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How to Build a Successful Career as a Neurodivergent Individual

A Q&A with Vic Mazonas, General Manager of GAIN

Research shows that neurodivergent people face substantial challenges finding work, as well as staying in employment. Yet with research from the likes of Deloitte showing that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them, this lack of understanding for neurodiversity is illogical as well as grossly unfair. This is even more the case when we consider that around one in seven people are neurodivergent.

We recently sat down with Vic Mazonas, General Manager of GAIN – the Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment & Neurodiversity – to discuss how, as a self-confessed “very autistic” person, they have been able to develop a successful career. What tips do they have to offer? How can organisations be more understanding and encouraging of the needs of the neurodivergent? And what steps can neurodivergent people themselves take in the workplace to help improve their chances of success?

Q: What was your experience like at school?

A: My school years were a mixed bag. I was labelled as gifted because of my academic abilities, but there was a large gulf for me between academic intelligence and emotional intelligence and social skills.

While I did well in school, I often found myself bored in class. Outside of class there was a lot of social exclusion and bullying. My peers could tell I was different to them, even though we didn’t have a label to apply to it at the time.

It helps that I’ve always really loved learning. So even though I wasn’t being challenged enough in school with the work they gave me, I enjoyed any opportunity to learn something new. I got involved in as many after school and lunchtime clubs as I could. I pursued a lot of my own interests outside of school like writing, art, reading about archaeology and science. I also had a loving family, and that helps a lot.

Q: What challenges did you face in roles after university based on your neurodivergence and how did you cope?

A: Ambient noise can be overwhelming. If there are multiple people talking at once, even if they’re all speaking quietly, I find it difficult to pick out the voice I’m supposed to focus on.

If it’s an open plan office, sounds will echo and distract me. Bright lights can be a challenge. Physical sensations too, such as if the office chair has a rough texture on the seat, I can feel it through my clothing, and it will frustrate me.

“It’s not only a matter of learning to understand the hidden subtext in other people’s communications; it’s learning how to recognise the accidental subtext that I don’t realise I’m communicating.”

I can be very straightforward and upfront, and it took me quite a long time to learn how to be that way without coming across as blunt or rude, or like I wasn’t interested in the other person. Sometimes I would think I was being thoughtful and careful in the decisions I was making. And I didn’t realise that the perception of them was actually the opposite.

I’ve found that for neurotypical people – people who don’t have a neurodivergent mind – the literal words being said in conversation matter a lot less than the context around them. Whereas with me when I say something, I mean exactly the words that come out of my mouth. And it’s not only a matter of learning to understand the hidden subtext in other people’s communications; it’s learning how to recognise the accidental subtext that I don’t realise I’m communicating.

Q: How do you do that? What kind of strategies helped you deal with this?

A: For a very long time, I was just very bad. There was a lot of accidentally offending or upsetting someone, learning why that had happened, apologising, explaining my intent and then moving forward and trying to find the patterns in when these situations would occur.

I’m not good at people but I am good at pattern recognition and analysing data. I started using that skill to analyse the situations where I was having difficulty and make sense of them. This was all before I knew I was autistic.

I was in my mid to late 20s when I started to realise that other people don’t deal with this. I was approaching the age of 30 when a friend of mine was being assessed for ADHD and autism, and I realised that a lot of the things on the diagnostic tests sounded a lot like what I thought normal life was.

After that, I’ve found that being upfront helps a lot. When joining a new team, I tell people I’m very autistic and ask them to tell me if I say something that comes across wrong.

Q: Looking at the fact that you are now in a very interesting role helping the neurodivergent community, what do you think are the main contributing factors to success in the workplace?

A: Part of my success has been that I’m a stubborn and don’t like hearing that someone doesn’t think I’m capable of something. If I’m set that challenge, I will run headlong at it.

Another contributing factor to my success has been my direct nature. I find it really hard to not be open about myself. I’m LGBTQ and I came out to a friend by accident once when that friend was saying something well-meaning but ignorant about a group of people. I said, “Well I’m one of those.” I only realised afterwards that I’d come out.

