MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today we’re talking with Tim Goldstein, neurodiverse communication specialist, about the power of neurodiversity in the workplace. We’ll discuss what neurodiversity is, how we can be good allies to neurodistinct or neurodivergent colleagues, and the benefits of having a neurodiverse team. So, welcome, Tim.
TIM: Well, thank you very much. Glad to be here.
MELINDA: Tim, could you just take a couple of minutes to tell us a bit about your story? Where did you grow up? How did you evolve to end up doing the work that you do today?
TIM: Well, that’s a darn good question of how that happened. Where I grew up is I grew up in upstate New York, and not upstate like people in New York City who say upstate and mean the Catskills and the Hamptons. Upstate like in the Adirondacks upstate. You know, way upstate. And I actually grew up on a farm, which for an Autistic individual, is a great place to grow up.
I just had a birthday, so I’m 62 now. So, it’s been quite a while. And obviously, back at that time in school, they didn’t know anything about autism. I mean, it was nonverbal children at the time. So, of course, I wasn’t caught in school that I had autism. I was just one of those problem children that I got to know the principal extremely well. I spent lots of time with him. Then, I moved on. I started out of high school and went into a working career, which, of course, is one of those interesting things because now we hear about Autistic individuals falling off the cliff when they get out of school.
And miraculously, for some reason, us who didn’t know we were Autistic just got jobs. I don’t know how that worked, but it somehow worked that way. I did do a little bit of college. I am a one-year community college dropout with a business background. It actually served me quite well. It’s kind of funny. The reason I dropped out was I was actually managing a mall, a couple of million-dollar-a-year sporting goods stores. So, it just didn’t seem to make sense to be paying to learn what I’m being paid to do. I wouldn’t say it’s the best decision I ever made in life, but it was okay.
In my mid-20s, I got married. Moved off to Rhode Island—managed a chain of bike stores. Moved to Miami—worked in a bike warehouse. Moved to Colorado and actually was the assistant general manager in a bicycle warehouse. And then, I got fired for the first time ever. Now, getting fired is kind of a repeated theme as we go through this air.
I went through a number of things. I ended up doing national supply chains and sales teams and that kind of thing in the bicycle industry and then switched industries. At that time, bicycling in Colorado wasn’t synonymous with each other like they are now, with mountain bikes being such a big thing.
I didn’t want to leave Colorado, so I had to go find a job in a different industry because there really was none here other than in the bike shops, and they didn’t pay what I was used to from working for the larger companies. So, I was in a period of whatever I could do to keep the roof over my head and my daughter and wife’s head. I would say I had my two worst jobs ever, and I could never decide which one was the worst job. One was selling off-brand Yellow Page ads. That was pretty bad. And the other one was attending vending machines. Probably nowadays, you put $1 in it or something. It used to be a quarter, and you get a handful of candy. I did crappy jobs like that.
Really funny how I ended up getting then into the IT industry. I was at a Christmas party of my wife’s company. And as we were leaving, she asked one of the programmers. She knew that we ran into, you know, “My husband likes computers. How can you get into the industry?” The guy said, “Go out and get certified as a Microsoft systems engineer.” So, I followed his advice. I went and did it. That is how I got into the IT industry in the mid-90s. And it’s worked out pretty well for me. I now work for Google. So, I guess I can’t complain any there.
What else do we have to fit in there? While I was doing all of that and having a full-time IT career, I also started a manufacturing business. I ran that for ten years. I did product design, did product development, did international marketing, all that kind of stuff there. We started a jewelry tool and supply store at one point—ran that for three years. I decided that stores stink because you have hours on the doors, and people expect you to show up actually at those hours. So, that one we got rid of when the lease ran out.
That’s kind of a little bit of background as far as how did I get into what I’m doing right now with the autism and autism awareness and neurodiversity. I was diagnosed. It would have been about year eight of owning the machine shop and working as a full-time IT person. I was just basically burned out and ended up going to my primary care physician, and they gave me some antidepressants. It’s their fix-it-all. Just dump some antidepressants on you. And amazingly, they actually did seem to help. So, I then decided that, okay, if that helped.
