So, last night I watched a great video chat between Kate from the I Am My Own Experience blog and Kieran from The Autistic Advocate blog, about autism, masking and burnout. So I wanted to explore some thoughts around the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign.
I think most autistic people would agree that the ability to ‘mask’ their autistic traits seems to be a pre-requisite to being able to navigate the neurotypical world. Without downplaying those aspects of ourselves that society is uncomfortable with, criticism, rejection, and isolation likely follows. To avoid exclusion, autistic folk tend to ‘perform’ neurotypical behaviour – the energy required to do this generally leads to burnout, meltdown, and a variety of mental health challenges sooner or later. Given the choice between isolation, or meltdown, it’s little wonder that autistic folk need a third option – that is why #TakeTheMaskOff is so important.
This campaign is about making a space for autistic folk to be themselves, challenging societal biases, and normalising neurodivergent traits and behaviour.
Given that the ability to ‘pass’ as neurotypical is often inextricably linked to being able to earn a living, the need for this campaign can’t be understated. For many, passing as neurotypical is challenging, for others, it’s impossible. We know that unemployment is much higher in the autistic community (some estimate around 80%), and suicide rates are much higher than the neurotypical community. I’d also hazard a guess that homelessness is higher, and income generally lower. Given UK austerity measures, making ends meet has proven to be a nightmare for most people in receipt of benefits – disabled or otherwise. Something needs to change.
This leads to one of my areas of interest – autism in the workplace. Having worked in management consultancy, and various ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives, and being on the autistic spectrum, I am keenly aware of the scale of change that needs to occur in most workplaces to level the playing field for autistic folk (and by extension, neurodiversity in general, including those with mental health challenges). If the aim is ‘equal opportunity’, achieving a decent standard of living, let alone parity of representation at all organisational levels, then significant areas of organisational practice must be re-examined. This includes questioning policies, processes, and workplace culture (meaning its attitudinal and behavioural components).
I can wholeheartedly say that some great work is being done to this end, but in many organisations (including within some ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ departments), unhelpful practices and beliefs still proliferate. The reality is, I think a lot of organisations (and individuals within them) don’t get the scale of necessary change if meaningful inclusion is to become a reality – it is understandable that organisations are reluctant to engage with change given the proliferation and internalisation of widely spread so-called ‘best practice’ approaches, particularly those that have emerged since the rise of neoliberal capitalism in the 80s. Given how ingrained market principles and hyper competitive practices have become in the workplace (and society) since the 80s, it’s no wonder that at times questioning some of these beliefs is treated as a kin to heresy. However, we are living through an era where the instability of this economic model (and the beliefs and practices that underpin it) has been laid bare – the highest level of wealth inequality for decades, and the resultant societal unrest and political instability that accompanies it – that is why now is the time organisations need to be questioning (and be questioned about) the role they play in society, and how their employment practices help or hinder society at large. This is exactly the time for organisations to enable their staff to #TakeTheMaskOff.
So, what can organisations do? Here’s a starter for ten, but I could (and likely will in another article), go in to much more detail.
Culture Change: A lot has already been written about raising awareness in the workplace, and establishing Employee Resource Groups, so I won’t repeat that here (although I completely recommend it). However, as mentioned, the scale of change does not yet meet the need – ‘sheep dip’ awareness training rarely has the lasting impact that is required to enable a wholesale culture change, what is required is lasting awareness of what the organisation is trying to achieve.
Organisations need to be asking questions like ‘Does our internal marketing team have a protected budget for inclusion and diversity initiatives? Are we actively inviting staff to question assumptions on a daily basis (for example, “What do we mean by ‘appropriate behaviour’? Who gets to decide what is or isn’t ‘appropriate’? Who are we asking to define ‘appropriate behaviour’? Who isn’t represented in our definition? What type of behaviours do neurodiverse people manifest?”).’
Furthermore ‘Are we checking that our discourse is inclusive (for example, a manager telling a member of staff to “be more resilient” is unlikely to help their resilience, and works on the assumption that they haven’t already invested plenty of time and money on therapy, self-help, etc. just to get to their present state of resilience – if ‘resilience’ is a prerequisite of the job description, perhaps the nature of the job itself, or the culture in which the job operates, needs to be re-shaped, rather than the employee)?’
And ‘Are we taking every opportunity for our staff to mix with diverse groups of people? Are we inviting diverse groups from outside our organisation to mix with our staff? Are we allowing our staff to work with diverse groups elsewhere? Can this be linked to employee development? Are we ‘backing up’ the diverse people we already have on their terms (i.e. are we actually listening to their experience and believing them?)?’
Job Roles: How often do we really interrogate how job descriptions exclude people? How many times do we use phrases like ‘resilient’ or ‘great communicator’ or ‘outgoing’ without any consideration as to whether things like this are really fundamental to the job? When outlining the range of skills we want from a single applicant are we really taking into account neurodiversity – i.e. someone may excel in certain areas mentioned in the role profile, but be disabled by others, so do these skills need to exist together under one role? Are we asking neurodiverse people to not only help us write job descriptions and role profiles, but also design the actual job?
Working hours: Are we investigating ways to approach contracted hours more flexibly? The typical Monday – Friday 9-5 is challenging for a lot of people, as is having ‘fixed’ working hours – this creates additional stress for autistic people to ‘perform’ neurotypicality at times when they may need to recharge, which can lead to greater sickness leave further down the line. This of course is a hugely complex topic, which I’ll explore in more detail in the future, but I’d strongly encourage organisations to explore alternative methods of defining / designing the working day.
Change their structure: In order for employees (particularly employees with ‘protected characteristics’) to have a real stake in what they do, why not explore an alternative organisational structure? Worker-owned co-ops, and non-hierarchical modes of organising have been gaining more traction since the financial crash of 2007/08, with some encouraging results. Typically these modes of organising are more amenable to inclusion and diversity.
Fundamentally these suggestions (and others I could make) require organisations to operate far more flexibly than they do at present. It requires a different mindset, a little less control, and a leap of faith – things which many organisations are already reaping the benefits of – but these things are going to be essential if organisations are going to successfully face the challenges ahead in the 21st Century. Enabling employees to #TheTheMaskOff is just the first step.