Nothing About Us, Without Us: When Neurodiversity Works with Natalia Lyckowski

Jennifer Brown | |

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Natalia Lyckowski, Neurodiversity@IBM Global Business Resource Group Co-Chair, joins the program to discuss the importance of addressing neurodiversity in the workplace, and the stages of representation. Discover the strengths and challenges that neurodivergent talent bring to the workplace, and how to create an environment where everyone can do their best work.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How to frame language in the most inclusive way (24:00)
  • Why symbols matter (27:00)
  • How ERG’s can help accelerate the journey of inclusion (34:00)
  • How to create safe spaces for neurodivergent employees (38:00)
  • Why embracing neurodivergence is good for the bottom line (42:00)
  • Potential challenges of virtual work (45:00)
  • How to become more vigilant about neurodivergent representation (49:00)
  • The intersectionality of neurodivergence (51:00)
  • The need to move from a medical model to a social model (59:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Greetings, Will To Changers, this is Jennifer. And I wanted to let you know that we are running a another cohort of our popular DEI Foundations course starting March 9th. This course is meant to be for the learner, meaning someone who’s getting started on this work and the domain of understanding diversity, equity and inclusion. Whether or not we do this as a job that we’re paid to do, whether or not we are an advocate interested in deepening into our own diversity stories, which we all have one as we talk about a lot on The Will To Change. And also just thinking through how might I apply this work as whatever role I have in terms of being an advocate, being a full timer, being a part timer, being an enthusiastic volunteer, which so many of us are before we become professionals in this space. And I would just encourage you all to invest in this way in your own education, in your own skill set and really mindset as much as skill set.

So check it out. And as I said, the next cohort begins March 9th. We have a special code for podcast listeners that gives you 20% off. So if you text, DEI Foundations, all one word, to 55-444. You will get information on how to register and use that coupon code podcast, all one word, all caps, for 20% off of the tuition. So again, the program begins March 9th, please consider making this investment in yourself. It is a six-week course that is a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning, you will meet amazing people that are traveling the same journey and road that you all are. And you will also have an opportunity to learn from some of our fabulous team at JVC.

So again, starting March 9th, six weeks, check it out. And if you missed that text to download, you can also go to jenniferbrownconsulting.com, and look up more information on our courses. And this is called the DEI Foundations course. So check it out, use the code and consider joining us.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Embracing neurodiversity from a corporate standpoint is great for the corporate citizenship side of it. But there’s hard revenue behind all of this as well. The neurodivergent community is a wide spectrum. But as a nerodivergent professional, a company can, if they choose to, embrace neurodivergent talent, you can get original thinking, creative problem solving, people who are very passionate and honest and fair. And those benefits can lead to more innovation and better empathetic managers, increased employee morale, with some accommodations, and most of the accommodations are inexpensive, if not free, only opening people’s hearts.

DOUG FORESTA: Everyone has a diversity story, even those who don’t expect. Welcome to The Will To Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, best selling authors, and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.

Hello, and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta, I’m with Jennifer Brown, and today’s episode features an interview with that Nat Lyckowski. She is the neurodiversity at IBM Global Business Resource Group co-chair. Let me just say a little bit about her. She is proudly neurodivergent and parent of an autistic IT professional. She empowers acceptance culture by designing safe spaces to self identify and developing education and initiatives that improve trust an allyship. And she, herself, is a public speaker and organizer of global enablement via training events, guest speakers and panel events both within IBM and externally.

She has over 10 years of experience of coaching and mentoring neurodivergent individuals and their caregivers. And she’s also experienced with cross-identity engagements, such as persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+, race, ethnicity, gender and other identity groups. And she is also a 25 year, veteran-application developer for IBM Global financing. Jennifer, before we do anything, I want to just say we’ve covered this topic before. I know Nat is going to be on the community the DEI community call, right? She’s going to be on an upcoming community call?

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative). On March 18th at noon, Eastern on… That’s Thursday. So those are our Thursday weekly calls. For any of you that haven’t checked those out, you definitely should, definitely do not miss those, they’re amazing, and they continue to just gain steam, I’m amazed. But this one will be just like the others, I think really compelling, and particularly the chat that accompanies the discussion, where there’s so much knowledge in our audience, that’s also equally interesting than the conversation that’s going on live. So definitely consider joining us for that. Yes, Nat, on March 18th. And just let me give the text to download for that one, Doug. A quick way to get the link to RSVP for the community calls is by texting, DEI community, all one word, to 33-777. So that’s DEI community, all one word, to 33-777.

DOUG FORESTA: And I also want to just remind our listeners, if you haven’t listened to Episode 102, with Dr. Dave Caudel about unlocking the potential of neurodiverse talent, we released that episode last May of 2020. So neurodiversity is certainly a topic that you’ve covered on the show, that you’re covering in diversity in the DEI calls, but say a little bit about the importance of this topic as a diversity dimension.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness, I mean, I was so stimulated by… always am stimulated by these… It’s not an emerging diversity dimension, because that’s always been with us, but it’s emerging in terms of a strategy, right? And something that is a dedicated effort. And I mentioned early in this episode that speaking to somebody from IBM always takes me way back, because of my early, early days, literally 20 years ago at this point, where I started to become involved in LGBT workplace advocacy, right? It was when I first connected some dots for myself that this was work that was happening, that was starting to be taken seriously, and I share with Nat.

