Information Age is pleased to bring you this Diversity and Inclusion series, celebrating the glorious fabric of professionals that make up the IT sector.

This week, Ashlea McKay, People and Culture Lead at Parbery Consulting, and member of the ACS National Diversity and Inclusion Council, discusses what it’s like to be diagnosed autistic as an adult, her experience in the workplace, and how her employer truly embraces what it is to be inclusive.

I describe myself as an autistic professional.

In September 2021, I joined Canberra-based professional services firm, Parbery Consulting, as its first ever People and Culture Lead.

It’s my first organisational level leadership role, having moved into it after spending 13 years working in ICT as a User Experience (UX) researcher.

I was diagnosed as autistic in 2016 at the age of 29, and am part of The Great Resignation or more accurately in my case, ‘The Great Reassessment’.

In late 2020, in a previous workplace, I reached my then dream job of Principal User Researcher and in the process achieved the first internal promotion of my career.

While I was experiencing challenges moving house in January 2021, Parbery Partner Kylie Burnett reached out to me via LinkedIn to see if she could help in any way.

We didn’t know each other at the time, but Kylie is the kind of person who doesn’t keep scrolling when someone posts that they’re having a hard time.

We struck up a friendship and I came to view Kylie as a mentor.

A few months later, like many other professionals, I started to reflect on what I truly wanted for my career.

I loved my work in UX and felt well supported by the CEO and other senior leaders at the firm, but ultimately felt that something was missing.

In the five years since my diagnosis, I’ve become quite active in the Diversity and Inclusion thought leadership space.

Conference talks, panels, media interviews, advisory board appointments, internal events and more are all spaces where talking about my lived experience as an autistic person in the workplace and advocating for societal change in the autism space bring me the most joy.

I also love working with internally-facing users in the UX space and am passionate about researching and designing meaningful employee experiences.

After a lengthy brainstorming exercise, I designed a role for myself – an internally-facing UX/D and I/HR hybrid – and shared my thoughts and ideas with a handful of women-identifying mentors in my life that inspire me, including Kylie from Parbery.

It turned out that Parbery was looking for a People and Culture Lead to do exactly what I had in mind and both my and the firm’s Partner group felt there was a strong values and culture add for all, so we decided to work together.

Parbery is a small organisation with a big heart that connects actively and deeply with the broader community and is genuinely driven to make a positive and authentic impact where it's needed.

They approached my arrival at the firm with an open, supportive and inclusive mindset and a strong understanding that autism is a completely natural and human neurological difference.

Parbery understands that equity in the workplace means that different people need different things to thrive.

Before I joined, the Parbery partners were all familiar with my work in the Diversity and Inclusion advocacy space.

They’d taken responsibility for their own education journeys (and continue to do so) and had read some of my social media posts and articles.

Prior to my first day, the Parbery team reached out to let me know they’d assigned me an office to support the needs of my role and also to provide a quiet space to think.

Parbery also asked me if I would like to choose a fixed desk in the main open plan hot desking office environment, so that when I wanted to work alongside the broader team, I’d have a predictable and stable place to return to.

I know from multiple past experiences that hot desking impacts upon my productivity. I find it very hard to settle in unfamiliar spaces and it can take up to an hour before I’m able to start my work if I must choose a new desk each day.

This small action that cost the organisation absolutely nothing has had a big impact on my wellbeing and the ability to connect with others throughout the day.

Meltdowns are a common and completely natural part of being autistic and sometimes they happen in the workplace.

Autistic meltdowns are not temper tantrums and they’re not an indication of ‘fragility’, ‘immaturity’ or ‘aggression’ as some have described them to me.

A meltdown is a loss of emotional control experienced by an autistic person when they become overwhelmed or are under sensory or emotional stress for too long.

They manifest differently for different autistic people and in my case, meltdowns present as crying and what I describe as ‘word vomit’.

Parbery’s approach to autistic overwhelm and meltdowns has been one focused on proactive empathy designed to prevent these experiences where possible.

The partners here check in with me regularly and, without needing to be taught, they know what to look for in my individual patterns and behaviours that will tell them something might be going on.

They listen to their people and get to know them as human beings with full lives and diverse perspectives.

Despite best efforts, meltdowns can still happen and since joining Parbery, I’ve experienced at least one, however I feel I’ve has been very well supported.

I’ve been free to talk things out, my actions have been correctly viewed through the lens of my autism, and I haven’t felt judged or criticised in any way for openly showing this side of myself so early into a new role.

In fact, it’s been the opposite.

The partners were delighted that I felt safe enough to be my full authentic self around them and viewed it as a positive step in the working relationship.

While meltdowns are unpleasant to experience – even more so for the autistic person having one! – they are highly preventable with some easy-to-provide supports.

The way Parbery supports me through meltdowns by viewing them in the correct context of my autism, has meant that I’ve been able to bounce back, return to productive working patterns quicker and move forward with a stronger bond with Parbery.

Corporate responsibility and social impact sit at the very core of Parbery’s DNA and it shows in how they treat their people.

This Diversity and Inclusion series is brought to you by the ACS National Diversity and Inclusion Council (NDIC). The role of NDIC is to provide strategic advice addressing challenges related to diversity and inclusion within both ACS and the wider technology community.

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