They didn’t give me a diagnosis. They just threw some antidepressants at me and saw what I do. They don’t know what I had. But I figured if they could do something that helped me, I bet you if I went to a psychiatrist that actually specialized in doing that kind of thing, that they could probably help me even more. So I did go to the psychiatrist. He first diagnosed me with hypomania. And for those not familiar with hypomania, hypo means less than, and obviously, I think most of us know what mania means. So, you are less than fully manic. But on the other hand, you are very much a type-A hard charge and hard pushing kind of person, but not stepping over the bounds of where society says, “Now you’re certainly out of control.”
Once he got that under control, then it started becoming extremely obvious that I was Autistic. It’s almost like combining gasoline and fire at that point. You’ve got the autism making me think different and hypomania making me go like crazy, which is probably why I was able to accomplish all that I did. So, that’s how I found out I was Autistic. And now, of course, like most people who get late in life diagnoses and things like this, I dove into it to understand what this thing is. I mean, it certainly seemed to make sense of how my life had gone. But you know, what really is it? What’s it all about? As I started digging deeper into it, I started learning more. I found out about this autism at work movement that was going on. At the time, the big companies that were promoting it were SAP, EY, DXE, and Microsoft. And that would have been about 2015.
I went to the conference and listened, met lots of people, and recognized that there really is a challenge with businesses accommodating–. Actually, I shouldn’t say accommodating. That’s really not the right term. There are challenges with businesses getting the best efforts possible out of Autistic individuals. It’s not that they’re hard to get Autistic individuals to give you their best efforts. It’s just you got to approach it a little differently. And most companies don’t approach it differently. So, that’s kind of how I tripped into it was kind of in a roundabout way.
I had actually written a book called Geek’s Guide To Interviews. That was because I’ve been fired so many times. I got really good at interviewing, so I wrote a book. I handed the book to a professor that was at one of the seminars, and she invited me to speak in her class. So suddenly, I’m speaking at an Ivy League College as a college dropout, which was kind of a cool thing to do, especially because it was Cornell which was only an hour and a half where I grew up anyway.
That was really how it all happened was getting diagnosed, digging into it, happening to hand this book about Geeks Guide To Interviews. And that was before I would admit I was Autistic. So, “geek” was my code word for autism.
MELINDA: Let’s define some language. I have about five words that I think we should define. Let me know if there are any others that you think we should define as well. How about if we just go one by one, and I’ll say the word, and then you can briefly define them, sound good?
TIM: That sounds a lot better than trying to remember all five.
MELINDA: Excellent. Okay, the first one is neurodiversity.
TIM: Okay, neurodiversity. I’ll give my quick version of it. Neurodiversity is basically the concept that we accept that eyes vary from person to person, that our ears vary from person to person, hair color varies from person to person. And we don’t think anything out of that. I mean, I happen to have blue eyes. I can’t quite tell with the glasses what color your eyes are, but eye color, we don’t think it’s something weird. If it’s blue, if it’s brown, if it’s green, we just say, “Oh, they have pretty eyes.” or “I like that color.” or whatever. It’s the same thing with the ear shapes. I mean, is lobe attached or not attached, right? That varies all over.
What we don’t think about is the human brain varies more than all those things. It’s the most complex organ in our body. So, if our noses vary, and our eyes vary, and our ears vary, guess what? Our brains vary even more because some people say it’s the most complex object in the universe. There’s a huge amount of variability. We accept that as being just as normal, that variability and brains as being just as normal as different eye colors or different ear shapes or anything.
In a nutshell, that’s the concept of neurodiversity is brains vary between people, just like every other part of our body varies between people. If your brain is shaped/wired/connected differently, you’re going to perceive the process and think differently. And we accept that all those different ways of perceiving, processing, and thinking are valid human ways of thinking.
Now, there certainly is one group that tends to set the norms, but that doesn’t mean that a different thought is a bad thought or should be eliminated. It just means that different people think about things in a different way. That’s all.
MELINDA: Awesome, awesome. And then, where you are going next—neurotypical.
TIM: Well, neurotypical. We have to go from neurodiversity first. I used a concept that I call the neuro cloud. And I just decided that people needed a pictorial. This was just like, too challenging with word salad to try and make sense out of all of it. So, the concept with neuro cloud is you take all humans and all ways humans can act, the traits they have, the ways that they think, process, and perceive. And you put them inside this cloud.
So, if you’re alive and you got a brain at work, you’re in the cloud. You cannot get out of the neuro cloud, just like you can’t get out of diversity. I mean, you and I are both White, but we’re also part of diversity. So, the same thing with neurodiversity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the most common type or the least common type. You still fall in that cloud because it’s a normal way that a human can process and think.