But back then the big issue was domestic partner benefits, literally, the very, very basic protections or mentioning sexual orientation in a company’s non-discrimination policy was actually a goal that we had, that was what we were working for, and trying to socialize and trying to explain to companies why it was important and why it was more inclusive to mention that in addition to race, ethnicity, and gender, right? And then of course, subsequently, we would move on to gender identity and expression. And that was a whole other hill to climb.

So someday, I think even Nat and I talked about this, but someday, just like we share our pronouns, right? These emerging practices, these next practices, as I call them, will become part of the lexicon. And imagine workplaces where when we say bring our full selves to work, we feel comfortable addressing the fact that we’re neurodivergent, because we work in an environment that speaks about it, right? That has dedicated resources, that is seeking to put their money and practices where their mouth is and hire neurodivergent talent and train on what Nat calls neurodivergents enablement to employees, right?

So just to give an example, IBM is hiring neurodivergent talent proactively in eight countries around the world. They’re providing training in 30 plus countries to employees in multiple languages and have reached over 1,500 IBMers with that training, and to have a dedicated ERG that is distinct… connected to but distinct from the disability ERGs, which those are more common. But neurodivergents specific networks and efforts are more, I think, rare to find. And that’s why when Nat reached out to us to share their story and what they’ve been working on, I was so excited about it. And I was really excited to just continue my learning after my conversation with Dr. Caudel at Vanderbilt, who literally runs a center at Vanderbilt for neurodivergent talent to think through, “What does this mean for students? What does it mean for academia? What does it mean for product development and teaching practices and graduates and alums?” So I’m on my own journey.

Doug, we talk a lot about the inclusive leader continuum, which is in my second book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader. And we talk about the stages of learning and the importance of understanding where am I? And I say where I am, I’m not in unaware, but I’m certainly in aware which is phase two, right? I’m just taking in as much information as I can, and then I’m moving into active which is phase three, which is, “Okay, now that I have located this topic and myself in this topic as a learner. I’m going to activate now by, in my terms anyway, as Jennifer, sharing my platform with experts,” right? So I try to not speak for any community, obviously, but I do investigate what do I have within my reach that I can extend and enable? And so Nat’s voice is important to me to bring to my audience, and what they’re doing as a practice for other companies. But also bringing this topic onto the community call repeatedly and consistently is another way that I’m activating.

And then we’ve activated in terms of adding a lot of neurodiversity examples to my keynote, and we teach the iceberg model, as a lot of you know that have heard me speak and teach. And we have neurodiversity under the waterline because it’s something that often is not visible and may not be disclosed, and certainly can be stigmatized and is stigmatized. And that’s precisely what Nat an IBM is trying to fight against. But the reality is that it’s still something that is not spoken of, not educated about, not acculturated, if you will, not driven through the muscle of organizational practices, right? Whether that’s hiring and retention, or all of it.

So I reflect on my own journey on this topic all the time. And I also am acutely aware that there’s so much diversity within the neurodiverse community, so I’m also trying to grasp that and know that there’s not one spokesperson for an entire community. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way for all of us that have been put in that position of being a spokesperson for an entire community, and knowing that we could never possibly do the diversity within the diversity justice. But all I do, if I’m the only one at the table, I will do my best. But I also try to say, “This is just one example.” And I think that’s why the community call on March 18th, is going to be so powerful, because we’re going to have several different voices coming from different places that all consider themselves part of the same community, which is fascinating.

Yeah, Doug, so this is, like I said, I learned a lot from this episode, I hope you all do as well. Nat takes us through her neurodiversity journey, as a neurodivergent individual herself, and then as a parent of neurodivergent kid, and also as a self advocate, and ally, and as an IT professional. So Nat wears a lot of hats. She talks about her stages of representation, interestingly, are slightly different than, say, the one that I use in the book in the four part inclusive leader continuum. She uses awareness to acceptance to advancement. So three A’s, I really like it, it’s tight, it’s simple to remember. And I particularly like that it ends with advancement. And that, I think, is what one of the goals of this group and of IBM in general is to, of course, ensure that that advancement is happening, and it’s not just the hiring practices, right? But it’s what happens once neurodivergent talent enters the organization. And even identifying the existing neurodivergent talent at IBM, I would think is part of what they’re trying to do as well. Because this diversity dimension is so often not spoken and not articulated.

She talks about the neurodivergent advantage in terms of strengths, challenges and benefits for neurodivergent talent. And I won’t give that away, but she goes into that in more detail on the episode. And also takes us back in time and tells us how this effort was launched at IBM, which is so important. Remembering as we’re sitting here listening to this in our various companies, we may or may not even have an abilities related ERG in place, let alone a neurodivergent effort. But I always believe, Doug, that bringing these future focus examples to the audience, it gives us something to have in mind and something to grow into. And so I would imagine most listeners will not have ever encountered a neurodivergent specific effort, or let alone an ERG, like IBM has. So this is one of those leading practices that I hope really inspires everybody that’s listening to this and I believe that actually this will be in our futures, wherever we work. It’s just a matter of time and readiness in our organization.

