Being an ally to your neurodivergent colleagues

Understanding the terminology

“Neurodivergent” means having a neurological difference resulting in different cognitive processing and thinking. Basically, having a brain that is wired differently from typical.

Many neurological differences are due to lifelong neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s, or a combination of these conditions.

Neurological differences can also be acquired later in life, for example, by brain injuries caused by accident or stroke.

Some mental health conditions can also affect the way brains process information, for example obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some people with neurological conditions identify as disabled and some do not.

Some mental health conditions very commonly co-occur with neurological differences- especially depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD.

“Neurodiversity” means recognising and respecting the differences between all human brains and understanding the unique strengths and challenges of different brains, or “the limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind” (Judy Singer, 1998).

When a workforce is “neurodiverse”, it includes people with different types of brains, and therefore different cognitive skills and thinking styles, not just people who think alike.

In my view, embracing neurodiversity, celebrating the advantages of including people in the workforce who think differently, is the first step to being an ally to people with neurological differences. Colleagues can also support us with our challenges, help to break down barriers to inclusion, and accept us for who we are so we can thrive as our authentic selves.

How can I be an effective ally to neurodivergent colleagues?

Understanding each individual’s unique strengths and challenges is key, because we each have specific accessibility needs and support needs.

It can be unhelpful to stereotype people based on their neurological condition, so please ask rather than making assumptions. For example, many autistic people feel uncomfortable turning on their videos during online meetings. Personally, video calls do not bother me, but I do prefer people to message me in advance rather than video or voice calling me without warning.

Charlie’s top tips for being an ally to your autistic colleagues

  • Understand that autistic people often need extra time to switch from one task to another, so we can struggle with scattered meetings throughout the day and with back-to-back meetings. Please consult us before filling up our calendars with meetings – we may need larger chunks of time to focus on a single piece of work and can become overwhelmed when flitting between meetings and tasks all day. I often simmer into meltdown when my working day involves a lot of task switching.
  • Sometimes autistic people need specific instructions, broken down into manageable chunks, and it can be helpful to confirm expectations in writing.
  • Be accommodating to people with sensory issues, for example by allowing headphones, earphones, sunglasses, anti-glare screens, lower lighting, blinds. Avoid meetings in noisy areas with people talking over each other. Understand that some autistic people may struggle with video calls.
  • Be supportive when we get overwhelmed. Notice meltdowns, shutdowns and signs of burn-out. We might need a fresh air break or an extended toilet break to de-escalate.
  • Challenge your own expectations about social behaviours. Some autistic people struggle with small talk and find greetings awkward. Be aware of anxiety caused by unexpected calls and desk visits.
  • We can be passionate about our topics of highly-focussed interest, not just our hobbies but this can be something work-related too. This passion can lead to us interrupting people and dominating meetings. Please let us know when to stop talking, and not with “subtle hints”. Others could struggle to speak up in meetings, especially online meetings, and it’s important that leaders and facilitators ensure they still have a “voice”.
  • Understand the unique strengths we autistic staff bring to the workplace – see this poster from Harriet Cannon at Leeds University. These are useful skills, particularly in a workforce which has a large proportion of roles requiring logical and analytical thinking (and not just IT roles).

Thanks for reading. Your allyship makes a big difference to us, and helps us thrive as our authentic selves in the social and sensory minefield that is the workplace 😎

How to be an ally to bi and pan people #PrideMonth2021

How to be an ally to bi or pan people

By Charlie Hart (Ausome Charlie) June 2021

Understand what labels mean

The current definition of “bisexual” or “bi” is “attracted to more than one gender”. “Pansexual” or “pan” means when we are attracted to individuals, their gender does not come into it. Neither term excludes trans people.

Why talk about sexual orientation?

“Why talk about this”, you may be wondering, or “how is this professional /appropriate /relevant?”

It is not inappropriate to be open about our identity and protected characteristics. Many people do not feel comfortable or safe to be “out” about their own sexual orientation, but to me it is part of the “whole self” that I expect to be free to express.

Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. We have a right to be open about our sexuality in the workplace without fear of stigma, and without unlawful discrimination and bullying.

Bisexuality is far more common than many people realise. You all have colleagues, friends, possibly even family members, who are bi or pan. However, they may not be visible or “out” about their sexuality – especially if they are in a “straight-passing” relationship, especially if they are from a background where their true sexuality would not be accepted by some and “straight” is the societal expectation.

What can allies do to help?

This is not an exhaustive list, just my own perspective, in no particular order:

Othering       

If you would ask a straight friend or colleague about their weekend with their spouse or partner, you can ask us about our weekend too, even if we have a same-sex partner. Please do not “other” us, by treating us differently in this respect. Please do respect our dignity and avoid asking intrusive personal questions that you would not ask a straight person.

Monogamy and promiscuity

If you have a partner or spouse who is bi or pan, please do not feel insecure just because of their sexuality. We do not have to “pick a side”, we fall in love with a person. We are just as capable of monogamy as anybody else, although some of us are polyamorous and that is also valid. We are not inherently promiscuous.

Jokes              

Okay, personally I might chuckle along if somebody said, “well I suppose being bisexual doubles your chances of a date on a Saturday night”. Some of the bi jokes are offensive though, and some bisexual people are more easily upset about such jokes than others. Sexuality can be a sensitive subject to many, and we have a right to our dignity and not to be the butt of bullying jokes and toxic banter. If in doubt about how your joke may be received, please resist making it.

LGBT+ Pride  

Understand that we are a valid part of the LGBT+ spectrum, and that we do belong at Pride, even if we are in a straight-passing relationship.

Firstly, the B stands for Bisexual, we are still a minority group.

Secondly, please do not assume our gender, nor the genders of our partners.

Assumptions

One problem I have had since coming out bi, aged sixteen, is friends or work mates making assumptions. This is compounded by Autism, due to autistic social differences. Autistic and other neurodivergent people can have trouble interpreting “neurotypical” social cues and nuances, and there is sometimes a disconnect between our intentions and how we come across. This is a common problem, not just me, as there is a significant intersection between LGBTQIA+ and Autism (and other neurological differences). Please do not assume we are interested in that way, just because we are being friendly.

Myths and misconceptions

This is a bigger ask, but if allies hear anybody spreading false information about bisexuality or pansexuality, it would be good if you could challenge this and gently correct people. There are a lot of good infographics for dispelling myths.

Bullying and gossip

Please defend us if you witness any bullying or gossiping due to our sexual orientation. The efforts of allies to make the world a safer, more inclusive place can make a real difference. Much appreciated, thanks!

Bi the way #PrideMonth2021

For this Pride Month, I decided to write about some of my personal experiences as a bisexual woman, highlighting some of the bi-phobic attitudes that I have encountered over the years.

This may not be an easy read, it was certainly not easy to write, but I hope it may be relatable to others and a helpful insight for LGBTQIA+ allies.

Definitions

“Bisexual” or “bi” means we are attracted to more than one gender.

“Pansexual” or “pan” means we are attracted to individuals, and their gender does not matter.

Some bi or pan people may also identify as “queer”, which is a less clearly defined, more flexible term.

Why?

“Why talk about your sexuality?”, you may be wondering. Or “How is this professional / appropriate / relevant?” These are questions I have seen asked of LGBTQIA+ role models.

Let me be clear – this is not a blog about sex. It is in no way inappropriate. This is about my experiences as a member of a sexual orientation minority group, which is part of my authentic identity, my “whole self”, which I expect to be free to embrace, unmasked.

Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and we should be able to talk freely about sexuality without fear of discrimination. I am autistic as well, another protected characteristic, an intersection which is very common indeed, but particularly challenging in some ways.

Not everybody with a protected characteristic feels safe and comfortable to “step up” as a role model in the workplace or in their community, but positive visible role models can help foster a culture of inclusion and belonging, which matters to me.

