Autistic founders, advocates share their vision of a more inclusive workplace

Autistic founders, advocates share their vision of a more inclusive workplace

In recent years, there has been a greater sense of awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, especially as businesses realise the impact it can have in building a more open society and strengthening business performance. This inclusion also includes the acceptance of professionals of different neurotype, including autistic individuals.

Tech giants such as Microsoft run a programme where they hire and train neurodivergent individuals –which includes autistics– in various roles within the company. These individuals are recruited through a special process that is mindful of their unique needs; for example, the programme uses the popular video game series Minecraft as a tool for a team-building exercise during the recruitment process.

But how about us in the Southeast Asian tech startup ecosystem? Have we done enough? What lessons can we learn from our peers in Silicon Valley?

In this special piece for Autism Awareness Month, e27 speak to openly autistic founders and advocates to discover the challenges that they are facing in the workplace –and learn how we can build a more inclusive workplace for all.

Finding a place to belong

First, we must begin by understanding the urgency of the situation.

In Singapore, according to data by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the National University Hospital, one in 150 children in the country is autistic, a higher rate than the World Health Organisation’s global figure of one in 160 children. The data further detailed that there were 4,400 such children in 2014 –a 76 per cent jump from 2010’s number of 2,500.

Also Read: Towards an inclusive society: Singapore-based startups that are building solutions for people with disabilities

Autism is an incurable lifelong condition. These children will eventually grow up to become adults, with all their strengths and weaknesses. As adults, the matter of living an independent life and finding a job is certainly on top of their (and their caregiver’s) priorities.

So what exactly are the challenges that autistic individuals face in the workplace?

Maisie Soesantyo, Founder of Autistic Career Pathways, a US-based organisation that helps businesses and communities build an inclusive workplace for autistic individuals, explains how the challenge begins in the recruitment process. She explains how there are not many companies that would be openly announce that they are willing to hire and facilitate autistic individuals.

This affects the matter of self-advocacy for autistic individuals.

“It doesn’t matter how brilliant your mind is; it doesn’t matter how talented you are. If you’re not empowered to self-advocate for yourself from the beginning, if you’re not invited to do that, at some point, you’re going to fail,” Soesantyo says.

“We have sensory processing differences. It means that our senses are calibrated differently. So for me, I’m very hypersensitive to sound, temperature change, crowds … and unfortunately, there’s really nothing we can do because we live in this world with all these stimuli input coming,” she continues, describing her personal experience as an autistic individual. “On top of that, of course, we are expected to perform in whatever job we were hired for … You fake it ’til you make it, but it’s very difficult. It comes at a cost to our mental health.”

When asked about the challenges that autistic individual faces in the workplace, Gita Sjahrir, Co-Founder of Indonesia-based Ride Jakarta, puts emphasis on the uniqueness of each autistic individual and the specific challenges they might have.

“When we think about the professional world, my biggest issue lies in executive function and also the ability to read people and their subliminal messaging, their body language. I’m actually notoriously bad at it … [but] I see it as a positive because it makes people speak to me in an extremely clear manner,” she explains.

“Like, ‘Let’s set expectations. Let’s do things with numbers. Let’s set these metrics.’ Because this is what I realise is often missing in the professional world with politics and drama. Issues happen because expectations were just not said,” she stresses, adding that she also struggles with keeping eye contact and managing energy levels.

As with any entrepreneur, fundraising is a challenging process for Sjahrir. But as an autistic professional, the challenges seem to intensify.

Also Read: What this digital shift means for people with disabilities in SEA

“What is considered as the image of a ‘successful potential entrepreneur’ can be anything, depending on the flavour of the moment. A lot of times you just don’t meet the criteria according to people’s perception, whoever the decision-maker is,” she stresses. “And we need to just be more open about that. Because this affects not just neurodivergent people, but also women, who have traditionally raised much less than men for virtually the same type of idea, for virtually the same stage in the investment.”