And really, leaders like Nat and others who are extremely focused on bringing this to life. And we all know as much as ERGs need to be created sometimes from the top in order to have the legitimacy and the protection and buy-in and sponsorship, so that people will come out of the woodwork, so to speak, to self identify as neurodivergent. We also need grassroots leaders like Nat and others to say, “Hey, we’re here. And we’re an important part of this community, we’re contributing every day, and here’s how we work best, and here’s how you can set us up for success, and here’s who we are.” And they have absolutely done that. And I think probably done that. And I just love examples like this, because you have employees using their voice, and then we have a company that values those voices, and that is putting that infrastructure around that community so that that community can thrive. And one can become many, if you will.

She shares a lot of important statistics as well in this episode that you need to sort of commit to memory. I mean, I in my own learning journey, I memorize certain statistics that I can pull out in my keynotes to make sure people understand that the representation of neurodivergent individuals is much, much higher in the general population that any of us would expect. Yeah. Doug you know something about neurodivergent too, right?

DOUG FORESTA: I do. Yes, my son is neurodivergent.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. Again, I won’t give away too much about the strengths and challenges piece. But I can tell you that there’s things that maybe might be easier for me than for my son, but there’s things my son can do that I could never do in a million years. You’ll hear some of that in this episode, she talks about some of those things. But yeah, I mean, it’s the reality. I think about sort of this covering, there’s been a lot of covering of this piece of identity, and you’d always talk about needing to see it to be it, and I’m really glad. I mean, that’s kind of what I was thinking as you were saying this, I’m really glad that there’s people like Nat at large organizations like IBM that are putting this diversity dimension forward so that people like my son, who’s Gen Z, who’s going to be entering the workforce in a couple of years, he has those… he could see it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s so important. And we have members of our team at JVC with neurodivergent kids, we have neurodivergent team members. And so it’s really incredible to be… Every time Doug, we make space for this topic in this community, and these identities, even my own network kind of comes to me and says, “Thank you so much for talking about this, I want to share about somebody… one of my loved ones, or I want to share about myself and what I need,” right? And it’s just this goose bump moment to realize we are literally working on… Even enabling the JVC team, even enabling and creating a safe space for some of the parents on my team to talk about their kiddos. It’s just one of those pinch me moments of the work we do, I feel like, to be talking about these things is such a gift, and to be preparing the ground for your kid and others to thrive, and be educating on the front end, so that all of that can be enabled.

Because if you think about the lost opportunity, and the lost potential of basically all of history of the workplace, and the joblessness for example of certain communities that we’re passionate about bringing to the table. And just all the biases that get in the way that people aren’t even aware of that are happening, and then the fear and the stigma that prevents us from disclosing so that organizations actually can’t be challenged to be better. We’ve got that as essentially where we live every single day to say, “How do we reflect all the realities that we know are happening in our workforces that we’ve never talked about, that we’ve never understood? How can we create a better workplace for all of us to thrive?”

So this is just one of those really important pieces. And I hope all of you will get in touch with Nat, I know they’re very interested in benchmarking. So I think I speak for that effort and the community to say, please reach out, please, if you’re curious, if you think this is something you could enable in the next even year or two in the environment you’re in, don’t hesitate to reach out to these people because this is why we do what we do. Whether it’s Dr. Caudel at Vanderbilt, or whether it’s Nat and the team at IBM, or whether it’s the folks that are joining on the community call on March 18th. You’re not alone. And there’s a lot of stuff that can already be leveraged, you just have to know where to look. So enjoy the episode. Nat, welcome to The Will To Change.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad. I’m looking forward to learning from you which I do every time we speak and the topic today is neurodiversity and I originally discovered you, Nat, because IBM is a client of mine, and I speak there occasionally. And we connected through many mutual friends at IBM, and we’ve had leaders from IBM actually, on some of our community calls in the past. And I, as an LGBTQ+ person have always been extremely grateful for the many, many decades that the company has been endeavoring to build an inclusive workplace for all kinds of us and being really a thought leader, corporate wise. Some of my earliest friends in the LGBTQ advocacy movement about 20 years ago were IBMers who had LGBT on their business card. And I remember seeing that 20 years ago, and I just remember the impression that made on me. And it wasn’t just the brand, of course, but it was that anybody could hold these jobs to represent this community in the world, whether that’s attracting that talent group, whether it’s business development to those buyers, for example, as we know, the buying power of the LGBTQ community is, I think, 1 trillion now and growing.