And then, neurotypical would be, we take that whole group in the cloud, and let’s just say, you know, like, lots of things that float move around, they kind of congeal and condensed together. You get one group that’s larger than all the rest of it. Probably about 60% of that whole cloud, maybe 70%, somewhere in that range. We call those neurotypical. Neurotypical does not mean that they are anything special. It doesn’t mean that they’re better. It doesn’t mean anything other than a label stuck on the majority group.
Now, the fact that they’re the majority group does give them lots of special power because they are the majority. But it’s not because of the way they think that they’re neurotypical that makes them the majority. It’s because there are lots of them. So, that’s what neurotypical is, is the vast majority of humans who think in a relatively similar pattern. And, of course, we’re all individuals. So that doesn’t mean they think identically. But in general, they tend to be very oriented to emotion, and we’ll say, perception of how other people perceive them.
If I had to describe from being non-neurotypical about neurotypical, that’s what I would say is, they’re all hung up about how they feel. They’re not hung up about what they think.
MELINDA: Interesting. Okay. I have friends who call themselves neurodivergent. I think you use the word neurodistinct. So, maybe both of those terms, that’s Term 3 and Term 4.
TIM: Well, that’s an easy one. When the concept of neurodiversity was created, it was a woman in Australia. Her name is Judy Singer. She came up with it. It was mentioned in an honors thesis paper she was writing. It’s not the subject of the honors thesis paper. It was kind of a sidebar in the honors thesis paper, which means she never fully fleshed out the whole concept or the whole idea. She just kind of stuck it in there because it helps support what the thesis paper was about. She’s the one that came up with the terminology of neurodiversity, neurotypical and neurodivergent.
Now, I have no problem with neurodiversity. I have no problem with neurotypical. I don’t think they carry negative connotations or anything with them, but I have a problem with neurodivergent. As I said, I’ve owned stores. I’ve done international marketing. So, I’m thinking of it from a marketing standpoint. And when you think of diverge, divergent, diverging, that’s a negative. It’s negative terminology. And, to me, it was just wrong to try and say, “We’re trying to highlight this group, but we’re going to use a name that makes them sound like there’s a problem and there’s they wrong, and they’re just not part of the mainstream.”
So, I spent probably about two years, three years, just racking my brain over what else we could call that, and I wanted it to be able to fit into the “ND” because we often talk about NT for neurotypical, and ND for neurodistinct or neurodivergent. That’s both. So, I didn’t want to have to change the initials because everybody uses those initials so much. I had to come up with something that fits in. I went hiking one day, and it just dawned on me, neurodistinct. And the reason is that to me, neuro distinct is a much better term than neurodivergent. I think the first answer is that they are the same term. They mean the same thing.
When you think about it, how many people in their lives want to be distinct? I think most of us want to have a distinction in some manner. So, now we’re saying this is a distinct group because they perceive, process, and think in a distinctly different manner. So, (A) it gives you a way to divide between, are they neurotypical or not? Well, they’re thinking in a very non-neurotypical manner, then they’re neurodistinct. It’s distinctly different. But what’s neurodivergent thinking? It doesn’t mean anything ’till you describe it.
I am fully convinced that people make judgments upon you based upon the words and the terminology as you talk about things. So, to me, neurodivergent is a great word if we keep it in the academic world. But the problem is if you go to most people and say, “Oh, talk about neurodivergent.” They have no clue what you’re talking about. So, then they start thinking you’re an arrogant jerk because you’re using words that are making them feel stupid. And obviously, they can’t be stupid. You’re the problem, not them.
That is why neurodistinct came about was to give a much, we’ll say much better perspective, a much better light on the people who think distinctly different. It is not just autism. It’s ADHD. It’s dyslexia. It’s dyspraxia. I mean, there’s a whole range of medical name things of people who distinctly different thinking. And there are also people who don’t have any medical name around it, but we would all agree that “Wow, that person thinks way different than we do.” which would also be another neurodistinct individual.
So, that’s the story of how it came about. It was really from a marketing standpoint, and it’s gaining quite a bit of traction. I mean, there’s a number of fairly large companies that are adopting it as being a term because they also sense that neurodivergent just doesn’t come across warmly, we’ll say.
MELINDA: And so, the last one is not really a word. It’s a phrase—on the spectrum.