Bisexuality is far more common than people realise. You all have colleagues, friends, and possibly family members, who are bi. However, they may not be visible or “out” about their sexuality – especially if they are in a “straight-passing” relationship, and especially if they are from a background where their true sexuality would not be accepted by some and “straight” is the societal expectation.

Coming out story

I was sixteen when I first concluded that I was bi. I was open about this with my best friend, but not with my family or wider social circle. However, the truth came out during a sixth form residential trip over a boozy game of truth or dare. I was naïve, a socially awkward undiagnosed bullied autistic teenager, desperate for validation and acceptance. Bisexuality seemed so normal to me, I had hoped that among the reactions from other kids would be some nonchalant “so what, me too” or something. Instead, all I got was a barrage of intrusive questions. When it dawned on me that I had over-shared, I got anxious and had a meltdown.

In the days following the school trip, another friend was hostile towards me because I had gone camping with her the previous year without telling her about my sexuality.

That was in the mid-90s. I believe, I hope, that teenagers today are more open-minded and accepting.

Things got easier at university, in this respect anyway, because at least there I was able to join an LGBT society and make some like-minded friends.

Bi-phobia

My coming out story mentioned two bi-phobic microaggressions, and here are some more of the bi-phobic attitudes and microaggressions that I have personally encountered:

Men (including some long-term boyfriends) who assume I cannot be in a monogamous relationship for long, and that I will inevitably cheat on them or leave them for a woman. We do not have to “pick a side”, we fall in love with a person. We are just as capable of monogamy as anybody else.

Predatory couples looking for a third wheel, or “unicorn” (and I was only sixteen when I was first approached in this manner).

The jokes. Okay, so I like a giggle and personally I would chuckle if somebody said, “well I suppose it doubles your chances of a date on a Saturday night”. Some of the bi jokes are offensive, and some bisexual people are more easily upset about the jokes than others. Sexuality is a sensitive subject to many, and we have a right to our dignity and not to be the subject of bullying jokes and banter. If in doubt about how your joke may be received, please resist making it.

People who think bisexuals are not a valid part of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, and that we should not be at Pride, especially if we are in a straight-passing relationship. Firstly, the B stands for Bisexual, we are still a minority group. Secondly, please do not assume our gender, nor the genders of our partners.

Women who assume I fancy them, just because I am friendly towards them. This is a particular issue for autistic bisexuals, as we may struggle with the nuances of communication, particularly non-verbal communication such as body language, when communicating with our neurotypical peers.

Stepping up

That last issue caused me real problems at work, many years ago now, but as a result for several years I stopped being open about my sexuality and even stopped disclosing it on the HR system (and I work in HR…).

But that all changed when I read an article by Stonewall about why LGBTQIA+ role models are important, with their top ten tips about how to be a positive visible role model. That was just the gentle push I needed to put my difficult past behind me and “step up”, especially after losing my son Iggy (he was also autistic and LGBT, and had few positive visible role models at his school).

For as long as I remain comfortable disclosing my authentic identity, I will carry on talking about it and writing about it to help others. I hope to inspire others to do likewise. Thanks for reading.

Elon Musk and openly autistic leadership

Since Elon Musk “coming out” as autistic (Aspergers) on Saturday Night Live, there is currently a lot of buzz on social media about rich and successful world leaders who are #neurodivergent (have neurological conditions or differences).

Richard Branson has always been open about his dyslexia, and Bill Gates more recently about his ADHD, but there still seems to be a reluctance for people in leadership roles to acknowledge #autism – even if it seems obvious.

One of the reasons people who are Autistic and/or ADHD people can become mega successful is by finding a way to combine our passionate highly-focused special interests with work.

I would be the first to admit autism brings some challenges to me at work, but it also brings many advantages in my role as HR Systems Analyst. There is no shame in admitting to struggling in certain areas of work, as it helps others to understand and support us, so we can thrive and do our best work.

It can be so helpful to be open about our neurological conditions, to tackle the stigma. ND role models can help others know they are not struggling in isolation.

It would be great to see more people, especially in leadership positions, being open about their neurology – if they feel secure enough to do so (a personal choice).

