8 Lessons: How being autistic helped me reach my goal

Ishma Alexander-Huet looks at how neurodiversity frequently intersects with the barriers BIPOC face in the workplace.

By Ishma Alexander-Huet

By the time I was 15, I had it all figured out: I would grow up to be the Claire Huxtable version of Angela Bower.

For those too young to know these late ’80s references (and for the record I was 15 in the ’90s), it means I decided I would become a successful, independent Black businesswoman as a VP of a large agency in advertising. I’d have the house and the car. I even wanted the picket fence.

This goal was a far cry from my starting point – a Black teenager growing up in a working class, single-parent immigrant home receiving a government subsidy. But being young, determined and unknowingly autistic, I wasn’t phased by the length of the journey. I had a very clear formula in my mind:

1. Get good grades to qualify for scholarships and bursaries
2. Get OSAP to cover off the balance of my tuition
3. Study hard
4. Work hard and do great work
5. Get promoted
6. Repeat 4 and 5 multiple times

It was logical, linear, and didn’t account for anything unjust because it was based on the Canadian way of equality and meritocracy. Fast forward to today and on the surface, it could appear that the formula works, but that’s where systemic racism is deceptive.

The Formula is Flawed

My formula to become Claire/Angela didn’t account for bias. Unconscious bias and microaggressions have a high success rate of breaking the formula between steps four and five, while leaving behind very little evidence on a case-by-case basis.

But the proof is in the numbers. We know that the Black community is underrepresented in the industry, especially at senior levels, according to the POCAM Visible & Vocal survey, ICA data and numbers released by the major holding companies.

We were all using the same formula, but we learned along the way that we are far less likely to experience equality or meritocracy, and many of us made a declarative choice mid-career to either leave the industry altogether, go to a smaller shop or start our own.

After having countless conversations with people over the past year with similar stories to my own in terms of experiences, I started to wonder: how had I missed exiting as an option? Why hadn’t I left to find an environment where I felt less othered? It hit me. At its core, it’s because it is unjust, and for better or worse my brain is wired to prove a point when something is unjust. Allow me to introduce you to autism.

Autism Crash Course

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. This is a gross oversimplification, but before I turn this into a new eight-part series on ASD, I’ll highlight a few key points relevant to this story and leave you to learn more on your own:

  • We can be rigid thinkers, very literal, and/or have an innate sense of justice.
  • We have unique strengths which can include pattern recognition, problem solving, visualization and proficiency with numbers.
  • ASD often goes undiagnosed in females because of a higher propensity to develop ‘masking’ techniques at an early age. One in 66 children and youth in Canada are diagnosed with autism; among them, one in 42 are males and one in 165 are females.
  • Certain medical and mental health issues frequently accompany autism, including seizures, sleep disturbances, ADHD, anxiety and phobias.

Please don’t interpret the above as exhaustive or applicable to everyone with ASD. We now know that there is not one autism but many types. As Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”

My ASD Kept Me Going Towards the Claire/Angela Goal

One year into the industry, I was experiencing blatant and traumatic discrimination by a very senior person. I had spoken up and was moved to a new group, but when my peers advanced, I was told I had to do the same job I should have been promoted to without the title or salary increase for at least six months. It turned out that after I spoke up about the treatment, the abuser quietly added a letter to my file saying I wasn’t smart or reliable along with some other classic stereotypes. My new director and supervisor argued in my favour, but the damage was done.

  • Sense of Justice

My family urged me to quit, and maybe I should have, but I couldn’t. That innate sense of justice driven by my autism meant I couldn’t let that person win. They were trying to force me out and I had no means of fighting back besides proving them wrong. I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but I insist on laying claim to anything I have earned; I had earned that title and wouldn’t them take it from me, even though I paid the price.

  • Cognitive Inflexibility

I had a couple more less dramatic yet similar experiences where I had worked extra hard, got positive feedback and stellar reviews from my managers and clients, but received vague reasons for not being promoted with no actionable feedback.

While others protected their psychological safety and left the industry, I was opposite. I was more determined to stay. I was rigid in my vision and because of my cognitive inflexibility, I refused to let someone else alter my end goal. I would be Claire and Angela exactly as envisioned.

  • Patterns/Problem Solving

Instead, I relied on my talent for patterns/problem solving. I had to see the formula through and make it work. It should be logical and I couldn’t rest with the equation unfinished.

  • Masking

Women with autism tend to ‘mask’ or artificially perform social behaviours to gain social acceptance, even at an early age, which is why they are underdiagnosed. To mask successfully, we study people’s facial expressions, micro expressions, movements and tone so we can become highly adept at understanding what a person is thinking and model ‘acceptable’ behaviours ourselves.

Interestingly, masking is akin to what many Black or BIPOC professionals do to be successful. It has been the common theme over the past year. We hold back on being our authentic selves and instead engage in code-switching or doing the dance to be accepted. Mid-career, I quite consciously leaned into this skill set as part of the formula to achieve my vision.

Taking off the Mask

These skills helped me stay on course, but they didn’t get me to my destination. My ASD is a strength, but looking back now, I see how harmful it was to have to lean on these skills.

Reaching the goal became obsessive, another ASD trait, which stole time from my family. Masking etches away at your sense of self worth and can have long-term negative effects. It’s mentally draining and can accelerate depression or social anxiety disorder, both of which I was diagnosed with two years into the industry.

What I had overlooked is that what Claire and Angela had in common was their authenticity, and I couldn’t achieve my own version of success without being my own authentic self. I took off the mask and embraced my intersectionality of being a Black female with autism. Not Claire or Angela, but Ishma. That is when I truly accelerated towards my final destination.

What You Can Do

As it relates to helping Black talent thrive, the lessons here really call back to earlier articles in this series around creating inclusive cultures that celebrate diversity of thought and people being their authentic selves, mental health, and comprehensive DEI programs.

While I haven’t addressed a ton of the differences and challenges your neurodiverse community may be¬†experiencing, here are some general tips for leaders and individuals to build inclusive environments:

  • Avoid comments such as “you don’t look autistic” or “you must be high-functioning.” These comments minimize the work the person may be doing to appear neurotypical – they only serve to highlight how you experience their autism vs. their strengths and/or challenges.
  • Understand the value of neurodiversity. We know that diversity of thought creates stronger teams and organizations and neurodiversity often brings another way of looking at things.
  • Find out how to support your talent. Regardless of whether your team members are on the spectrum, it’s important to understand how people think and work at their best so you can facilitate their needs. Some simple questions to ask: How do you learn best? How do you communicate best? How can I help you?
  • Flex your communication style. Take available training and learn how to change your communication style to accommodate different ways of thinking. As leaders and people managers, it’s our job to understand the strengths and needs of the individuals on our team to help them thrive. When I deal with people that may be on the spectrum, the expectations of the job don’t change, but I deliver instructions and coach them differently.
  • Be transparent about how decisions for raises and promotions are made and provide constructive feedback to help talent identify areas of growth to get to the next level.

In short, create a culture where being different doesn’t mean being less. And our last look at what that means will be coming next week.

ISH_HS_2021-7545Ishma Alexander-Huet is VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture at Initiative.