“Once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person,” says Kelly Grainger. As co-founder of Perfectly Autistic and being on the spectrum himself, he is helping companies to overcome the stereotypes associated with the condition by highlighting the positives of becoming autism-inclusive.
When Kelly Grainger was diagnosed as neurodiverse in 2019 at the age of 44, it was a wake-up call.
His autism diagnosis provided the answer to why, during 23 years of working in sales and marketing for large corporates, he found attending client events physically and mentally challenging and failed to get excited about new product launches.
“Looking back, it’s not the sort of role you’d go into as an autistic person,” Grainger suggests. “I don’t think I’d ever had a proper purpose, and I’d been ‘masking’, without knowing it, to fit in.”
He was diagnosed autistic soon after his two children were also diagnosed. Having no support and guidance with regards to the next steps after diagnosis, combined with his boss’s negative reaction and lack of empathy, Grainger was spurred to change direction.
Together with his wife Hester, he founded Perfectly Autistic to promote awareness, understanding, and acceptance of autism. He is now an autism and neurodiversity advocate and trainer and an international keynote speaker, specifically relating to autism in the workplace.
Perfectly Autistic offers businesses and organisations training and autism awareness workshops. They also have an online community on Facebook of parents, partners, and autistic people.
Grainger points out that while there are companies providing workplace training in neurodiversity, the trainers often aren’t neurodiverse themselves. He brings the real-life experience of being autistic and as a parent with autistic children.
“I think that resonates with people,” he says. “They like to understand what your journey was, rather than saying they’ve read this in a book. I’m very passionate about autism, and hopefully, that comes across in the training.
“But it’s not just about delivering an autism awareness session and moving on to the next company. I want to ensure real change within that business or team. Not training for the sake of training; I want them to do it for the right reasons. So, I always ask what are they going to do next? What are some of their initiatives?”
Grainger has plenty of ideas that companies have adopted. They include creating networks or monthly meetings to enable autistic people to talk about workplace challenges and how employers can support them.
He stresses the importance of communication, allowing people to open up about neurodiversity to feel confident about coming forward to discuss any difficulties they may have.
Overcoming the stereotypes
A major obstacle is overcoming the stereotypes associated with neurodiverse conditions. Grainger explains that ADHD (which he has recently been diagnosed with), partly through the media, is associated with disruptive behaviour, while autistic people are perceived as maths geniuses and lacking empathy.
“That’s simply not true,” he says. “I’m not a maths genius. I have empathy, as does my son. In fact, we can have too much empathy and often worry about what others think. Others don’t. But that’s the same for people who aren’t neurodiverse. Autism and many neurodiverse conditions are spectrum conditions, which means there’s often a wide variation in the traits and challenges that people experience.
“There’s a great saying which is, once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. The key point to understand with autism is that people’s brains are different. They respond differently to the same things within the workplace and, actually, they’ll respond differently to the same things at different times.”
To illustrate the point, Grainger describes how, some mornings, his son has a full meltdown because he can’t put his socks on. He believes that this is due to his son being extremely anxious and stressed that morning.
Similarly, an autistic person may struggle to cope in the workplace because something has happened at home or in the office to cause anxiety on that particular day.
Grainger advises companies to treat neurodiverse people as individuals and not to think about stereotypes. Focusing on their specific strengths and understanding their stress points and how to support them would benefit everyone.
Focus on the positives
Many people on the spectrum can have a good visual memory. They can also be thorough in their work, punctual and observant. He adds: “Lots of autistic people are literal in what they do. Many develop special interests in an area and become experts in that area, providing huge amounts of value to a business.”
He adds that a culture shift, led from the very top to get everyone’s buy-in, is essential for making organisations more autism-friendly. However, it is also important to communicate the changes.
“From a business point of view, it will demonstrate the commitment to diversity and inclusion,” says Grainger. “It reduces the stigma and opens up the organisation to a large pool of talent they may have otherwise overlooked. It brings in creativity, innovation, different thinking.
“The analogy that my wife and I use is the android and Apple phones. They both do the same things – phone calls, email, social media, and so on – but they process them slightly differently.
Companies need to understand how an autistic person can perform at their best — this requires “reasonable, relatively simple and not expensive” adjustments. “For example, make sure that the interview process is laid out clearly,” he suggests.
“Include an itinerary so that people know exactly how long the interview will last and how many different people they’re going to meet. Ensure that the interview questions are clear, experience-based, and not hypothetical — such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ “Don’t judge the individual on their eye contact, or lack of it, because this can be incredibly difficult for an autistic person to maintain.”
Schools need to do more
Grainger also argues the case for continuing the flexible working patterns post COVID-19. “Flexibility benefits autistic people because it takes their strengths and personal lives into account,” he states.
“I’m glad that I don’t work for a large company anymore because I’ve heard from ex-colleagues how many hours they’ve had to work and Zoom calls they have had. Zoom fatigue is now a real thing. I struggle if I’m on a call for more than an hour, finding it challenging to remain focused on the screen.”
Given that only 16% of autistic people have found employment, there was an argument for schools to do more to prepare neurodiverse pupils for the outside world.
“We’ve had a negative experience with our children’s primary school,” Grainger reveals. “We had to move our son to another school because they didn’t take his autism diagnosis seriously.
“I think schools, in general, need to be better prepared and more knowledgeable around autism. School is a structured environment, and so it’s difficult when children leave. Schools need to prepare them for a world that can have no structure and lots of uncertainty.”