#neurodiversity

Autism Awareness Month

Please don’t copy and paste random crap from social media for “Autism Awareness Month” this April with a bunch of platitudes, blue hearts and jigsaw pieces 💙💙💙

You do know #autistic people – it is not that rare. To increase your own awareness, try asking an autistic person to explain to you how their autism affects them. It’s not one size fits all, it’s an extremely variable spectrum. Even a nine year-old child was astute enough to ask me during Neurodiversity Celebration Week how autism affects me personally.

Better still, go beyond awareness and shoot for acceptance. Accept us as our authentic selves without expecting us to “act normal”, to pass as a standard typical person.

Most of us don’t strive for normality, we just want to be included, supported, valued and loved… just like anybody else.

#neurodiversity#inclusion

Reflecting on one year of pandemic WFH

Pandemic reflection: If this year since the first Covid-19 lockdown (UK) has taught employers anything, it is the need to be agile and respond to changes in the external environment plus the changing needs of the workforce.

Responding quickly to office closures required not just investment in enabling technology, but also rapid culture change, a significant increase in trust.

Employers also had to understand that we cannot be expected to be working effectively for 100% of our online time. Working from home while home schooling in a pandemic hammered home the point that we were parents, carers, members of the community… PEOPLE, not “human resources”.

New marginalised groups came to light e.g. those who live alone, maybe struggling with isolation, introverts who find it hard to find their voice in online meetings, working parents struggling to concentrate or unmute in meetings, overwhelmed with conflicting priorities.

“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard” (Liz Fosslein).

The pandemic offered a new lens for #diversity#inclusion and #belonging. This is not about protected characteristics, but our whole selves- including our home life, responsibilities and interests outside of work.

What being an ally means to me

Being an ally means supporting people and promoting acceptance of normal human differences. Allies can help to create a culture where all individuals feel supported, included, and valued.

Sometimes allies stand up to bullying and discrimination, helping people to feel safe to be their authentic selves. Nobody should be bullied or excluded due to normal human characteristics such as ethnic background, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, neurology… or any other reason.

Being an ally can involve participating in and promoting staff support networks, helping to foster an inclusive culture.

Anybody can be an ally. It does not require specific skills or lots of time. It is just about caring for other people and wanting to do the right thing. Thanks for listening 😊

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day… Great!

But thanks, but no thanks, to including me in long taglists 🙄

Overwhelming notifications overload 🤯

Finding out about blocks I didn’t know about 🤦

Muting notifications 🙈

Sorry, not sorry 🤷

This is self-care 😇

Autistic #BurnedOut

On this International Women’s Day, I was blown away by this amazing poem by Ludmila Praslova

Image description: Smartly-dressed woman in black with umbrella and briefcase walking alone.

Text:
Aww, little girls are celebrated,
But – only cuteness is highly rated.
Mirror, am I unincludable?

School might reward great learning speed –
But nerdy girls are a bully feed.
I might just be unincludable.

Good students are welcomed in Higher Ed!
But not if your clothes are second-hand,
The poor are unincludable.

At work, I prevented a major loss
But “a girl can’t be smarter than her boss.”
So yeah, I remain unincludable.

This program supports top performers, hurray!
But not if “your name is too hard to say.”
Again, I remain unincludable.

Oh wow, your work is amazingly great!
But – “single women don’t need to be paid.”
Yep, I remain unincludable.

“Too weird, too nerdy – but too artistic,
Can grown women be autistic?”
I no longer accept “unincludable.”

Stuck in a checkbox, no human can thrive
I want to free our talents and drive
No human should be unincludable.

By Ludmila Praslova, Ph.D.

Also don’t assume people identify as a woman. Take the trouble to find out.

Gender identity information is usually in the person’s bio or description, not in their underpants.

Weird Pride Day #WeirdPrideDay 4 March 2021

Some things I do which are normal to me, but may be considered weird by others.

This blog may grow over time, as it is a stream of consciousness, so I may keep adding to it as I think of things.

When it’s foggy, I stand in the middle of a mown field, so I’m in a perfect hemisphere.

