the end, leading to some sort of permanent employment contract. Yeah, that's still a very small amount when we're talking about the sheer size of the autistic population now.

Chris Varney (01:59):

Number one talent is focus. When they, when you have customized a job opportunity that matches their focus with a business need, you're on a winner there. They're so focused they're not attached to weekends. You know, if they're, if they're annoyed by the challenge, if they're motivated to fix something, they just, the work ethics extraordinary because the brain is so fused to solving that problem. How do you create a leadership team in your organization that can back people like that? And in a time like this, this is a good story because every business is going through a transformation right now during COVID-19. You need to give your staffing groups permission to innovate and share your problems with them and when you do, and when you can create space for, especially neurodiverse people to contribute, I think you'll be surprised with the outcomes you receive. In my team, I set a challenge in April - how are we going to retain our business? How are we going to meet our communities and families where they're at? And I had two autistic staff come back with two innovations in online mentoring that have become permanent and it happened in an afternoon and they implemented it the next day.

Chris Varney (03:35):

Some of the supports you'll be providing there's no real good textbooks on it. Like the management courses that exist, they're not necessarily equipping you with, especially the people I'm employing. I mean, the skills on how to employ the people I'm employing. For instance, a lot of management training talks about good communication. When you're employing as many autistic or neurodivergent people, as I am, you'll learn very quickly that unless you cater to their communication preferences, your messages are not going to land. I have one staff member who is autistic and dyslexic. He's one of our best facilitators but he's only written me five emails in my four years of employing him, so that's very different.

Chris Varney (04:34):

First thing you can do is invite a speaker to share their story of being neurodiverse and working. That is the, that is the, I personally think the single best way to create space for the conversation. You need to create the conditions, you need to make it safe, to disclose. Is it important to disclose? I think, I think to help every human being experience self-acceptance it is important. I think it's a longterm gain for each individual. I don't think there should be any pressure, but I think it's just part of occupational health and safety to ensure that your staff feel safe to be themselves.

Chris Varney (05:29):

I think what I find hard is my brain. I don't like giving half answers. I like giving full answers and I often take a little moment to process something. And when I'm contributing to projects, I, I like to be across the whole thing. And so often in a project team, I'm taking a while to give my contribution, but when it comes, I've thought through everything and people go, "wow, I got a lot from that". But I, that is unusual, typically people, especially in today's workplace are contributing their little bit and that's it and then they're passing it on to the next person.

Chris Varney (06:36):

I once had when I dis when I mentioned the workplace, but I was in a big organization I was managing a team of six people and I disclosed. I'd already done a TEDx talk that was out in the public space. It was on my, you know, my experience as a kid growing up autistic. And I had one of my staff, we were just in a one on one meeting and this individual just started speaking about my autism as if this individual had a great knowledge of it and just said to me, you know, oh, you know, and I'm, I'm someone with you as a manager and you must struggle with emotions because you're autistic and I was just sitting there going. And that became a bit of a theme, unfortunately, this individual played on that. So I guess there are, you know, you, you take all of them in your stride.

Chris Varney (07:38):

I actually, in my experience have found that autistic managers and autistic staff are more sensitive, have a deeper level of empathy. You know, the risks of disclosing is that you come up against misconceptions. This individual, if I take all the judgment away was really just responding to misconceptions and used it in a way to undermine me. So that's probably not the safest example, but I think if you're listening, that's real, I'm not wanting to be fake. But then the benefits are, oh, yeah, the people I work with are very, they're just stories of transformation. I've walked with my staff for six and a half years now. We've been in trenches together we're in another trench now with COVID-19, but they are just, their loyalty, their connection that, yeah, they, they are the most honest group. When you're an employer, you always wonder how much of my staff time am I actually getting, I have the most transparent staff. It's unbelievable. I almost get emotional talking about it 'cause they just, they never ever, they can't, to me, I can't lie to them. It is. Yeah. It is a beautiful thing. You get people the way they are. When you're out there, normally you get a lot of fake moments. The people I employ and who I work with yeah, they, they never mistreat me.

Chris Varney (09:22):

First thing is in your recruitment practices, provide the interview questions 48 hours beforehand to give your neurodiverse or autistic applicants processing time. The second thing is to ask your staff what their communication preferences are when you're giving organisation wide messages. And the third thing is to run your staff training systems through organisations or experts who are neurodiverse so that you can identify gaps that might be there for people that have a different intuition to the every typical person, especially in the areas of financial literacy and workplace etiquette. First way is to invite a speaker to come in and talk about their experience of ADHD or dyslexia or autism. The second thing is to watch existing TEDx talks or videos where people reflect on their experience being autistic and being employed. And the third thing is to see your organisational leaders reference it. You've got to take it out of the HR bubble. It's gotta be something that the broader leadership team will also talk about. And that gives people permission to talk about the strengths of whatever neurodivergence is being profiled.

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