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Posted 17 Jun 2021

Get Ready For Gen-Z In Neurodiversity: Collaborative, Authentic, Intersectional And Ethical. Or Else.

Being the mother to Gen-Z twin boys is providing me with a unique view of what is about to hit our workplaces. In Gen-Z, identity politics are normal. They can speak about gender identity, race, neurodiversity as if they were discussing their favorite color. They have less fragility about difference, and ways of  defining it. Their generational struggle is to be growing up with a vocalized aspiration to break down the stereotypes which have constrained social communication and fully realize the opportunities that diverse workplaces have promised.

One space in which I am ready to embrace the Gen-Z stereotype busting mission is in Autism at Work. There’s a saying in the Autism community that if you’ve met one Autistic you’ve met one Autistic. We have nevertheless become rather wedded to our white cis male introverted tech geek as the poster child of the Autism at Work phenomenon.

Believe me I am all for all the amazing, techie, logical, rationalizing Auties that I work with (you know who you are) but there’s a bunch of missing voices in the Autism discourse that could add value to our workplaces and communities if we were more willing to listen. In the last week, we have seen two emerging Autistic leaders showcase their talent and I’d like to share their stories to help bust the stereotypes and expand our thinking.

Reuben Selby

Fashion Designer and Entrepreneur Reuben Selby presented his Spring/Summer22 collection “Clash”, at the Truman Brewery to a group of 150 friends, media and VIP guests last Saturday, supported by the British Fashion Council. I caught up with Reuben to ask him about being Autistic at work, in an industry not typically associated with Autistic talent, he said:

The jobs that I have landed and kept have all come from people letting me do the actual tasks first and then realising that I do everything to the best of my ability, to a degree that task is executed so thoroughly. That’s not just obsession but care. I think on the whole autistic people struggle with authority as we see it as a restrictive force that hinders our ability to think freely and logically. So Autism doesn’t make life easier for me at work, but it does allow me to be exceptional if I’m given the space. That’s what I’ve created and forged for myself. I want to change the perception that people have about autism or at least change the perception that autistic people have of themselves. In the same way we think freely and are so sure about right and wrong, we have to have the courage to believe in our abilities, otherwise we will never be able to change the statistics. We’ve been marginalised and taught to think that we don’t belong in a work environment.

My autism makes me a good listener and learner. I want to hear others speak and seek to understand their point of view. I’m logical and thoughtful. I don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t fear being honest, giving feedback, or having hard conversations. I love solving complex problems. I like to do simple things well. I can sense when things are changing before they’ve escalated. I see patterns and can connect things in unconventional ways that lead to innovation. I’m flawed, vulnerable and open for everyone to see. I can be this way thanks to the exceptional and exceptionally kind people that I’ve surrounded myself with in my teams. I’m comfortable asking for help and have people that enjoy supporting me.”

Selby doesn’t see his Autistic identity as the reason for or the barrier to his success, it just “is.” I really appreciate Selby’s description of his ability to listen as an autistic trait. I have met many autists with this same curiosity to understand others, translated into empathy and listening skills, but we don’t see that in the diagnostic criteria. Selby also relayed how his mixed heritage informs his perspective.

“My intersecting identities give me a deep empathy for all humans. My brain is infinitely complex like the world around us, and this allows me to see things for what they are, rather than generalising or stereotyping. It also gives me a rare perspective in story and creating art work. I have no motivation to follow social norms and this allows me the freedom to be creative without restraint. I feel like I have a responsibility to share my experiences, specifically using nonverbal communication, in a way to connect with as large an audience as possible.” 

These values and experiences influence his work and creativity, they are the difference that makes the difference in terms of innovation. Selby presented thirty-nine looks each designed with sustainability at the core; 95% of the collection was made from deadstock fabrics from The Fabric House. His second collection embraces a piece of himself with inspiration drawn from “Bayanihan”, a Filipino custom which means “community” and refers to unified teamwork. Inspired by his mother’s home in the Philippines, the collection takes cues from the aerial landscapes of rice paddies, traditional dress, martial arts and Brutalism, resulting in a pure and rich clash of culture.

Selby states:

“Clash is about accepting what is different and recognising the beauty of colliding diversity. It’s about challenging yourself to look at the truth no matter how hard it is. It’s a realisation that you can disagree with your brothers and sisters and still live in harmony.”

What a poignant message for the world, given the current polarization of views and need to come together to solve global crisis. Gen Z are not distracting themselves from humanity’s problems, they are facing them head on.

Sophie Baverstock

Another Autistic creative in the spotlight this week is Sophie Baverstock, winner of the BBC3 Show “Glow Up”. Sophie’s make-up artistry impressed the viewers and judges with her fresh interpretations and her ability to communicate through make-up. Baverstock says:

“I thought, this is my chance to introduce myself and say I want to come on this show and show people you can do stuff when you’re autistic. I got such a good response, and it was so overwhelming, in a good way. There were so many young girls who messaged me saying they now understand themselves a bit better and a few people got diagnoses since seeing me on the show.”

Baverstock uses make up artistry to explore the boundaries of gender in society.

“I use my work mainly to present ideas around femininity, masculinity and hyper-masculinity. I use the art/beauty movements throughout history that have built up a sense of community and acceptance for women, whilst also marginalising individuals, as context for my work. The makeup industry is considered very female-orientated. However, the closer you get to the top, the less women you see. Alike many industries, this is slowly shifting but this gender imbalance will only change if more female leaders are taught to believe in their capabilities from a young age and are given those equal opportunities to do so.”

For many Gen-Z people, ethics, equity, diversity and inclusion are their motivation and their calling. Workplaces sticking to rigid definitions, mining identity politics for skills that can be exploited without embracing intersectional diversity are going to gain a bad reputation, losing talent.

No Favors Needed

This generation have grown up on YouTube, they know the difference between a showy, corporate token gesture and authentic, ethical practice. They know they have to check the sources and probe for conflicting advice, they are natural critical thinkers and can spot incongruencies at twenty paces. The message from these two rising stars is that as Autistic people they are not looking for job hiring favor, or sympathy. Being part of a Corporate Social Responsibility program is going to insult them, not inspire them.

The neurominority Gen-Z community are growing up as part of an advocacy movement, with a voice. Their internalized identities of what it means to be Autistic, Dyslexic, ADHD, Dyspraxic, have Tourettes is very different to my, Gen-X generation. They are going to have very different expectations of inclusion, accessibility, tech support and as a result be less constrained in their contribution. They’re going to change our workplaces and we have never in human history been more in need of their wisdom.

 It seemed right to leave the final word to Selby, a shot across the bow to managers, employers and investors who are wondering about the strategic direction needed for the future of workplaces. He said:

“Autistic thinkers are catalysts for innovation, as are all kinds of neurodiverse talent. We can offer insights and turn things around in ways that neurotypical people would have never been able to imagine because we view the world differently. This is a gift waiting to be opened. However, we are not to be used or manipulated. 

My advice for aspiring Autists would be to not seek a role or position in a business that doesn’t want to accept you for your full self. Instead follow your curiosity, double down on your unique skills and work out how they can be of value to society. If that means venturing out on your own then forge your own path. However, don’t underestimate your ability to connect and communicate with others.”