So it just made such an impression on me. And now, it’s no accident that we’re sitting here talking about this. And you come into my frame of view, and I’ve added neurodiversity as a diversity dimension under the waterline of the iceberg that I teach a lot in my keynotes. And it always engenders an enormous conversation and so much curiosity, and also gratitude for being seen in the community of neurodiverse individuals, and having that be named. And so today, we’re just going to go deep into this with your help, and learn more about you, personally, and also your advocacy work and allow you to be sort of the instructor as well as I learn. But I’m just excited to bring you to the community. So thank you, and let me hand it over to you to share your diversity story and stories, plural, with us, where does this topic find you today? Why are you so passionate about it? And why is it deeply rooted in who you are and what you care about?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Thanks so much, Jennifer. I guess I’ll just start with a definition of what neurodiversity is because it’s kind of a new term, first coined by Judy Singer. The concept of neurodiversity is really to take neurological differences and ensure that they are accepted and respected as any other human variation. And under neurodiversity, you will have neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, and many other neurological differences, both innate, meaning born with or acquired over time. And it’s really moving away from that this is an accessory or this is something that we need to cure. And move into that it’s just part of who we are. It’s something that makes us all more human.

My neurodiversity journey pretty much started… Hard to say. I, myself, am neurodivergent, I was formally recognized as neurodivergent in college. So that’s a bias we can talk about later on. But my personal story really started when my son, who was six at the time, was formally recognized as being autistic. And the local school systems were really failing him, I was directed to put him into a special residential program and really just forget about him. And at the time, I did not know much about autism. And I had to bone up and I had to become a ally for him, and try to start to break some of those stereotypes where if I say I have an autistic son, sometimes the response that I get is very pedantic, or, like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I’m not sorry. He is now an IT professional and went to Carnegie Mellon and has done lots of amazing things for a lot of the really tough IT companies out there are. So very proud of what he has done, not only for himself, not only as a parent, but for the neurodivergent community.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much. And I just noticed that you used one of the words you’ve taught me which is recognized versus diagnosed. And I wonder if we could pause on that and let you riff a bit on language. It’s so important. So I hope everybody picked up on that recognized is the word. Can you tell us about some other words in terms of framing our language in the most inclusive way?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Sure, I like to use recognize because especially with one’s neurological differences, in the most cases, this is something that is who we are. It’s not like you woke up one day and said, “Oh, look at that, I’m dyslexic, or dyscalculic.” It’s something that was always there. I’m more akin to it as you get one of those DNA tests where you swab your cheek and you send it away, and you get this report back, and it says, “Oh, I’m 30% Hungarian. I never knew that.” So I like to use the term recognize instead of diagnose because it’s really finding about your own self discovery.

Some other things, language that’s used in the neurodivergent community is identity first language. And by that, I mean, we’re saying… If somebody may say, “I’m an autistic,” or, “I am an autistic professional,” or, “I’m a neurodivergent professional.” Instead of saying person that has autism, or is on the spectrum. What does that mean? I mean, you could be on the LGBTQ spectrum, right? It’s not an accessory. We wouldn’t say a person with blackness, you wouldn’t say a person that has lesbianism, this is something who we are. And in most cases, that is what’s preferred. Obviously, you may encounter somebody who prefers to use a person first, we always have to accept what the individual prefers. But from a community, I’ve had people who say, “Oh, don’t say that you’re neurodivergent, just say you have this or that, that’s so much better.” I’m like, “Really? I disagree. And who are you to tell me how I should refer to myself?”

Some of the other language [inaudible 00:26:57] you may have heard the term high functioning. And even that now has been migrating over to something more discrete, meaning support. So support can be measured externally. So instead of saying someone is high functioning, the term is he’s a low support individual, or someone that has high support needs. Because saying somebody is low functioning, who gets to measure what functioning really is? Does that mean you can write your name in cursive or that you can make a martini? Who knows? But it’s focusing on what we can do, or what we need externally.

Symbols also matter. So you’re probably familiar with the jigsaw piece icon to represent autism, and our community, for the most part, really use that as an ablest icon. I’m not missing a piece, I’m a whole person. And the infinity symbol is actually preferred to represent the infinity of neurological differences.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love the infinity, the message of that. And I wondered if we could just pause and take that right turn into what you believe is similarly experienced by the LGBTQ+ community and the neurodivergent community. Could you say a little bit about what you’ve observed there?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely, the path is pretty much similar across the board. Most neurodivergents long ago, whether it’s… there was no awareness, and it really was just something different. They’ve used in the past the same treatments to get people to stop being gay, versus get people to act more normal neurologically. And it’s a matter of accepting that different frame of mind, that different perspective, whether it was something medical, or not, it’s really following the same foot steps. People use the term, “I’ve come out about being ADHD, or this or that,” as opposed to moving into a social model, as opposed to a medical model.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, what you just said is really important. Another wording difference you shared with me was disorder to difference, right? These subtle changes we can make in our language that have a really big impact and I do think there’s a lot of ties between people with diverse abilities, ERGs, for example, and the LGBTQ+ ERGs as well. A lot of us battle the closet, if you will, and the struggle with the stigma that is real and anticipated in, quote unquote, “disclosing,” who we are. And so that’s such a battle in organizational contexts because… And I know you shared with me that you think about the question of representation in our workforce, can you bring people in of all diversities? But then the question becomes can be retain and enable to thrive all of those folks? So that’s such a fascinating thing to delve into. And as we go, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how do we build cultures of belonging? Where that psychological safety is there for those of us who have hidden stigmatized identities like these, and what is the process of finding our voice collectively, and then sort of stepping up and showing ourselves and disclosing. And I guess, I feel like I kind of answered my own question, because culture is [inaudible 00:30:56]. But-