TIM: On the spectrum. Well, on the spectrum is kind of slang terminology saying I have autism. Or for somebody else to say that person has autism. I don’t know. Is mistake the right thing to say? No, maybe not mistakes. Misconceptions might be a better term to use.
The first misconception starts with the concept of autism itself. People have this concept that autism goes from being at one end individuals who are non-verbal, will need care their entire life most likely, to people like myself that, you know, we work at Google. We fit in. We can do most things in society. Not that we don’t have a few challenges, but we can manage to get by just fine.
So, people think of autism as being a continuum. And it’s not. If you just look up spectrum in the dictionary, you find out spectrum does not mean continuum. Spectrum means a whole variety of different potential traits. And they can be in any combination and at any intensity in any given person, which is not a continuum. That’s a multivariant equation at that point.
So, the reality is just using this line to say, “Hey, basically, I’m on the spectrum or somebody else has autism.” On the spectrum means having autism. But again, it’s not conveying very accurately what autism is about because it’s reinforcing the idea that it’s a continuum. It’s not a continuum. You can find people who have challenges that are maybe in this one-to-one type of live communication like this.
It’s very common for Autistic individuals to not be able to do live real-time communication. But that doesn’t fit on the continuum somewhere. That just happens to be one data point, then, you know, do you pick up emotions or not? That’s another data point. You can’t plot 300 data points on one light. So, it’s become slang, but unfortunately, that slang, you know, it’s not derogatory in any means, but it does reinforce an incorrect perception about autism as it being simply from horrible to not that bad. That’s not too bad and still have very challenging Autistic traits.
MELINDA: Awesome, thank you. Thank you for that. I have a colleague who is neurodistinct. How may I think about being a better ally for them at work, and maybe specifically, communication? How may I think about communication differently? I know that is something you focus on a lot.
TIM: Yeah, communication is the challenge. The first thing we’ll say is there’s kind of two questions in there. One is, how do we communicate? The other one is, how can I help support my potentially Autistic co-worker? The potentially Autistic co-worker, the best way to support them is to treat them just like they’re another person because they’re just another person.
I can give you a brief story of some of the feelings in the autism at work efforts. There was one company that had an Autistic individual they had hired who had been there about a year in the group they run fairly well. But they thought that nobody in the group liked him. They thought everybody hated him in the group.
And finally, that came out. It got questioned and asked about, and what went on was they had somebody come in and train about autism and told him that Autistic people don’t like to go out to lunch because they don’t like the noise and all of that stuff at a restaurant. So, they never asked the person out to lunch.
Well, guess what? Sometimes I like to go to lunch, and sometimes I don’t, but I really like to have that option to say, “No, not today. I got stuff I got to do.” Or, you know, for whatever reason. That’s why they thought nobody liked them. So, don’t just assume because they’re Autistic that A is a problem, B is a problem because maybe it’s not a problem. Give them the honor of deciding for themselves. Don’t ask it in a way that’s forcing them but at least say, “Hey, we’re going out to lunch. Interested?” So, that’s one part of it. Just treat them like any other person.
The other part of it is the communication issue. Autistic individuals tend to be extremely literal. We take words exactly as they say or sound, and as they say, and as they need. Essentially, our brain goes through the first dictionary definition, and that’s what you said.
Unfortunately, we know that often people will change the meaning of words using the tonality in their voice or using their body language. You can be saying, “Yeah, this is great. Like, you know, I really like it. Or you can say, “Yeah, this is great.” You know, like, it’s another program that came down from the top, right? It’s like, whatever. We don’t do that. We wouldn’t pick up for the most part. I mean, some of us do. Some of us can pick up that. I don’t have good strong skills in picking that up. So it’s fairly common not to pick it up, but there certainly are Autistic individuals that can pick it up. Again, we’re all individuals. That’s a big point there. But if you’re trying to communicate, you need to use the words literally. If you’re going to communicate the word but put the emotional twist on it with the tonality of the voice and the body language, we’re not going to get it.
An example in point was, I got a text message or something from my, at the time, boss. And this was a day off I was supposed to have. I have learned from being fired enough that when you get a message from your boss on your day off, that is not a good sign. We start talking and going through, you know, what’s going on and everything. And at some point in the conversation, she says to me, “Tim, I think you should look for a new job.” Well, I know what that means. I’ve been fired enough times. I understand, “Go look for a new job.” That’s not what she meant. What I totally missed was the concern that she had in her voice. What she was really saying was this role that you’re doing doesn’t look like it’s good for your long-term mental health.
