Neu­ro­di­ver­sity revo­lu­tion

How autis­tic peo­ple could trans­form Bri­tain’s work­places

The Guardian - G2 - - Front page -

Five min­utes from Lon­don’s Liver­pool street sta­tion is an of­fice that looks like any other of­fice in the tech in­dus­try: the decor is 21st cen­tury, pris­tine; take­away cof­fee cups are om­nipresent; most peo­ple un­der 30 are in ca­su­al­wear. Just about every­one seems to be ei­ther star­ing at a smart­phone, tap­ping at a lap­top, or sprint­ing to their next ap­point­ment.

The com­pany I’ve come to visit is called Au­ti­con, an award-win­ning IT busi­ness. As well as the staff in the of­fice, it em­ploys 15 IT con­sul­tants who spend most of their time work­ing else­where for com­pa­nies such as phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Glax­o­smithk­line, the credit rat­ing agency Ex­pe­rian, and Al­lianz In­sur­ance. But there is a fas­ci­nat­ing twist: all of the 15 are autis­tic, and have been given their jobs af­ter long spells of un­em­ploy­ment – not out of char­ity or sym­pa­thy, but a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the at­tributes they bring to their work.

Au­ti­con was founded in Ger­many six years ago by Dirk Müller-re­mus, a for­mer soft­ware de­vel­oper who had a son di­ag­nosed with Asperger syn­drome. He was ap­palled by the of­ten dis­mal op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able to autis­tic peo­ple, but also well aware that some peo­ple with the con­di­tion have an ar­ray of traits – the ca­pac­ity to con­cen­trate on a sin­gle task for long pe­ri­ods, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of sys­tems and pat­terns, an amaz­ing fa­cil­ity with IT – that sets them apart from the so-called “neu­rotyp­i­cal” ma­jor­ity. In 2016, Au­ti­con opened of­fices in Lon­don and Paris; in the UK, it now has plans to em­ploy 100 con­sul­tants, and ex­pand be­yond Lon­don.

Ray Coyle, CEO of Au­ti­con’s Bri­tish off­shoot, is a for­mer lawyer and IT spe­cial­ist who has long ap­pre­ci­ated the ben­e­fits of em­ploy­ing autis­tic peo­ple. “Some of the most loyal, ca­pa­ble and ded­i­cated em­ploy­ees I’ve had have been on the autism spec­trum,” he says. As well as in­nu­mer­able men­tions of “neu­rotyp­i­cal” – non-autis­tic – peo­ple, he reg­u­larly uses the term “neu­ro­di­ver­sity”, which em­bod­ies the recog­ni­tion that hu­man brains are wired in no end of dif­fer­ent ways. This week the nat­u­ral­ist Chris Pack­ham, who was di­ag­nosed with Asperger’s in his 40s, ar­gued that this “breadth of dif­fer­ence [is] ex­tremely ad­van­ta­geous to our species”, adding that even though his con­di­tion had made work­ing as a TV pre­sen­ter dif­fi­cult, it had al­lowed him to de­velop an en­cy­clopaedic knowledge of the an­i­mal world.

Coyle and I talk about the stereo­typ­i­cal mod­ern work­ing en­vi­ron­ment, its mess of am­bi­gu­ity and fuzzy logic, and how autis­tic peo­ple of­ten find it im­pos­si­ble to nav­i­gate. And he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally makes the case for com­pa­nies – par­tic­u­larly those in IT – em­ploy­ing autis­tic peo­ple as a mat­ter of pol­icy.

“We’ve got to be re­ally care­ful with the lan­guage we use: we don’t want to give peo­ple the im­pres­sion that all autis­tic peo­ple are IT ge­niuses, or that there are not neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple who can do all of these things,” he says. “But in the right role, and with the right sup­port, an autis­tic per­son will sig­nif­i­cantly out­per­form a neu­rotyp­i­cal per­son do­ing the same job. We have lots of ev­i­dence to back that up.”