NAT LYCKOWSKI: I think we do [inaudible 00:30:59], mentioned early on in the introduction, talking about the buying power, and matching your market. I mean, statistics always change, but right now, it’s like 1 in 50 recognized as autistic and 1 in 20, if not even lower, that are neurodivergent in some manner. So you think of that, whether it’s your client, whether it’s your workforce, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your community, how important neurodiversity is, and as it’s growing on itself, the next chapter or another chapter in the diversity story. The stages of representation, I think, are different for everybody, from a culture standpoint, even from a global standpoint, because where one person may be in a different country has an impact.

And I’m a scout or an outdoorsy person, so I like to use some analogies here where we’re walking through awareness. Awareness is fairly passive, you probably saying like, “There’s an Autism Awareness Day.” Great, that’s wonderful. But what are you actually doing? And then when you start to step up, or go up the mountain, you can start hiking through acceptance. And that’s when you’re starting to take some action, to cultivate your soil, to make things friendly and welcoming to receive information, to receive individuals for who they are, regardless of their neurological difference. And there’s blockers there on so many things, there’s bias in AI, there’s blockages to getting interviewed, or getting past an interview, because of all of the social cultural biases that’s sometimes out there.

But the final stage really, I see as advancement, where neurodivergents are given the opportunity to advance either in their career through team leader or manager or having ability to speak on their behalf. And that’s one of the things I feel everybody is in a different spot on.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s very similar now, what you’re showing and what you’re talking about, the awareness, to acceptance, to advancement, is very similar to the model that I utilize for the inclusive leader journey, which is in the second book, it goes from unaware, to aware, to active, to advocate, and, like you just said, I have to say it over and over again, that everybody’s in a different place individually, in terms of are they walking, are they hiking, or are they climbing? I love that, that outdoor metaphor. But the difficulty goes up, the risk goes up. But the reward and the progression as human beings in our understanding, and then in our empathy, compassion, and then action is a progression that individuals go through, and then also organizations go through. And you’ve got a lot of it sprinkled… a variety of levels sprinkled throughout every organization.

ERGs help accelerate the journey from walking, to hiking, to climbing. And that is one of the most of many brilliant things about them is they highlight a community that lacks a voice, and then shows the strength and numbers to that community which is empowering and important and critical. But then also, I think, marshals that voice to make recommendations for change in the culture, in the structure, in the strategy, in the support, in the way that the organization talks about a community. So your experience is within an ERG context that neurodiversity at IBM was created as a specific ERG dedicated to this community. And I wondered if you could take us back into the history of that and then bring us up to speed on all the success you’ve found and the appetite you found for this community in this topic?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Sure. We call them BRGs, Business Resource Groups at IBM, but it’s the same as an ERG, began in 2015 as a grassroots effort. There were two volunteers, one in Australia, one in the US. One of them actually went to the United Nations autism day and found out what other companies were doing in the states and felt that IBM needed to be active. So a BRG was formed in 2015, and it was first labeled autism as a skill. And it was predominantly run by allies, caregivers, IBMers that had a neurodivergent child, and it grew from there. In 2017, IBM had its first targeted hiring pilot in Lansing, Michigan, and Wired magazine actually did a video on it, and I can share that link with you. And since then, we’ve been growing.

In 2016, I moved into the role of co-chair, one of our first steps to put our motto into practice, which is nothing about us, without us. And we need to collaboratively manage both voices from the neurodivergent and the neurotypical, because there’s synergy between there. But at the same time, we need to ensure that policies and practices and initiatives that are being moved up forward, are vetted by neurodivergent professionals and IBMers. The goal is having everything become mainstream, so it’s not that a specific way we target one talent pool, but it really should be the way we target everyone. Everyone should be interviewed at their best.

Since then, we’ve also… Let’s see, we have a global hiring programs in countries around the world. But not only hiring, we’re focusing on enablement. Because, I’m going to go to another outdoor metaphor here, you have to cultivate that soil, you have to change things up, you have to make that soil right. So when you do get a new neurodivergent higher through one of these targeted programs, they could land and take root. But at the same time, through enablement and acceptance training, you’re pulling out the weeds, you’re making everyone be able to grow better and flourish.

We’ve also created something really special, and I get a little emotional about it, because it’s really so important. And we’ve created safe spaces for our neurodivergent employees, we actually have to… It’s run through Slack. So we have one called the Actually Autistic Task Force, and the Actually Neurodivergent Task Force, and some people are in one way or the other, or both, depending on where they feel. And it’s an invitation only program, and it’s a place where we can support each other. But more importantly, we can rally. And this is where our voices can be combined. And this is where we can come up with initiatives and educational content, and also provide that vetting from HR or talent to come through to see, and it’s really special.