I was working in professional services, juggling a book of about 15 clients simultaneously. And you know, like, always, when you’re a consultant working on a bunch of clients, they all need everything on the same day. I mean, that’s just the way it works out. So, she was right. I mean, that was a stressful thing that didn’t work well with my autism because I had some challenges with the executive function of switching from Task A to Task B. So, I’d lose hours during the day just switching from customer to customer to get kind of like, you know, the next one into my head before I get going.
That’s a good example, though, where I took it as I’m getting fired, so I called HR. I said, “Okay. What do we do? Where do we go from here?” And what eventually came out of it was no, she wasn’t trying to tell me I was being fired. She was trying to express concern, but she used words that literally are, “You got a problem. You’re on the way out.”
So that would be, I’d say, a big thing where communication is using literal terms and making sure the literal term is expressing what you wanted to express. If she had said something along the lines of, you know, “I think juggling all these clients is causing you a lot more stress than you really need.” I wouldn’t have taken that as I’m getting fired. I would have taken that as she’s concerned about my stress level. But she instead used words that sound like you’re getting fired if you strip any emotional sounds out of it. My brain strips the emotional sounds up. So, that’s one part of communication.
The other part of communication is we tend to think about things differently. So, we have different concepts of stuff. I’ll give you—this is not really an Autistic example, but it’s a great example that people will get the idea. If I say the word beach, I think most people have some image that comes to mind, some idea that comes to mind when you say, you know, “Hey, let’s go to the beach.” And from having asked enough people, I also know that it’s generally a tropical beach. There are generally palm trees, and there’s usually nice blue water and white sand. That’s where most people like to go to the beach.
I personally grew up, as we said, in upstate New York in new territory. It’s considered one of the two best canoe waters in the US. My beach was a lake with mountains surrounding it on an island that had a circular beach all the way around the island and surrounded by mountains and pine trees. So, if I say to you at a party, “I’m going to the beach.” it doesn’t matter that you don’t recognize my beach, but we’re starting to plan something. We’re getting more involved with each other. You know, we’re going to go on this trip together. “Hey, you like the beach. I like the beach. We’re not doing anything. So, hey, let’s go to the beach.”
Now, it’s probably pretty important that you know which beach you’re going to. So, at different times you need it or don’t need it. But the point being, you always have to verify that the other person’s picture I’m going to say, but maybe they don’t use pictures, but picture concept idea of the terms you are using match the way that they see the terms you’re using. Because you can have this kind of conversation that my old boss, she always used to say we talk like this. We’re both saying things, and we’re both trying to communicate, but they’re just never connecting. They’re just never quite landing with each other. It was really because she wasn’t checking to make sure I understood the concept she was talking about. I obviously could tell she’s not getting my concepts.
MELINDA: Thinking about it as a manager, then, how might somebody think differently about managing a team to better support people who are neurodistinct? Part of that, I think, is taking what you just talked about around communication and applying that to feedback. What does that feedback look like? How is that feedback different?
TIM: Well, you know, kind of funny you asked. I just happen to have been sitting here—advanced tips for managing the Autistic worker. There are ten tips on it for managing the Autistic worker. It actually starts out with tip number one, this is communication, but this will highly affect communication, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Autistic or if you’re neurotypical. This will affect everybody’s communication, which is managing stress and overwhelm.
If you walk into your employer and you see that they’re just stressed out, the car broke down, and the babysitter wasn’t there today, you know, just everything went wrong. How productive is that person going to be at work that day? Probably not, right? I mean, the best thing to do would be to send them home for the day and tell them where they get that stuff taken care of, then come on back.
I think that’s the first thing is managers need to start paying attention to the stress level of their workers. And that should be all workers, not just Autistic workers. I mean, your stress level is just as important as my stress level is. But whoever told you that the manager’s number one job is to manage your anxiety? Nobody ever told anybody that. But you know what? The best managers, when you think about it, that’s what they did for you. They made sure you were never stressed out because they diverted, they switched, they did whatever it took so you were always on things that never pushed you beyond where you were comfortable. I mean, they pushed you, so you grow, but not to the point where you became uncomfortable.
