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We Need New Narratives About Neurodiversity

Rachel Worsley  |  03/01/2020

Founder and CEO Rachel Worsley outlines how storytelling is key to changing the structural biases, stereotypes and misplaced narratives about neurodiversity. 
Sensory garden museum.

Neurodiversity is at a Turning Point

Autistic Software Developers Experience Unique Stresses

Neurodiversity has come a long way since 1998, when the word first made an appearance in an Atlantic magazine article. As we enter a new decade, neurodiversity is at a turning point to break into the broader public consciousness. 

In 2019, neurodiversity benefitted from the voices of prominent individuals such as Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist who proudly talks up the strengths that her Asperger's syndrome in her push for more radical action on climate change. We also had comedian Hannah Gadsby, who has used her newfound celebrity status following the groundbreaking success of her show Nanette to talk about autism in her latest show, Douglas

When it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace, we have examples like IBM, Microsoft, SAP, HP and DXC Technology leading the world with autism hiring programs. We have social enterprises like Specialisterne and auticon who operate to help other companies hire autistic employees. We also have our many individual advocates around the world who are making a difference in their own way. 

We must acknowledge the enormous progress that has been made so far, but we cannot be complacent. Neurodiversity is supposed to encompass conditions beyond autism, like ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, Tourette's and others. Yet we only hear about autism hiring programs.

The rates of unemployment among the neurodivergent population remain stubbornly high despite the dozens of jobs created. As one non-profit employment provider told me, this is the "skimming off the top of the pool" effect. For the handful of people who do secure work as a result of hiring programs, there are thousands who still have to battle the structural biases, stereotypes and misplaced narratives about their work potential day-to-day. 

Why NeuroWork

As the founder of Neurodiversity Media, which publishes this email newsletter NeuroWork, I believe a key tool for changing these structural biases, stereotypes and misplaced narratives is through practical, solutions-based journalism.

I believe in journalism's core skills of being able to critically evaluate and present competing perspectives through research and interview, to check facts before publishing, to listen to the community, to tease out a story through dense jargon and fluff and to simplify complex concepts from experts into content formats that are accessible and engaging for our neurodiverse readership. These are the skills that have allowed the Neurodiversity Media team to bring you the stories highlighted in the NeuroWork newsletter so far.

We have translated the jargon of research papers into written and visual stories such as how co-workers may perceive the supports given to autistic workers as unfair. We also report on original news such as the Australian-first incubator for neurodivergent entrepreneurs and had a special Q&A section taking an inside look into a popular Australian autism hiring program

Why do these stories matter? Six years ago, I started my professional career as a medical journalist. My job was to comb through dozens of clinical research papers on large online databases and report on studies that might be of interest to a doctor's day-to-day practice.

I had to translate jargon into news that was relevant and interesting to doctors and send that news out through regular email newsletters. Doctors relied on our service to summarise the latest research across multiple journals and turn their findings into practical points that could inform their daily clinical practice.

Replace medical research with business and management journals and you've got NeuroWork. We want to operate as the information service to empower you to find the work that fits you, or help others to find their work. We are the translators, bringing you stories about neurodiversity and inclusion best practices from the studies, so those best practices can be reflected in your work.

We sift through the jargon and the inaccurate information to bring you the facts that matter. In the age of information overload, we want to save you time and effort and equip you with the right tools to help create a neurodiverse future of work.

Our Stories Must Reach the General Public

But we also need new types of stories to push for truly meaningful change in society, as I discovered in my reporting on doctor's mental health. At the time of writing this editorial, it would be almost three years to the day that Australian junior doctor Chloe Abbott took her own life. Her family, instead of keeping silent like many other grieving families in the same position, chose to speak out to a few selected media outlets. I was one of them, reporting for Australian Doctor magazine. 

I also helped to organise a special reporting campaign called "Doctors are Human Too", where we allowed four people at the centre of the doctors' mental health crisis to tell their own stories in their own words, using our print magazine and online platforms.

My team shared key phone numbers, services and prominent information columns about managing mental health for doctors reading. We were creating independent, campaigning journalism to help push for changes to mandatory reporting laws that were discouraging many doctors from seeking help. 

Because Chloe's family were determined to talk publicly, the once open secret of suicide in the medical profession in Australia was aired out publicly across mainstream media, prompting senior hospitals to consider changes to working practices and prioritising the wellbeing of junior doctors through various initiatives.

The issue is far from resolved, unfortunately. However, in any push for structural change, you must start with getting the issue to break into the broader public consciousness. Coincidentally, that happens to be Neurodiversity Media's mission today: to build platforms to allow neurodivergent stories to break into the public consciousness. 

We Need Your Help

But I can't achieve this mission alone. We all have a collective responsibility to tell narratives that can improve the working lives of the neurodivergent population for the better, regardless of whether you wear the "media" hat or not. Here are some tips that you can implement right now to help influence narratives around neurodiversity.

1. Be a good ally. Where possible, step back and allow neurodivergents the same platform to speak their own narrative. Connect them with opportunities to meet other people by telling stories about their strengths and potential, not their weaknesses and challenges. 

2. If you are an employer who employs neurodivergent staff, put yourself forward to media outlets and ask to talk about your honest experience about employing neurodivergent staff, good and bad. This applies to both small business and established corporates. The more stories we have about people who took a chance, the more we can normalise the idea that it's not hard to employ neurodivergent staff. 

3. If you are a neurodivergent employee who is open about your condition at work, put your hand up to help teach others about your condition and create greater understanding among the population. Empower your manager or employer to also speak up about their experience. 

4. If you are a manager of a neurodivergent staff member, set an example to other managers by talking up the strengths and attributes of your neurodivergent employees. 

5. If you are a neurodivergent entrepreneur, find ways to help others who want to pursue a similar path to get their foot in the entrepreneurship door. Talk about your journey and the supports that helped you get to where you are today. 

Happy New Year. Let's make 2020 the best year ever for creating jobs and work opportunities for the neurodivergent population. 

Accessible Storytelling Augmented by Technology

/Vision

To build a knowledge network library designed to empower professionals with evidence-based accessible resources, augmented by artificial intelligence. 

/Mission

Equipping neurodivergent professionals, their support network and businesses with accessible resources to unleash their potential at work. 


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