As for neu­ro­di­ver­sity, “If you’ve got a team of peo­ple on a project, and they’re all neu­rotyp­i­cal, and your project en­coun­ters a prob­lem, the chances are that those 20 peo­ple will all come up with the same kind of an­swer. Bring in some­one with a to­tally dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive process and a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, and they’ll come up with some­thing dif­fer­ent. And that’s in­valu­able.”

For all that the peo­ple at Au­ti­con talk with in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm about how some autis­tic peo­ple can bring their em­ploy­ers un­dreamed-of ben­e­fits, the sta­tis­tics about autism and work make for grim read­ing. Cur­rent es­ti­mates sug­gest that in the UK, just over 1 in 100 peo­ple are on the autis­tic spec­trum, which trans­lates into a to­tal fig­ure of more than 700,000; in the US, the to­tal num­ber is put at 3.5 mil­lion. The in­creas­ing un­der­stand­ing of autism’s com­plex­i­ties means those fig­ures may even­tu­ally go up. But ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Na­tional Autis­tic So­ci­ety (NAS), only 16% of autis­tic adults in the UK are in full-time work, a fig­ure that has re­mained static since 2007.

Four in 10 autis­tic peo­ple say they have never worked at all. Around half of those who had found at least some paid em­ploy­ment re­ported work­place bul­ly­ing or ha­rass­ment; over a third said the sup­port or ad­just­ments made by their cur­rent or most re­cent em­ployer were “poor” or “very poor”.

But things may be chang­ing, al­beit slowly. Thanks to ev­ery­thing from Steve Sil­ber­man’s best­selling book Neu­rotribes to the BBC1 se­ries The A Word, autism now has a cul­tural pro­file that would have been un­heard of 20 years ago. Pro­grammes such as BBC2’S Em­ploy­able Me have ex­plic­itly dealt with the tan­gle of is­sues around autism and work. Mean­while, 30 or so years af­ter the con­cept was first grasped by psy­chol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists, the fact that autism is a spec­trum con­di­tion – in other words, it man­i­fests it­self

in count­less ways, and is ex­pe­ri­enced by mil­lions of peo­ple – is start­ing to make its way into the pub­lic con­scious­ness.

Though there is still an as­sump­tion that autism is an es­sen­tially male con­di­tion, aware­ness of how it of­ten has gen­der-re­lated man­i­fes­ta­tions is also in­creas­ing: crudely put, many women and girls seem bet­ter at cop­ing, but that does not mean their ex­pe­ri­ence of the con­di­tion is any less real. And the idea that autism can some­times en­tail strengths and tal­ents as much as dif­fi­cul­ties is slowly gain­ing ground.

There are still lim­its to all this: sto­ries of break­throughs and im­prove­ments tend to be con­cen­trated on so-called “high-func­tion­ing” autis­tic peo­ple rather than those with deeper is­sues with com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and sen­sory pro­cess­ing – let alone so-called “non-ver­bal” peo­ple. But still, with the usual caveat that autism aware­ness still needs to de­velop into gen­uine un­der­stand­ing, com­pared with the world of 10 years ago, the sense of progress is ob­vi­ous.

James Neely is 33. With the help of one of Au­ti­con’s job coaches, he has been work­ing as one of the com­pany’s IT con­sul­tants since April. He has a de­gree in physics and as­tro­physics from Leeds Univer­sity, and a ca­reer his­tory that speaks vol­umes about the of­ten awk­ward fit be­tween autism and work. He re­ceived a for­mal autism di­ag­no­sis ear­lier this year: like many autis­tic peo­ple, he has a range of sen­sory is­sues to do with noise and light, and works best in a quiet, of­ten soli­tary en­vi­ron­ment. He tends to work wear­ing head­phones, to as­sist con­cen­tra­tion. “I lis­ten to rock, indie sort of stuff: Muse, Garbage, Ash, Oa­sis, AC/DC,” he says. “Stuff that can be a bit loud, to drown things out. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to be lis­ten­ing to it all day, but the al­ter­na­tive is that I go mad.”