Another thing is to put things in writing and use pictures. In other words, multimodal communication, just like we’re all taught that we really are supposed to use. We’re not just supposed to use one mode at a time. We really should use multiple modes. And here, it’s even more important because I may not get the exact concept out of your words, but if you just draw a little diagram of what you’re doing, you know, coming from the tech world, we draw diagrams for all kinds of stuff. So drawing diagrams fit very well in that. It may not fit in other industries. Maybe in other industries, it would be writing it out as a checklist instead for the person. It might be in a different approach.
You probably all experienced the boss who does the drive-bys. As they go past your desk, they tell you 16 things that they want you to do as they just keep on going. And you’re supposed to memorize all those things, and actually, you know, act on them, even though you had no priorities given to you or anything about them. I think that’s something very, very important is the managers need to give it to you in a way that is not just verbal because not everybody is great at understanding verbal. I mean, what if you have a hearing challenge? We have ASL interpreters here to help people that have challenges with hearing. Well, most bosses don’t have an ASL interpreter, but they certainly often have employees that have challenges here. But they don’t give them another mode. They just say it. That’s it. Go deal with it. It’s your problem now.
So, you know, that’s combining multiple modes. Maybe it’s pictures. Maybe it’s outlines. Maybe it’s just writing down in words what you verbally told them so you can at least reference it, go look at it, and go ask, saying, this just isn’t like making sense to me in this one section. Well, that’s hard to do when somebody just dumps 12 things on you verbally. It’s challenging. So, I’d say that.
And then, another thing is, don’t send the person in two directions at once. How many times have we all been given a bunch of tasks to do, but they’re all going in different directions? They’re not lined up like they’re going to be one after the other. It’s like over here and over here and over here. How are you supposed to know where you’re supposed to go and which one you’re supposed to do first? You were given things that are mutually exclusive to each other. Where do you even start? So, don’t send a person in three different directions. Give them one direction. Okay. Go here. And when you get done with that one, or if you’ve spent an hour and you’re stuck, then move on to this one. If you get this one done, or you get stuck, then move on to this one. And now the person isn’t sitting there trying to mind-read what their boss wants. They actually have prioritized what is important and what is not important in what they want you to get done.
So, those are just a few. I mean, there are ten tips on here, but that’s about three of them. And they’re certainly a lot more. It’s kind of funny. I actually did a training off of this in another tip sheet that’s about making requests. It was a two-hour training for an insurance company. And we barely even scratched the surface on 20 tips in two hours.
MELINDA: Is that available on your website, the ten tips?
TIM: All somebody has to do is if they go to my website, which is just TimGoldstein.com, there’s a thing, you know, whatever on the front page that says, you know, sign up for tip sheets and whatever from Tim. And if you sign up for that, you will not get blasted with emails. I think it’s actually been 15 months since I’ve sent out an email—shame on me. But don’t worry, you’re not going to get very much spam in any matter. And it gives you full access to all of my tip sheets, in some papers that I’ve done, and other things like that, but extremely helpful. And those are available for anybody. I mean, any company that has an interest, a manager or whatever. I allow full free distribution. Just copy them and use them.
MELINDA: Excellent. We’ve kind of touched on this throughout, but I think let’s really focus on just sharing a few of the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce. Most folks who are listening or watching understand, and that’s why they’re here, but maybe you could just share a few of the benefits.
TIM: I hope most people understand why it is we want diversity in workplaces, why is it we want people from different cultural backgrounds, from different life experiences, because they bring different perspectives, they bring different ways of thinking about things. Well, the reality is neurodiversity is just an invisible part of diversity we haven’t talked about yet. It is diversity. It’s not something separate. It’s just another piece of diversity. It’s specifically based upon people who think differently. So, if you’re trying to get a diverse range of opinions, don’t you want people who think differently in that group? I mean, you know, if you’re going to get people who are all going to think the same.
I was always told the joke, if you have a partner in a business and they agree with you all the time, you don’t need one of you. I mean, if everybody’s going to agree, you’re not getting that diversity of opinion you’re really looking for. And that’s really the advantage is bringing in a completely different view and almost like a different universe type view. We tend not to be tightly bound by social norms, let’s say. That’s something we have to learn to treat as something that is important because the odds are they aren’t particularly important.
And so, you know, just being careful about social norms and all that kind of thing. You now have a group of people who may say things that are out of play sometimes because that’s how they think. But you’re also going to get some brilliant ideas that nobody else in the room ever thought of because they didn’t see how those pieces lined up because they didn’t look from that perspective.