JENNIFER BROWN: We asked about disclosure earlier, I would imagine people started participating in those Slack groups as a safe space and then kind of blossomed from there.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Can you describe… The transformation that happens in us when we find commonality is unstoppable.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: It is. And again, these are global channels, so where different countries are with their level of awareness or acceptance is a factor here. But I’ve seen people join our safe space channel, and then in six months coming out to say, “I spoke to my manager about getting accommodations and I did that and now I’m so much more efficient at work. I feel so much better being able to bring my whole self to work.” And now that same person is speaking on an international level to help share our mission. What’s also been exciting is that this past year with COVID, and everything else going on, our neurodiversity work did not stop and neurodiversity at IBM made IBM top 10 stories of 2020. So that was pretty exciting.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. I mean, hats off, what an investment, top to bottom, bottom to top, all the pieces are in place. It’s global right from the beginning, it’s both hiring and retention and… So to me, it sort of satisfies my own checklist in terms of an initiative position for success and the demographic. I just want to go back and highlight the demographics you shared, 1 in 50 identifies autistic, 1 in 20 identify as neurodivergent. So much like I suppose other statistics we share about, for example, how many individuals do not identify as heterosexual and do not identify as cisgender. Some numbers I’ve read are one in five under the age of 35, doesn’t identify as straight and doesn’t identify as cisgender, one in five.

And so when I’m teaching about the importance, for example, of sharing pronouns on the part, especially of us as cisgender people, who identify as cisgender people, the acknowledgement and the anticipation that somebody’s sitting across from me, somebody that I’m working with, somebody in my my client groups, identifies in this way, and yet I know from what I’ve learned and studied is facing self stigma and real stigma and bias in the external world and that it’s a journey that that person is probably on. So what can I do to bring this conversation to the fore and not just normalize it, but I prefer the word usualize it, meaning it’s just a part of how I interact with people, right?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely. It’s not only that warm, fuzzy… I mean, yes, embracing neurodiversity from a corporate standpoint is great for the corporate citizenship side of it. But there’s hard revenue behind all of this as well. Now, granted, the neurodivergent community is a wide spectrum, but as a non divergent professional, a company can, if they choose to, embrace their divergent talent, you can get original thinking, creative problem solving. People who are very passionate and honest and fair, yes, sometimes to a fault, but that’s what you’re going to get. And those benefits can lead to more innovation, and better empathetic managers, increased employee morale, with some accommodations. And most of the accommodations are inexpensive, if not free, only opening people’s hearts.

Some of the challenges that neurodivergents face, it could be a communication style, or sensory sensitivities, emotional regulation. And these things can come out either through the interview process or the recruiting process, having a neurodivergent not be able to go to a job fair at a university because it’s too crowded, too noisy, and those barriers are just as important as having an elevator to get into the room. From the sensory sensitivities, you can think of it as like you have popcorn in your teeth, and you can’t focus on the movie. Well, what if you were neurodivergent and you were sitting next to the noisy printer or the elevator, so a simple office location change or being able to work from home where you can control your own sensory environment completely, you can get so much more out of the person. Or things as simple as scheduling a break, much like some individuals require a break during the day to go pray, neurodivergent may need a break in the day to go detox and come back refreshed. Some with another-

JENNIFER BROWN: This strikes me this is good for all of us, by the way.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Oh, absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Universal design.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: It is. It is universal design, changing your work schedule to come in an hour earlier or later, so you don’t have to fight the commute. And when you arrive at the office, you have a full battery ready to hit your desk and start your day as opposing to having to calm down from that anxiety of the trip.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. So Nat met with the work from home, and I know probably IBMers have been virtual probably for years but so many others are I think getting used to this new reality that’s not going to go away. But how do you view… Is working in the virtual realm more conducive to belonging and performance for neurodiverse individuals? What is your answer to that question? Because I get that question in general all the time, what is better and sort of more challenging in this new modality for when it comes to inclusion and belonging? And there’s so many different ways to look at it, but how would you answer that?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Oh, absolutely. I myself have been full time work from home since 2007. So over a decade, so this is nothing new for me, I actually requested a work from home location when my son was just going through his autism journey being young. And I needed that two hour plus time back in my day for therapies and working with him. And I’m very grateful, because I don’t think he would be where he is today if I didn’t have that flexibility, and support. But working from home, we’ve heard people call it Zoom fatigue or burnout, it does have its advantages and disadvantages, and I think having open dialogue with your company is very important. There are some times expectations of having your camera on. And having camera on can add to a social anxiety level, it also can add your distraction level. Because if you are very hyper focused on details, instead of listening, I might be looking at what books you have on your bookshelf.

And then again, that goes to that eye contact thing of how much we read into eye contact. If there’s a Zoom call, and I’m using a dual monitor, and I’m not looking at the camera, somebody may have an underlying bias to say, “Oh, they’re not paying attention.” And obviously, that’s not true. But it reflects, again, back to your in person, so that same bias that you would say, “Oh, they’re not ignoring me, they’re just using a dual screen,” you could say the same thing for an in-person interaction to say, “I’m not looking at you, because I need to listen to you. And that’s my way of focusing my hearing abilities is by not looking at you.” Because it’s using less of my battery.

