When I tell people what I do for a living, I sometimes get some strange looks.
User experience (UX) research isn’t always instantly understood.
When I explain that I lead and conduct research with people to understand how they use technology to help businesses and designers craft better experiences for them, the looks get even stranger.
They understand what I do, they just don’t always understand how I can do that job.
I was diagnosed late as an adult in 2016 at the age of 29.
I spent the first 30 years of my life feeling like I had been dropped off on an alien planet.
I didn’t fit in anywhere and everything I thought, felt, said and did was always ‘wrong’ and I never knew why.
One day I considered the possibility that being different might be a positive thing.
Eventually, I learned how to accept and even like myself for my differences.
I’m the same person I’ve always been, but now with my diagnosis, I have the right context and framing for the way I experience the world.
I’m proud of my autistic identity.
I’m an autistic person, not a 'person with autism’.
I don’t keep it in my purse.
‘With’ implies there’s a scenario where I can be without it, but that’s not how it works – and I wouldn’t change a thing.
My autism is amazing.
I love experiencing the world the way I do.
UX and autism don’t often come across as two things that go together.
What the world thinks
Common myths and misconceptions about autistic communication styles and sensory and social differences that are often framed as deficits, feed unhelpful stereotypes about the level and types of jobs I can and cannot do as an autistic person.
A recent study commissioned by Amaze asked Australian respondents about the types of jobs they thought autistic people could do.
Only 42.3% thought an autistic person could be a lawyer and only 33.5% thought we could be a doctor.
Respondents were most likely to agree that an autistic person could be an ‘Artist/Musician’ (87.8%).
This was closely followed by ‘Supported employment’ (86.9%), ‘Stacking shelves in a supermarket’ (79.5%) and ‘Computer programmer’ (76.2%).
The same study also found that 20.1% of respondents would feel concerned or very concerned if an autistic person was appointed as their boss.
As an autistic professional with more than a decade of experience in UX, I feel that my unique blend of autistic traits gives me an advantage as a growing leader in my field.
My brain is wired up differently and I experience the world in a unique way.
I don’t instinctively follow unwritten social rules about what to say and do — also known as the hidden curriculum — and can sometimes find it hard to interpret indirect or vague communication.
My own communication style is precise and direct and I’m not afraid to ask a lot of questions.
I’m hyperaware of my surroundings.
I’m always conscious of how much information I'm processing in any given moment.
My brain doesn’t know what is and isn’t important so it absorbs and processes everything.
Lights, sounds, textures, conversations, traffic across multiple streets and more.
There are some big advantages to the unique perspective my autism gives me.
I think in pictures and I have excellent pattern recognition skills because I’m hyper observant.
I have strong memory recall. My brain is a vault and I can access my memories like files and replay them in my head.
The possibilities for what I can achieve are endless.
I love seeing more and more organisations embracing and learning about autism and how they can be inclusive of it in the workplace.
I’m glad they’re realising that hiring us isn’t an act of charity.
Now that organisations are feeling more comfortable in this space, I’d like to see more room for autistic diversity in the conversation.
I completely respect and understand that part of an employer’s autism education journey involves learning about strengths that can be common among autistic professionals, then relating that information to job opportunities to build understanding of the value we bring.
I welcome this, but I feel we need to be mindful that if the conversation ends here, this can open the door to role pigeon-holing and further stereotyping in the workplace.
We need to actively keep that educational conversation going.
This is an excellent starting point, but learning about autism needs to be viewed as an ongoing process.
Diversity in the autism spectrum
Part of that process is helping employers understand that not every autistic person will have the same set of strengths.
Some of us may have strengths that are less common or may offer value that is entirely unique to the individual.
We may not all be suited to the types of jobs you think we are.
There is an enormous amount of diversity in the autism spectrum.
No two of us are exactly alike.
We don’t all share the exact same set of traits and some of us are multiply neurodivergent and possess other differences such as ADHD or dyslexia which bring a myriad of other possible strengths and perspectives.
Autistic people exist in every profession you can imagine and that includes all ICT disciplines.
We come from all walks of life and all backgrounds.
We’re also a lot like our non-autistic peers.
We all have our own individual interests, dreams and ideas for what we want our careers to look like.
The more autistic people you talk to, the more you’ll realise just how different we all are from each other – and this is a really beautiful thing.
Every single one of us brings a unique form of value that organisations can tap into if they’re open to seeing us as the individuals we are.