The challenges that she faces as an autistic individual are actually what led Sjahrir to embrace entrepreneurship. After years of trying to fit into neurotypical (non-autistic people) ways of socialising and interacting in the workplace, and seeing how it impacted her self-esteem, she decided to build her own company where she is free to create a culture for individuals like herself.

Gita Sjahrir, Co-Founder, Ride Jakarta

She builds a company culture that takes a more open and relaxed approach to mental healthcare and facilitates her team with mental healthcare app. In her journey, Sjahrir even finds people who actually appreciate her way of communicating.

“Turns out, people did appreciate the fact that I am very upfront with how things are, that my expectations are clear to the nth degree,” she says.

What businesses can do

In a contributed post to e27, serial entrepreneur Jeremy Foo writes about his experience in dealing with dyslexia and how it affects his approach to entrepreneurship.

“I realised from an early age that mixing up my letters and struggling to follow written commands made me almost invincible to failure. I did not avoid it; I expected it,” he states.

This got us wondering if there are certain professions or industries that tend to be more suitable for neurodivergent professionals, including autistics.

For Sjahrir, the opportunities lie in the fact that founding a startup allows autistics to build a company culture that suits the needs of their neurotypes, and others who may live the same experience as them.

“We become so attracted to doing our own thing … because we know that, deep down, as much as we try to be like everyone else, there’s a great chance that you won’t be like everyone else. And that’s not a bad thing, right? That’s actually fine,” she says.

Also Read: Why Khailee Ng puts mental healthcare support as key to successful founders-investors relationship

Soesantyo points out that in major tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, companies are leading the way in embracing the neurodiversity movement. But they still tend to focus on “one type” of autistic talent –those who are working as engineers or developers– when there is a wide variety of skills that an autistic professional may have.

“This is why I created our nonprofit Autism Career Pathways because I want to figure out a different way to spotlight all kinds of artistic abilities and talents,” she says. “Here we have Facebook, Apple, with all these big campuses. They have a cafeteria; they have the community spaces that can be outsourced to autistic people [who have the skills to run an F&B outlet].”

Another step that businesses can take is by doing job recruitments differently. Soesantyo explains that employers can start by opening themselves to different kinds of matrix to screen for neurodivergent jobseekers.

“Instead of just looking at the numbers and talents and abilities, you can really use a different way to get to know the job seekers and help them to stand out in the best way possible. I think some of the companies here in the Bay Area, they’re also already using video interviews,” she says.

“I think the accountability goes both ways. The hiring managers and the neurodivergent candidate need to have that open conversation from the get-go.”

Maisie Soesantyo, Founder of Autistic Career Pathways

From awareness and acceptance

In May 2021, tech billionaire Elon Musk revealed that he has Asperger’s Syndrome –a condition that now falls under the category of autism spectrum disorder in the fifth edition of Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) by the American Psychiatric Association, the “Bible” for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders.

When it comes to promoting awareness and acceptance of autistic individuals to the public, one might wonder if public figures being open with their diagnosis will create a positive impact.

“Elon Musk or Sir Anthony Hopkins and all these prominent figures, when they come out publicly about their diagnosis, it’s because they feel the need to do that. It’s more for them. It’s not necessarily for the rest of the world,” says Soesantyo.

According to her, the only way to create an inclusive society is by learning to be less judgmental of others who are different.

“It’s often a big distraction for us when we fall into making judgments and saying stuff like, ‘Oh, you’re so smart, you can’t possibly be autistic. My message is that autism doesn’t have a look,” she says.

In her closing statement, Sjahrir puts emphasis on the importance of listening to neurodivergent people.

“When you work with a consultant on this thing, hire neurodivergent consultants, not neurotypicals who will speak over autistic voices and be paternalistic,” she stresses.

Ready to meet new startups to invest in? We have more than hundreds of startups ready to connect with potential investors on our platform. Create or claim your Investor profile today and turn on e27 Connect to receive requests and fundraising information from them.

Image Credit: lightfieldstudios

This article was first published on April 1, 2022.

The post Autistic founders, advocates share their vision of a more inclusive workplace appeared first on e27.

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