JENNIFER BROWN: And funnily enough, I’ve actually said that, that exact thing, I said, “I focus better and then I can take notes and really be actually more present with less stimulation.” And so turning off video helps me in terms of my productivity and my focus. So yeah, I think that managers should be really investigating and re-investigating the, quote unquote, “norms,” or expectations of all of these tools and the potential I think biases some of us have for what we’re most comfortable with, versus at least seeing it through lenses, yes.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: It’s really a great time to even thinking about that, a lot of offices are going right now through physical design changes due to COVID. So at the same time we have a… our Actually Autistics published an article on how to support neurodivergent individuals in an agile workspace. That’s another link I can send to you as well. But going through that, so as you are redesigning your offices for COVID, and social distancing, you can think about your sensory space, think about, “Can we have a quiet space?” Some of some locations have [inaudible 00:48:42] call it a meditation room, or just some place to go and detox or defrag from the sensory world to have that in there. Some of our agile spaces, it may be as simple as having an extra rolling wall available. So if you do need to hole up, you can.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, this gets me to something else we talked about, which is the representation of…  neurodivergent representation at that table for design, right? Often nothing about us, without us really strikes a chord, but you shared with me that we end up getting not neurodivergent individuals, we get allies, caregivers, sometimes medical experts weighing in on decisions, and we’re not actually at the table. So that’s a pretty common theme on The Will To Change. But what is that goal, then? How can we become more vigilant about neurodivergent representation? And if you’d also talk about intersectionality, too, you had some really important things to say about that to define that and add that as an additional filter that we need to keep in mind?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Sure, as far as the neurodivergent representation, the goal, in my opinion, will be at least 50%. And that would be I think the same regardless if it was a initiative to help women or LGBT or whatever, you need stakeholders there, and not a token show pony to say, “Oh, my cousin is this. So I’m an expert now in that.” That’s not the case, we need to have neurodivergent voices, even if it’s one, like I, myself don’t represent the entire neurodivergent community, but I still represent it better than the caregiver or a medical expert.

And just going back to that statistic of 1 in 20, or 1 in 50, that holds no limit to our cross sectionality. And that does lead into some systemic discrimination, as I mentioned, like women trying to get diagnosis, because sometimes you do need something on paper to get a therapy or to get an accommodation, we really should move away from trying to… Like if somebody says, “I can’t sit near the noisy printer,” we should be able to say, “Oh, that makes sense.” As opposed to, “Let me see your paper from the doctor to say that you have ADHD,” we need to be more human there. But to go in through the cross sectionality there are stereotypes of, “Oh, I know what neurodivergent means. Neurodivergent means autistic.” That is not correct. It is the whole world of neurological differences. Or when you say a neurodivergent professional, people think of Sheldon from Big Bang, a white male who’s socially awkward, but adorable, and really good in IT, where we may have a black woman with ADHD who’s an amazing accountant. So it’s not just the IT roles, or even the stem roles.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for pointing all that out.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: It’s actually a very high percentage of people who are neurodivergent who also identify with the LGBT community.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I know, I’ve read some research on that as well. I’m involved in panels all the time as you are too, Nat, and I want to ensure neurodiverse panelists presence in the group. I might struggle with putting that out there in terms of what I’m looking for to have represented, and being more overt about that. And it’s similar to the journey we’ve traveled along other identities, to say, “We need more panelists of color, we need a black voice, we need a trans voice on an LGBTQ panel, not just people talking about trans.” Rights? So nothing about us, without us has really rung true. So I guess, is there advice you’d give us as we travel our conversations in the panels we’re in, or maybe we’re in an audience, or maybe we’re on a planning committee, how do we seek out more neurodiverse voices to make sure that that actual number, which is a huge number as a percentage of the population, is more represented without tokenizing the individual and, I don’t know, the delicate sea of wanting to include and be respectful at the same time?”

NAT LYCKOWSKI: I would say it’s really about culture change, you have to cultivate that soil, you have to break ground and talk about it. It’s kind of like if you have your pronouns after your name, it shows people that you are an advocate, or even a self ally. This does hit like a [inaudible 00:53:43] thing, especially in the US, you can’t come out and say, “Hey, are are you autistic, because you really…” It would be the same asking if you were gay, if you were Christian, whatever it might be, it’s a sensitive thing. But all we can do is keep building and keep cultivating that soil and let it be known that you’re looking for neurodivergent talent, just using the word and using things, like not using the puzzle piece, like using identity first language, building that safe space and safe culture, so people are then more willing to say, “Hey, that’s me, and I’m willing to help and I want to help.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And the more of us creates a safer space, safety in numbers, so if we can create that kind of groundswell then I think it’s very encouraging for people who aren’t comfortable yet. I had another question and I don’t know if you can answer this but in the identity descriptors in HR systems, I am curious about what I’ve always been mindful of in the LGBTQ+ community is that very few of us check the box willingly. Because we’re afraid of the consequences, even when we work for companies that are extremely progressive on the topic, or very supportive publicly and internally, and have won all the awards for Best Places for LGBTQ people. So I wonder what the best or optimal list of identities might be in an HR… Say we’re doing the yearly employee engagement survey, and we’re being asked about our identity, just like any LGBTQ+ community, we’ve got language [inaudible 00:55:30] changes every year as we get smarter about how to refer to gender identity, for example.