For eight years, he worked as a data an­a­lyst, but found his abil­ity to func­tion se­verely com­pro­mised. “The of­fice where I first started had quite a lot of space,” he says, “but they kept mov­ing us, and we were get­ting more and more crammed in.”

The re­sult­ing stress even­tu­ally led to de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, and meet­ings with an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist who sus­pected he was autis­tic. “He said, ‘How do you feel about that?’ I said, ‘Ac­tu­ally, it would be al­most re­as­sur­ing, cos it ex­plains a lot of stuff.’”

He now looks back on his past ex­pe­ri­ence and recog­nises en­dur­ing themes. Ev­ery an­nual feed­back meet­ing in­cluded “peo­ple say­ing, ‘I wish James would pick up the phone more.’ I liked hav­ing things in an email be­cause I like specifics. Talk­ing on the phone, you might not be sure what’s re­quired of you, but if it’s writ­ten down, you’ve got a record, and you can see things cor­rectly.”

What about the so­cial rit­u­als around work: drinks on a Fri­day, Christ­mas par­ties? He laughs, drily. “I used to avoid those as much as pos­si­ble. You get a bit of an anti-so­cial la­bel with stuff like that, but I couldn’t re­ally cope with it.”

His first em­ployer in­sisted he re­turn full-time to the same en­vi­ron­ment but he found it too hard to cope and was let go. He then en­dured the lim­ited help of­fered by his local job­cen­tre, be­fore even­tu­ally find­ing out about Au­ti­con.

Along­side two other Au­ti­con con­sul­tants, he is now a con­trac­tor for Glax­o­smithk­line. He says he can’t go into too much de­tail, but de­scribes his work as “look­ing at lots of code, try­ing to map up dif­fer­ent vari­ables, putting stuff into vi­su­al­i­sa­tion soft­ware.”

Au­ti­con – whose in­vestors in­clude Richard Bran­son – is at the lead­ing edge of em­ploy­ing autis­tic peo­ple, but there are also big Bri­tish com­pa­nies that are start­ing to de­velop

‘In the right role, an autis­tic per­son will sig­nif­i­cantly out­per­form a neu­rotyp­i­cal per­son’

their own pro­grammes. With help from the NAS, firms that have in­tro­duced work-ex­pe­ri­ence schemes and in­tern­ships for autis­tic peo­ple in­clude BT and the soft­ware gi­ant SAS.

The govern­ment in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity cen­tre GCHQ has a neu­ro­di­ver­sity pro­gramme which re­cruits peo­ple with con­di­tions such as autism, dys­lexia and dys­praxia, and is built on the idea that – to quote its for­mer di­rec­tor, Robert Han­ni­gan – “we need all tal­ents, and we need peo­ple who dare to think dif­fer­ently and be dif­fer­ent.” There is also an elite unit in the Is­raeli army called Unit 9900 – where, ac­cord­ing to US magazine The At­lantic, autis­tic peo­ple “act as eyes on the ground for highly sen­si­tive op­er­a­tions, an­a­lyz­ing com­plex im­ages de­liv­ered in real time from mil­i­tary satel­lites around the world”.

In the rather more worka­day sur­round­ings of a Proc­ter & Gam­ble re­search cen­tre in Read­ing, Olivia is in the mid­dle of a paid in­tern­ship. As well as in­sist­ing I don’t use her sur­name, she re­quests an email in­ter­view rather than a con­ver­sa­tion on the phone, but her elo­quent an­swers high­light both the strengths autis­tic peo­ple can bring to their work – “I’m able to prob­lem-solve in ways that are dif­fer­ent to other peo­ple by tak­ing al­ter­na­tive routes to get to an an­swer, and I have a very sys­tem­atic way of work­ing,” she says – and the high walls that still stand in their way.

She was di­ag­nosed with autism when she was 18. Then came the chal­lenge of try­ing to find work. “Of­ten, there are on­line as­sess­ments to be com­pleted be­fore be­ing of­fered an in­ter­view. I find these on­line tests con­fus­ing as the ques­tions are not al­ways clearly worded and they have mul­ti­ple mean­ings, so I don’t know what I’m be­ing asked.

