Being Open to Neurodiversity in the Workforce
Five years ago, I had my daughter Julia diagnosed as mildly autistic. She is 9 now, and she's an AMAZING kid who I have the privilege of calling my daughter. I'm sure she will have a fantastic future.
But today I don't want to talk about her. Not here. I have been working in the visual effects industry for a long time. Most of you know me as a quiet girl who quickly gets excited about anything that makes VFX production more efficient.
I didn't know that this particular interest in "efficiency" in my work was called hyperfocus, and I'm sure it allows me to do a good job as a technical director. Hyperfocus is an autistic trait, and it's a good thing. So yes, three years ago I discovered I'm autistic, too, like my daughter. These diagnostics changed my life in a good way.
PS: It was not a coincidence. Autism has a hereditary factor that is very common in these cases of diagnosed children/parents.
Today I want to talk about neurodiversity in the workforce, because for me it's common to see other people with autistic traits, especially in tech companies. Usually they are constantly struggling to fit or mask behaviors that are common to us. And although I like to keep a low profile, I would like to speak about it because everyone should know that autistic adults exist. Most of us are working in tech companies, and we deserve to live a good life without changing how we are to other people to be more comfortable.
I tried to mask my traits for many years, but I always felt like I was trying to catch up to my colleagues and failed every time. Today, I strongly claim my right to have my characteristics.
So I'll be listing MY characteristics that I believe are work-related, so you can know a little bit how an autistic adult in the workforce looks like, and you can understand us better.
1) Usually I won't stay at any party for more than one or two hours. Or if I don't feel comfortable, I won't go. Social interaction is overwhelming in a way that I feel exhausted and confused on the next day. So I avoid it even if it's a party to build the team.
2) My productivity will be very low in a noisy or unpredictable environment. I use hearing protection to keep my focus on what I want. That is my job.
3) If we are going to have a conversation, face to face, I will prefer to sit or stay on your side, especially if it's a difficult conversation. Maintaining eye contact is hard for me. I'll avoid this if I can, mainly because I cannot interpret your body language. It will force you to use more words and fewer "signals" to communicate with me. Then I can understand you better.
4) I have a strict routine that helps me simplify my life and allows me to do all the things I need. Taking care of my daughter, my house, my pet, my job, Those are lots of things, and I easily get lost if I don't have a minimally predictable routine. Eventually I can be spontaneous, but most of the time my life is methodically planned. I want and need that! It can be a little bit boring from a neurotypical point of view, but I like it. At work this can appear in situations such as always having lunch alone, at exactly the same time, the same food, in the same place, with the same fork, reading the same book.
5) I have extreme emotional sensitivity and empathy. So in some of the most challenging situations, I can start crying in the middle of a meeting if someone uses an aggressive tone of voice. In other cases, as self-defense, I can run away from a situation that overwhelms me, and it can be seen as insensitive and apathetic. But it's what I can do at that moment.
6) It is difficult for me to understand between the lines, ironies, figures of languages. My communication is straightforward, literal, and I have a delay in understanding jokes and ironies. This can cause some misunderstandings.
Usually I compare the communication of an autistic person to prose: straight to the point, with absolutely no room for interpretation. The main goal is just to be understood. On the other hand, the communication of a non-autistic person is like a poem. With a lot of room for interpretation, the goal is to be understood too, but with a certain subtlety. Always leaving room for a "No, that's not what I meant."
7) I like having friends, I try to build a relationship with the people I meet at work, but it's not always easy because of these differences in communication and because I'm awful at keeping in touch. But it doesn't mean I'm not interested or don't like it. I'm just terrible at that, sorry. Usually it is easier for me to bond with other neurodivergent people, but I like to make friends of all types.
Finally, I want to talk about the importance of having all types of people in your company. The introspective girl/guy, quiet and shy, who is thinking of better solutions for your company all the time is as important as the extrovert guy who sells your products.
I had the opportunity to bring other autistics to work with me in some situations. When they feel it is a safe place, it's incredible how they can be so productive and do an extraordinary job in a short period of time. =)
Everyone has their value, everyone has their place, with their positive and negative traits.
I can assure you that understanding and learning to work with neurodivergent people is very worthwhile. Creating a safe environment for all types of people will open many doors for good professionals in your company.