Gone are the days when we rolled all of these super diverse identities into one LGBTQ+, “Yes or no? Are you part of the community?” There’s lots of questions you can and should ask that are much more detailed and specific. So I wonder, are there the neurodiverse checkboxes within the abilities and disabilities part of surveys? And what is the best practice in that front? And is it changing quickly? As I would imagine it is.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: I think checking the box is hard for anyone, and even within the neurodiversity community itself, there [inaudible 00:56:16] dichotomy of people that embrace that neurodiversity, or autism, or whatever flavor, is a disability and own it, and want to say, “Yes, I’m a proud disabled autistic.” And then there are some that don’t want to check the box, that say, “This is not a disability, if you consider dyscalculia, or dyslexia a disability, when it’s just a different mindset and a different point of view, then the LGBT should be listed as a disability.” Or anything different than the norm should be listed out, and check the box and don’t check the box.

I think what’s happening is that people check the box for another purpose, you check the box, it’s like, you’re going on an interview, and it says, “Click here if you have a disability and need an accommodation in your job interview.” Well, with my own son, he didn’t want to check the box, because he disagreed with the word disability, but that was the only way to get an accommodation. How do we start that conversation? How do we cast the widest net? And does is the net result of using it? That probably didn’t answer exactly the question that you were thinking of, but anything that we can do to bring this forward, like a lot of companies say, “We do not discriminate against this, this, this, this, this,” and it’s something to think about to put in there, whether they say abilities, or whether they say disabilities, what harm does it say to put neurological difference or neurodiversity or neurodivergent, neuroypical? Get the language out there to make that safe space?

JENNIFER BROWN: What a great idea. Thinking back to the days where sexual orientation, let alone gender identity, but the days before sexual orientation was included in all the non-discrimination statements, right? I mean, I remember those days, I’m sure you do too, Nat.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: In the early days of the advocacy we all did, is part of [inaudible 00:58:28] really was to get it inserted in those statements. And that was huge, just to have sexual orientation. And then we had to tackle the gender identity and expression. But this is the next frontier and we should be seeing this reflected in the language. Absolutely. I’m really glad you’re giving something that concrete, that can send such a powerful message to thousands. I mean, in a company like IBM, hundreds of thousands of people to say… And even just to spark the conversation to say, “What is that? I don’t know what that is?” Very similar to pronoun.

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Yeah, I think the biggest thing with neurodiversity is really moving out of that medical model into the social model, even whether it’s focusing on therapies and tools, it needs to be person-centric, focus on what the individual needs, and not the societal norms. Does it really matter if the person… Why train somebody to have better eye contact? What’s the value add for that? Whereas focusing on the management of anxiety, or attention skills, that’s going to help the additional person. Even genetic research, people have to be very mindful of the eugenics risk there because what are we really… what’s the end goal in trying to do all of that, and moving neurodiversity, as I mentioned, into the next chapter of the EI, it touches so many lives that make us all human. It’s part of who we are. And I’m excited see where it goes next.

JENNIFER BROWN: Nat, you’re doing such good things. I know you’re speaking at some really exciting things coming up too. I know Stanford just had a neurodiversity summit, one of its first, or at the very least hasn’t existed long. And then there’s also Project Zero coming up by the United Nations, and so can you tell us a little bit about that before we go?

NAT LYCKOWSKI: Yeah, Project Zero, it actually started a day or two ago, it’s 86 hours of programming. And the idea it’s really to have zero barriers in [inaudible 01:00:35] of people. IBM will be speaking on a panel discussion with specialist [inaudible 01:00:40], which is a third [inaudible 01:00:41] company agency that IBM that works with to try to find autistic talent, although we are working to ensure that we keep broadening that umbrella. And again, trying to break those stereotypes of not just the IT rolls, not just the Big Bang Sheldons, and going out where they are. I’ll also be speaking at the International Symposium of Cognitive Research. That’s in March, the ISCRD virtual summit, specifically talking about neurodivergent representation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, thank you for everything you do. Nat, you’re so inspirational to the way you’re navigating the new territory, and you’re shining the light for the other hikers as you climb, you are encouraging us all along the path. And you make it extremely concrete and easy to understand, just like I would like to see with every new domain that we know is going to become, and is, a part of our normal, by the way, but is going to become part of the way we talk about DEI and diversity dimensions of all kinds. It’s really exciting. And I know everyone that’s going to be listening to this is taking a lot of notes.

And for those of you who also attend our community calls, Nat is coming on a community call in March. So please keep an eye out for that. And bring your questions and comments. And if you have a neurodiverse ERG at your organizations, please especially come to that community call because we would really like to know how extensive this practice is and of course, how we can encourage more kinds of ERGs that speak to all of our identities, and build workplaces where all of us can feel welcomed, valued, respected and heard. So thank you, Nat, for joining me today.

Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

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