A couple of weeks ago I did something I have never done before in my life.
I sat down with an autistic person and had a clear and honest conversation about the challenges autistic or neurodiverse people face in the modern work environment. In fact it could well be the first time in my life I have deliberately engaged with a person on the spectrum about anything at all.
Before I start talking about Project Possible - WithYouWithMe's Neurodiverse Underemployment mission - let's back the truck up a little to the day I finally called Open Arms Veteran and Families Counselling Service in the middle of yet another workplace based anxiety attack.
In shear desperation, and crying so hard I was barely able to make myself understood I called the Open Arms 1800 phone number. The only question I remember from the diagnostic conversation with the first responder (who was fantastic by the way) was:
"Are you Autistic?"
"If I am I don't know it."
We'll note here that military recruiting process are designed specifically to identify and exclude autistic people from the recruiting process. I later asked my counsellor about this and she told me that she only ever knew of one case of an autistic person getting through the recruiting net. She would know. I case you're interested my diagnosis has not included autism, although I do have cousins with diagnosed autistic children.
When I was tasked with writing articles on Project Possible I quickly learned just exactly how little I know about autism, ADHD or any of the myriad range of neurodiverse classifications. I keep asking myself "How can I encourage people to engage with this project when I know nothing at all about the subject?"
WithYouWithMe's Project Possible Lead - Ben Moylan - is on the spectrum and we had a great conversation where I learned more about Autism than I ever have in my life.
I think the most important thing I learned was about the difficulties Autistic people face in reading facial expressions and body language. If you can't read facial expressions and body language you are cut out of about 80% of the roadsigns to human communication. For me that meant I had to clearly verbalise everything I wanted to communicate to find out what I needed to know rather than expect Ben to fill the gaps by reading my facial expressions. Ben tells me I didn't do too badly.
I also learned that autistic people generally prefer written transcripts for lesson content as they find the information easier to process.
We've been doing lesson transcripts for quite some time at WYWM but we are now stepping up our efforts. Transcripts can be made available on request and we are rolling out a new capability which enables captions more easily. Students with hearing and vision challenges will also benefit.
We also talked about how we could improve our user interface to make it more accessible for neurodiverse people. We're always going to be working on that.
I'm no expert but it seems to me that autistic people and veterans with PTSD face many similar anxiety related challenges in life - especially around dealing with people in large crowds, and noisy environments like workplaces and shopping centres.
The biggest takeaway from my conversation with Ben was so blindingly simple that I actually did smack myself on the forehead and call myself a prize idiot.
If I want to know what a neurodiverse person can contribute to my workplace:
If I want to know how I can make my workplace accessible and comfortable for the neurodiverse community:
If I want to know what advantages neurodiverse poeple can bring to the success of my team:
If I want to know what kind of workmate I have to be to make a neurodiverse person comfortable working with me:
All I have to do is ask!
All I have to do is try!
All I have to do is fix it so someone can trust that I have their interests at heart as well as my own!
If you would like to ask Ben Moylan about Project Possible and what it is about him and other neurodiverse people that makes him unstoppable, you can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us via www.withyouwithme.