“I’m lucky that I grew up in a very accepting area because I wouldn’t have done a good job of staying in the closet if I’d had to!”

I’m lucky that I grew up in a very accepting area because I wouldn’t have done a good job of staying in the closet if I’d had to! But I’m pretty much incapable of lying.

If I’m trying to figure out a nicer way to say something, sometimes I’ll even go so far as to say I’m worried I’m going come across blunt. I’m not good at first impressions but I care about other people a lot and it matters to me that I’m helpful to others. So even where I sometimes make an initial bad impression due to my social incompetence, after knowing me and working with me, people tend to see that I care.

Using my blunt honesty to be kind, rather than as an excuse to be mean, has helped to a certain degree in helping people see my good intentions.

Q: What you’ve said proves how important it is to give the neurodivergent population a chance to show what they can do. What else do you think you bring to an organisation?

A: Some of the things I do bring are those that I take a lot of personal pride in and are inherently connected to my autism. I love learning and I’m always driven to learn new information independently.

Part of the stereotype of autistic people is a lack of empathy. Not only is that stereotype completely wrong, I often think we have the opposite. Most autistic people I know – myself included – have something called hyper empathy. Or at least an excess of empathy, where we care so much about others.

if I’m invested in the work I’m doing and the team I’m part of, I deeply care about making the team function. I care more about the team’s success than I do about my own success.

I’m a natural problem solver. Because of my ability to identify patterns, I find potential problems in issues before they become problems and come up with strategies to solve them. And I enjoy taking another person’s vague idea and drawing out the practical steps to make it into something real and then making that happen.

Q: Success is often down to the help we receive from others as well as our own efforts. What kind of support did you receive in your career?

A: In my current role, because it’s primarily working from home, there are fewer supports related to the environment. But habitually, my team will record and transcribe our meetings, so that I don’t have to choose between taking notes and listening to others and participating actively in the conversation. I can participate actively in the conversation as it happens.

In my previous role, a lot of the help I had was related to the sensory environment. I was allowed to wear headphones at the office all day to block out the ambient noise. If the room was too bright or too crowded, I could book out a little quiet meeting room for the afternoon.

“You can’t overstate just how impactful the right manager can be, especially for neurodivergent people.”

My manager at the time was very good at explaining subtext. After a meeting or an email where the outcome wasn’t what I had expected, I would step aside with him and ask what had happened. He was good at explaining the unseen context and things that others might not have wanted to say out loud, but without which I couldn’t work out the correct next steps.

You can’t overstate just how impactful the right manager can be, especially for neurodivergent people. When I look back over the roles I’ve had where my career didn’t go well, compared to the roles I’ve had where I had success, at every single one it was the approach that the manager took, how that person managed their team, how they interpreted the needs and requests of team members, what they saw as their role in the department. The managers who cared about the team were always amazing.

Q: What should businesses do to genuinely embrace neurodiversity and encourage colleagues to come forward with their needs?

A: If the team and the manager are good, people will be loyal no matter what. In terms of actionable things, psychological safety in the workplace is a big part of this. Most of the time if you are employing neurodivergent people, you might not know you’re employing them.

But I guarantee you that most of the neurodivergent people will have had at least one if not multiple bad experiences at a previous workplace where they were bullied, or where they were treated as incompetent. Where they were looked over for promotion because they didn’t brag loud enough about their own achievements compared to others. So often, disclosure of specific needs can be really scary.

Because of that, the best thing you can do is lose the need for diagnostics and doctors’ notes to form evidence of need. Instead, treat all your employees as though they’re people whose unique needs and challenges are valid and important.

“If you start from the perspective of how to get the best possible person out of the people you’re working with… people will open up to you.”

I said earlier that when I’m in an open plan environment, I like to have headphones on specifically because it drowns out the ambient noise that distracts me. Now if I need that to focus better and my colleague sitting next to me who’s not autistic is simply happier and more productive when listening to music, does it matter that we have different reasons for needing the same thing? What sense would it make to say yes to me and no to them?

If you start from the perspective of how to get the best possible person out of the people you’re working with, what makes them happiest and most motivated, inspired, or excited at work, people will open up to you about what they have going on when they feel safe.