MELINDA: So, you are working a lot in the tech industry. We actually do work a lot in the tech industry as well at Change Catalyst. And there’s definitely, as you mentioned, a movement to embrace neurodiversity that started in 2015 and before, a lot of companies focusing on improving neurodiversity—and particularly hiring people with autism, mostly in those companies. I think that’s kind of where neurodiversity lies in tech right now. And your work includes bridging the business tech barrier. I want to ask you if you could say what that means. And then, what are some of the ways that we can remove that barrier?
TIM: Well, bridging the business tech barrier, you’re taking two groups that have very, very different perspectives on the same thing. If I’m the business person and I need a box on the website that records sock color or something like that, I’m just going to give a use case. If you’re in the tech industry, a use case or user case will make sense. If you’re not, it’s just a short little real story in just English words, if you’re doing it in English, whatever, in normal language words, describing what you want, so if what this particular person needed was this box, the record sock color, because they thought that would give them some incredible data, they’re just going to say I need a box that can collect sock color. Period, that’s all they’re going to say. That’s all we need to say.
On the other hand, you have the neurodistinct Autistic individual who works from the bottom up. They take all the details, and they collect all the details together, and then they create their own overarching concept of it, which is why you get such diversity of opinion because they didn’t start with your concept. They started with the details and made a concept that fits those details. So, in bridging the gap, again, you’re dealing with groups that think very, very differently. So, a lot of the work I do is in understanding how to get Autistic individuals to communicate clearly to business people. And the business people don’t know any of these tech details. They don’t know what padding you want around that box you want on the website. What’s the X color code for the lettering you want on it? What font do you want on it? They don’t know. All they know is they want a box on the darn website.
So, it takes really two parts to it. One part is teaching the tech person that there are multiple levels of information. I often explain it in a social scene, or I can explain it in the tech scene. But the social scene would be for a party, and we need each other. That’s one level of information. You don’t want to know every detail about what I do as a job. You just want to know, “Oh, Tim. Yeah, he’s that trainer, tech geek that works at Google.” That’s it. I mean, it’s all you really care about at a party. But now, if you’re starting to interview me, you want to know more about me. And of course, if you hire me, you really need to know a huge amount about me.
Getting the Autistic individual to understand that not everybody wants to know everything about them all. Sometimes they just want that top line, and that’s all that they need. I don’t think this is an Autistic thing. I think it’s the result of being Autistic. We’ve been told so many times in our lives that we’re wrong, we don’t do things the right way, you just never fit in that. That is what forces us, men, to over-explain things because we’re trying to make sure that we’re actually understood because we’ve been told our entire life we’re not understood. So, it’s kind of an interesting thing when you think about it that way. You’ve got a tech person talking to a business person. The tech person is trying to get all the details they need to do a great job. Unfortunately, they’re talking to the person that has no clue what those details are. They just need a box.
So, when you teach the business person about the thinking of the technologist that they work from the detail level up, and until you fill in all those details, they can’t build an overarching concept. Good. Now the business person has an understanding of why they’re getting peppered to death with questions. And they know that things simply say, I don’t know, let’s go get the art department who knows that stuff? Right? And conversely, from the tech side, the Autistic individual, teaching them what is an appropriate amount of information in different types of interactions. If you’re at a team meeting, the details are important. That’s probably appropriate. But, you know, if you’re talking to somebody who’s giving you a piece of work to do, that’s probably not the right time to be asking all the detailed questions.
MELINDA: Yeah. So, just one last question here, and this is this has been really helpful, I think, to a lot of listeners to kind of go from the definitions to some activating change. How can you be a better colleague? How can you be a better manager to folks who are neurodiverse to improve neurodiversity and also to support people who are neurodistinct? Go ahead. Were you going to say something?
TIM: I’m trying to think how to best approach it because, you know, we have to think about first off that when we’re talking about neurodistinct individuals, we’re not talking autism. I mean, neurodistinct is not synonymous with autism. Autism is a group within the neurodistinct. But the funny part is, it’s one of the smallest groups in neurodistinct. It’s about 2% of the US population Autistic. If we take ADHD, you’re at 8% or so. So, there are far more neurodistinct people who have ADHD and not autism. You take dyslexia. That’s up around 10-11%. And again, that’s a completely different pattern of thinking.