When it is misty, I walk up a big hill and take many photos of farm fields getting fainter and fainter into the distance.

In torrential rain, I go out for an off-road run, splashing gleefully through all the muddy puddles.

When I was a kid, I once spent an entire weekend jumping into the car through the door window, pretending to be in the Dukes of Hazzard.

I memorised all the lyrics to all the songs in Charlotte’s Web and acted the whole film out solo in the garage.

When Iggy was a baby, I would talk back to him in his own language, echoing all his urgle murgle noises like we were deep in conversation. I’d take him grocery shopping and talk to him about every item I put in the trolley. When he was a little older we would sing “Mahna mahna” together while grocery shopping, usually with me singing “mahna mahna” and Iggy responding “Do doo do do do” etc. We attracted some funny looks, but we didn’t care.

This blog wasn’t going to be about Iggy, it was going to be about me, but that’s what happens when you lose someone you love. You can be doing anything, thinking about anything, and your loved one butts in.

Don’t feel sorry for me. These memories are precious, not painful. The fluffy white vapour trail is not jagged, it doesn’t spoil the clear blue sky, it is a beautiful part of the picture.

Anyway, I couldn’t write about Weird Pride without mentioning the weird and wonderful Iggy. He always said “I like being weird”, but he wished the bullies wouldn’t target him for it.

As a baby, he didn’t crawl. He bum-shuffled at amazing speed, one hand helping propel him along, the other out stretched to grab things. He didn’t pull himself up on furniture like other babies, but turned his back to the furniture and gradually reversed himself upright.

He was hypermobile, and regularly grossed out our friends at karate by showing them weird things he could do with his body, like turning his elbows inside out.

Ok back to me. I enjoy singing. I love songs. I’m not a talented musician, but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm.

Some songs have to be belted out, both publicly and privately. This includes, but is not limited to: Vienna, Gold, You’ve lost that loving feeling (this I’ve belted out in ASDA. Sorry, not sorry), The sun ain’t gonna shine any more…

And my particular favourite, the wonderful dynamics of Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s against my law not to belt out the crescendo. It feels like a message to me and my fellow weirdos everywhere.

“Your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way”

P.S. It delights me that by holding your thumb over Paul Simon’s eyes, you can give Art Garfunkel a handlebar moustache

Iggy’s Initiative Introduction

Nobody should have to feel weird, ashamed, rejected, excluded, isolated due to their sexual orientation or their gender expression, nor due to their disability or neurological differences, nor any other human characteristic, but sadly this happens all the time.


Young people, especially teenagers, can be particularly affected by lack of acceptance and support. An alarming number of young people become depressed and take their own lives after being bullied just for being different from typical.


My own son Iggy tragically ended his own life in April 2019, aged just fifteen. This is the heart-breaking fate shared by an increasing number of young people on the “double rainbow” of the autism spectrum and the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, whether they have evident mental health issues or not.


Losing Iggy was unexpected and heart-breaking. We knew Iggy had been struggling to cope with being bullied for being “weird” at school. He had become more withdrawn and started trying to blend into the background to avoid being noticed. At home, however, he had been excited and happy. He was making plans for his future, coming with me on long country walks to train for his DofE expedition, planning his work experience placement working with cars (his special interest), looking forward to the next Marvel movie. He was always joking and giggling. It is tragic and senseless that his life was cut short, with so much to live for and look forward to.


I never want to hear anybody told they should “act more normal” or “try to fit in” or “I would keep that one quiet”. My dream is for everybody to understand how and why we should celebrate and respect all the natural variations in the human condition, freeing everybody to be their authentic selves, with no need to mask or to look for a way out.


I want to spread the message “Different is OK” and educate others about just how common and normal it is to be both neurodivergent and LGBTQIA+. Also, to create safe spaces where young people on the double rainbow can offer mutual support each other, moderated by ND and LGBTQ “elders” like myself, so nobody needs to feel weird and alone.


AIM for the Rainbow are excited to launch Iggy’s Initiative, to do all we can to make a difference to young people on the double rainbow in Iggy’s memory.