Dr Susan Hayward [ND@Work]

Carly Godden  |  05/12/2020

Autistic researcher Dr Susan Hayward shares her best workplace tips: like not being afraid to negotiate, and how to network autistic-style.

In a bid to ‘understand people’, as a young student Dr Susan Hayward took up psychology—unaware she was an undiagnosed autistic person. She is now a Lecturer in Disability and Inclusion at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. 

Susan shares with us her pathway to a rewarding career, and her best workplace tips: like not being afraid to negotiate, and how to network autistic-style.

"People are usually surprised when I tell them I’m on the spectrum".

NeuroWork: How did you get your diagnosis?

To cut a very long story short, after many years of employment issues I searched Google and arrived at a few blogs of people who had similar life experiences to me. Each person had a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. So that's kind of when I twigged that something might be going on. I was really late to the autism party, but I'm glad I got there in the end because it really explained so much.

NeuroWork: Did you have a sense of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Like most kids on the spectrum, I had a special interest. Specifically, I wanted to be a microbiologist because I love infectious diseases—and not in a weird way!  I find infectious diseases fascinating. For people who don't know what a microbiologist does, they aim to understand the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses caused by microorganisms like viruses, fungi, parasites and all those exciting things.

In my mid-teens, I still wanted to be a microbiologist but I didn't understand people and I wanted to. I decided that maybe studying psychology would help. So my first degree was a Bachelor of Science so I could do both psychology and biology. But at the end of the degree I realised that I really still didn't understand people and ended up doing more study in psychology. That unfortunately meant I didn't go down the road of becoming a microbiologist. Yes, I’m still a little sad about that.

NeuroWork: In your early career, did you find it difficult to get work?

I found it really super easy to find work as a teenager. I found my first job at 14 by being absolutely annoyingly persistent! 

I asked a friend who worked in a small independent supermarket how I can get a job there. They said, “oh, you just ask the manager”, who happened to be the owner. So I went knocking on the door, and he said, “no, I don't have anything at the moment. But check back with me in a week.” Because I'm on the spectrum, I think literally; so I thought okay, I'll come back in a week. No problem. Whereas he probably thought, she'll forget about it and she'll move on.

No, I came back in a week, exactly. I said, "Hey, remember me? I'm still keen on working here. Have you got anything yet?" And he said, "No, come back in a week." So I did. Every Saturday at 10 AM for 6 weeks! He got so sick of me he gave me a job because I was so annoying! 

After I got that job, because I need to be busy— I'm a bit of a workaholic— I got a second job. So I had two jobs concurrently as well as full time secondary schooling by the time I was 15. 

But I struggled all through my 20s. Not because the work was difficult, often I was really overqualified for the work that I could get. I just found it difficult to find anything that was really suitable. I've never had much trouble with unemployment, I had more difficulty keeping jobs. All the social stuff that's expected in employment was really quite challenging. I was there to work, I wasn't at work to find out what other people did on the weekend!

NeuroWork: Have you disclosed your diagnosis at work?

It's complicated. At my current job (and I have a few!), I have disclosed to the people I work closely and directly with - for the most part anyway. Because I also work in autism research, most people I work with already know a thing or two about autism, or at least diversity - so they know [about my diagnosis]. 

I don't want to call anyone out, but in one of my previous jobs when I disclosed, it didn’t go down so well even when they apparently knew something about autism. So I use discretion.I don't usually disclose to students, although I have before to particular students if I thought that would be helpful for them—like a former student who had social anxiety. It’s something for me to think about going forward.

A friend of mine—he's a clinical psychologist—he said a lot of the parents of the autistic kids he sees worry about their kid’s future. He told me that he mentions me as a kind of role model. Apparently, just from telling them my story, parents have a lot more hope for their child, they realise being autistic is not a death sentence. Their child can be employed and in a decent job. It doesn't have to be bad, it's only bad if you make it that way. 

A lot of people also think that we're hiding in our parent’s basement playing video games—which is nice, by the way, don't get me wrong. Or we’re playing with our train sets; and we're all boys! Unfortunately, there’s also an assumption that autistic people don't like to socialise, they don't like people, and they can't communicate. 

Well, what am I doing right now? When I'm presenting, at say a conference, and people ask what sparked my interest in autism research, they are usually surprised when I tell them I'm on the spectrum. I think it is useful for people to know about my diagnosis because it debunks a lot of stereotypes and myths, even among academics.

NeuroWork: How has your current work supported you?

Even before COVID-19, I could work offsite if I wanted to. One of my employers also helped by installing better lighting in my shared office space. I can wear headphones and close the door to my office when I go in. 

On my main research project, we have team rules regarding communication. For example, the first thing is that there are no last-minute meetings; there must be a minimum of 24 hours’ notice. And there's no expectation of responding to emails immediately. We allow colleague’s in the team 48 hours to get back to us. 

Generally speaking, employees are not always available, and they shouldn't be expected to [be always available]. You need to be able to demarcate your home life from your work life otherwise you'll burn out, and that's not good for anybody.

NeuroWork: What are your top career tips for autistic people?

The first thing is that you really need to know yourself and your strengths to find a job and work environment fit. To do that, you might need to network. Now, I know that networking is almost a dirty word, particularly for someone on the spectrum.

Networking doesn't necessarily mean getting out there and seeing people face-to-face. For me, I network in different ways to non-autistic people. I do it more over email or electronic communications first. 

And I know that small talk can be quite draining and feel really pointless to a lot of autistic people. But I choose to look at it this way: everybody you come into contact with has something valuable to offer you and it's up to you to figure out what that is. It's amazing how much people will offer you in terms of their knowledge and sometimes skills as well. It’s a great [mindset] way to network and I use that principle a lot.

Another tip is, don't be afraid to negotiate, especially when it comes to workplace arrangements. This is something I learned really late in the piece, but it is the best piece of advice that somebody gave me. Everything is negotiable, within reason. 

You can negotiate things like working hours such as start and finish times, or when a piece of work is due. The worst that could happen is somebody says “no” to you. Even that's not a bad outcome, because at least you know it's not a possibility. 

A lot of people on the spectrum won't be able to find a good workplace fit in terms of a suitable job and environment, and that's okay. Self-employment is an option. For example, I just created a business, called KPI Australia, we offer affordable evaluation so organisations can measure the impact of changes they implement. We also provide short training services targeted at improving employee wellbeing so organisations can maximise productivity, because well employees are productive ones. Plus, we help organisations spur innovation by helping them to increase diversity and inclusion. But it has been difficult figuring out how and what we need to get started. 

Like I didn't even actually know what a domain name was! It would be super, super useful if someone savvy put together a “how-to” guide for launching a business in Australia. I’m sure many other people struggle with this—and it would likely benefit a lot of entrepreneurial autistic people.