What you really have to be aware of is not particular traits or symptoms because you’re not a doctor. You’re not trying to diagnose the person, and who cares what their thing is. Deal with behaviors. If the behavior is the person doesn’t speak up and speak clearly about what they’re doing, then, okay, we have a communication issue. Let’s sit down and have the same chat we’d have with anybody who has a communication issue.
So, I think that’s the best way to approach it is simply to look at, “Is there a behavior causing a problem?” Because if we start saying it’s ADHD, or it’s autism or whatever, the HR department goes nuts. They’re all afraid that HIPAA is going to, you know, come shut them down or something, even though they’re not even falling under HIPAA, but that’s the way it goes.
I always like to say focus on the behavior because we can go to a co-worker. A manager can go to one of their employees, and they can question about behavior. “Hey, this went on, or, you know, you did this, and this was good, but you could have whatever done better over here.” You can talk about behavior without anybody being put out insulted, feeling like they’re violating HIPAA, any of that stuff. So, that’s the way I like to approach it is. Who cares what the diagnosis is? What’s the challenge we’re dealing with, and just deal with that challenge. And the funny part is whether you’re neurotypical or neurodistinct, if the challenge is you speak up in meetings, well, it’s the same challenge for both sides. Who cares? Whether you are neurotypical or neurodistinct, we need to give you enough psychological comfort in that meeting that you’re willing to speak up because we want to hear from you.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. Allyship is about taking action, right? This podcast, this show is about empathy, allyship, and really taking action. So, what action would you like people to take after listening to or watching this episode?
TIM: I think the number one action that I always try to tell people when I get done speaking is that if there’s one thing that they got out of it, it is when they hear something that makes them feel as if it was inappropriate, it was off and not something that’s just blatantly they’re abusing terminology words that we just know we shouldn’t be using at this point. But you know, to think misconstrued, mistaken. If they just could pause for a moment and just think of, “Ha, maybe this person comes from a different background or thinks differently than I do.” And if they would just take that 10 seconds to think that, it would make all the difference in the world. As opposed to going, “Oh, he’s an arrogant jerk.” which is something that you often hear as an Autistic individual. What can I say? We take at Google. We got a whole pile of Autistic individuals. They’re obviously pretty bright if they got into Google. But they often will use very high-level words in such, so that makes somebody else feel stupid. So again, just getting that. “No, no, no, they’re not saying that you’re stupid. What they are, is they just, you know, they got their Ph.D., and they’re stuck in writing in Ph.D. mode still.” That’s the problem. Not that they’re trying to insult you.
So really, I think that’s the kind of thing is try and intercept when it’s obvious that there’s a disconnect in the communication. What was said on one side and how it got interpreted on the other side did not, you know. It was doing this [right hand horizontal in the level of the forehead, left hand horizontal in the level of the chin] instead of doing this [hands vertical below chin level about to interlock]. That’s when the allyship could come in, really of, “Hold on a minute. Let’s just check into this and see.” “You said this. What exactly did you mean by that?” And ask the other person on the other side. How did you take what he had said? What did you get out of it? And what you’ll find out real fast is that they were doing this [right hand horizontal in the level of the forehead, left hand horizontal in the level of the chin]. There was no communication actually going on. That’s the biggest thing as an ally is really giving that space and the perspective of saying, “Hey, people are different.” Are you considering that? Are you just assigning your values and morals to everybody?
MELINDA: Excellent. I think that is the key for allyship really is understanding that we’re all unique. We have different experiences. We have different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching situations, different ways of hearing and receiving information as well. Yeah, absolutely. I love it. Thank you, Tim. Really appreciate this conversation.
TIM: Hey, well, I appreciate being on and really enjoyed having to chat with you. I hope the listeners love it and get some good value out of it.
MELINDA: Absolutely, I’m sure they will. We will link to several resources, including your website, in the show notes of this episode. So, you can go to the show notes and learn more about Tim and his work and some of the concepts that he talked about today. I just want to say also that we learned about Tim and his work through the recommendation from one of our audience members. So, to that audience member, thank you for your suggestion. And if you all do have recommendations for guests or you want to have questions answered on the show, please do reach out to our team at contact@ChangeCatalyst.co
And remember to be an active ally, which means learning, showing empathy, and taking concrete action in support of somebody with an underrepresented or marginalized identity. Thanks, everyone.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.