Home' HR Monthly : June 2019 Contents June 2019 HRM magazine 17
hat’s happening around you right
now as you read this sentence?
If you’re at work, you might be
sitting under a fluorescent light. You might
hear the rumblings of the office around you:
colleagues chatting, a coffee machine gurgling,
the low hum of the radio announcing the day’s
weather. Perhaps the walls are branded with a
bright, vibrant company logo.
If you’re a neurotypical employee, and most
of us are, none of that would faze you. But
if you were a person with autism, which is
the case for one in 70 Australians, what I’ve
just described could be defined as your own
personal version of hell.
“My brain is unable to block out irrelevant
stimuli. I can hear everything. I can see
everything. I can hear the bright lights. It’s
very distracting,” says Ashlea McKay who was
diagnosed with autism at 29-years-old.
Pre-diagnosis McKay would expend a lot of
energy trying to appear ‘normal’. When she was
finally diagnosed, she was freed from a lot of
her anxiety. Coming to terms with the news of
her autism, she started thinking about all the
cool things her brain could do. Three years on,
she prefers to think of it as an asset.
“I think in pictures, patterns and pathways.
I’m really good at lateral problem solving,
and upside down and back-to-front problem
solving. I can solve a Sudoku pu zzle in under
two minutes – and those are the really, really
“I spent almost 30 years of my life thinking
I was some kind of monster who shouldn’t be
around other people because I couldn’t connect.
But finding out I am autistic meant I could
understand that I just have a different brain and
McKay is currently freelancing and has been
searching for a permanent role for two and a
“I ’ve had some people who’ve suggested I
just go for entry-level jobs, or that I should hide
my autism because I’d be giving recruiters the
chance to discriminate against me. But if I hide
it, I’m perpetuating this myth that something is
wrong with me.
“My brain works in ways that other people’s
don’t. You want diverse thinking types at work,
that’s how I sell it to recruiters, hiring managers
and employers... but I don’t get a lot of calls.”
McKay stressed she was only able to speak
to her own experiences; she’s not a voice for the
entire autism community. For example, a lot
of people on the autism spectrum find bright,
clashing colours to be very distressing, with
some saying it causes them to throw up. But
McKay finds vibrant colours to be soothing.
The idea that no two autistic experiences
are the same was a caveat expressed by all the
people I spoke with for this article. In fact, two
of them shared the exact same sentiment, “If
you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met
one person with autism.”
This raises an important point. It might be
unintentional, but those in the majority group
often place additional stress and responsibility
on minority groups to break down their
misconceptions for them.
Olivia Green, employment coordinator of
Aspect Capable, the employment support
branch of Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect),
partners with large organisations such as the
Commonwealth Bank and Infosys to support
the hiring and fostering of autistic workers.
Everyone experiences different challenges at
work, says Green, and that goes for employees
with or without autism. But, speaking in
generalities, she says the most common
barriers for autistic employees can be social,
communication or sensory differences.
“A person on the spectrum may socialise
differently to others in the workplace, which
could include limited social interaction, less eye
contact or difficulty understanding unwritten
social rules or expectations.”
A lot of workplace communication is not
explicit. For neurotypical new hires, it’s quite
easy to quickly pick up on the ‘office vibe’.
They might notice that staff tend to wear
casual attire on a Friday or that their direct
manager’s workload is too heavy to answer
smaller administrative queries. But when these
unwritten rules aren’t documented or clearly
communicated, they can be confusing for
employees with autism.
“For some people with autism, they’re more
than happy to do the job that’s required of
them, but they might not really see a point
of being exactly in at 9:00am. They might
misinterpret some of the workplace rules and
seem to be flagrantly ignoring them, when
they’re not meaning to,” says Nicole Rogerson,
CEO of Autism Australia.
Fixing these barriers doesn’t have to be
laborious. Rogerson uses an example that works
well for her son, who has autism and works as
a chef. She told her son’s manager, “Just make
sure you text him after a meeting. If you tell him
something, he might not remember it. But if he
sees a text message, he’ll never forget.”
Sometimes, the thing holding employers back
from making a diverse hire is fear. Managers
might be scared they’ll say the wrong thing »
23/5/19 4:14 pm
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