“While in work, I of­ten strug­gle with the big so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions,” she goes on. “For me, so­cial­is­ing ... can be very drain­ing, even if I’m en­joy­ing it.”

Cath Leggett is a 45-year-old sin­gle mum who lives in Cardiff. She has a de­gree in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, and ended up work­ing in flood pro­tec­tion, “ma­nip­u­lat­ing 3D math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els to pre­dict flood­ing”. Her work tended to in­volve a small team: “Five or six guys, some of who were prob­a­bly un­di­ag­nosed autis­tic peo­ple. Every­one had all the same in­ter­ests as me – Doc­tor Who, tech, gad­gets. I fit­ted in re­ally well.” But a change of job meant she sud­denly had to ad­just to life in a huge, open-plan of­fice.

‘Di­ag­no­sis in chil­dren is get­ting much bet­ter but peo­ple don’t van­ish when they leave school’

She started to ex­pe­ri­ence big prob­lems, with “hor­ri­ble over­head lights, smells like per­fumes and de­odor­ants” – and the end­less com­plex­i­ties of of­fice eti­quette. Af­ter her daugh­ter re­ceived an autism di­ag­no­sis, she be­gan to re­alise that she too was on the spec­trum – but, like many autis­tic women, had got used to what she calls “mask­ing and mim­ick­ing”.

“I make eye con­tact, I smile, I can do small talk,” she says. “I know what’s ex­pected. But at Christ­mas, for ex­am­ple, things would come to a head: I would be asked to get in­volved in se­cret San­tas, and dec­o­rat­ing the place. I was re­fus­ing flat-out, say­ing, ‘This is ridicu­lous – I’ve got work to do.’ I was of­fend­ing peo­ple.” She was for­mally di­ag­nosed two and a half years ago, and now works for the NAS as an em­ploy­ment con­sul­tant.

“Typ­i­cally, we’re called in when a lot of com­plaints have been put in by the em­ployee, and there have been se­vere im­pacts on their men­tal health. They might be be­ing treated for anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion, and be un­able to work.”

She has now started host­ing cour­ses for women on the autis­tic spec­trum, as well as mak­ing the case for em­ploy­ing autis­tic peo­ple to em­ploy­ers – some­thing she talks about with op­ti­mism. “I do a lot of conference speak­ing,” she says. “And I now get em­ploy­ers ask­ing me, where do we find autis­tic peo­ple?” She says the an­swer of­ten goes back to the cul­ture around re­cruit­ment, and the im­por­tance of be­ing clear and spe­cific about what a job en­tails, as well as the un­der­stand­ing that the crude cri­te­ria of­ten used to de­cide who gets which job will mean that some of the best peo­ple are cast aside.

In­evitably, for all Leggett’s pos­i­tiv­ity, our con­ver­sa­tion ends with a lin­ger­ing sense that there is a moun­tain of work still to be done. The pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of autism still seems to miss out the fact that it de­fines the lives of adults as well as chil­dren. The con­se­quences are not just a great deal of per­sonal tor­ment, but an ocean of po­ten­tial that re­mains un­tapped.

Back at Au­ti­con, Ray Coyle well knows how far there is to go. At the mo­ment, he tells me, only one of Au­ti­con’s 15 Bri­tish IT con­sul­tants is a woman. “That’s a big area of fo­cus and con­cern for us,” he says. “I think we can do bet­ter than that.

“The other thing is this. Quite a num­ber of the con­sul­tants we have were di­ag­nosed as adults. Di­ag­no­sis in chil­dren is get­ting much bet­ter, but th the prob­lem is, peo­ple don’t va­nis ish when they leave school. A An aw­ful lot more needs t to be done around the w work­place. If you’re t talk­ing about over 1% of the pop­u­la­tion,t that’s way too manym peo­ple just to ig­nore.”

‘I make eye con­tact, I smile, I can do small talk

– I know what’s ex­pected of me’ …Cath Leggett

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