Everyone should be able to bring their full selves to work. But for many autistic people, as many as 80%, it is just not safe to be openly autistic at work. It comes with bias and stigma on top of neurotypical social expectations they’re already excluded from. This means missing out on skills and talent that could really support your business and workforce as a whole.
Listen to this interview on Creating Futures by Salt – our podcast!
Becca Lory Hector consults on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) for organizations and is expert at advising on how to properly include both visibly and invisibly disabled people, and build a productive, healthy workplace culture. She is LinkedIn’s Top Voice in Disability Advocacy, an experienced DEIB Implementation Facilitator and passionate Neurodiversity & Disability Advocate, Researcher, Author, & Keynote Speaker.
Follow Becca on LinkedIn to keep up with her content – and find out more about her services on her website Truly Inclusive Leadership.
My name is Becca Lory Hector and I consult on Diversity, Equity Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB).
I specifically work with companies, organizations, businesses that are working on their DEIB programming and are looking to or ready to include disabled folks in their programming.
I am disabled. I’m an autistic person, so I’m invisibly disabled, but I do help to consult on visibly and invisibly disabled issues.
One of the big, exciting things about what I do is that I get to really help folks to see that disabled people can be in leadership roles and be quite successful at it.
So that’s something that is sort of like the side mission of my mission, right? I do the work that I do, but I do it because I’m on a mission to close the disability gap in leadership.
What was your journey to autism diagnosis like?
So, I was 36 years old when I got diagnosed.
For a lot of us diagnosed later in life, we are in a crisis place when that diagnosis comes in and we get that diagnosis because of the crisis. That was definitely the case for myself. When my diagnosis came in, I was three years homebound and suicidal. So, I very much had my life saved by my diagnosis.
And I think because of that, that kind of leads me to being open. I have this very visceral moment of life before diagnosis and life after diagnosis.
My life is so different and was so greatly improved by my diagnosis that it’s like a badge of honour I wear. It’s one of the reasons that I chose to be openly autistic.
Has anything surprised you about being openly autistic on your platforms?
Well, I think in general I was sort of really hit in the face with what stigma and bias can be.
Because I have an invisible disability in so many ways, I have a choice whether or not folks know that I struggle with autism. A lot of my challenges are internalized and so folks don’t really know necessarily, right? I’ve experienced being open and I’ve experienced not knowing it.
I speak with a foot in either place and I’ve sort of been through that place where I’ve disclosed my disability and times when I haven’t.
I know I have a big mouth, and I know that I have a whole lot of courage and not all of the autistic people that I know have that. I know that it’s a privilege that I was given to be given that ability.
And so, with that I say it is my obligation, right? I was really genuinely given this second lease on life. I have the second chance. And so I am on this like idea that there shouldn’t be another me, there shouldn’t be somebody else who doesn’t know. And so, I’m going to use my big mouth and I’m going to use it on a platform that works for me. And right now, that happens to be LinkedIn.
As much as I identify as being autistic, I identify as being a business professional.
I really am keen on people knowing that I am autistic. I’m open about it. I will share all about my challenges and struggles with it. And at the same time, I’m an incredibly good leader. I’m an incredibly good manager. I do a great job at business planning, right? All of these other things. And they don’t negate each other, and I think that’s where my content comes from.
How would you define autism and it’s common traits?
Okay, so the way that I define autism is that it’s really quite simply that a person’s brain has different connections and processes information in a different way.
That is the most layman’s terms explanation. It’s literally the way that your brain’s connections happen. It’s a difference in the way that your brain processes information.
For me, what I say is I am autistic all the time, right? I dream with my autism. I eat with my autism. I watch TV with my autism. I do all of that, and all of that information comes into my brain and gets processed through my brain and the brain that it goes through is an autistic brain.
It’s like this filter, it’s the lens through which I experience the world, right?
For those of us that are autistic we have different versions of connections. Because we’re human beings, every single one of us with autism is different.
And we all have different quote unquote profiles, right? So, we have different strengths, different weaknesses. How much it’s impacting you, how little, whether other folks are experiencing your challenges with you, meaning that they can see that you’re having challenges or whether folks are not able to know the challenges you’re having so that they’re really internalized challenges.
It can mean all of those different things and it’s so different from person to person that it’s hard to really give it any clearer definition than it’s the way that this person processes what we say diagnostically and what we say clinically is of course different. Everybody in the science world needs a definitive answer and you have to meet certain criteria about repetitive motions and things like that.
But what it really comes down to is that we have a different way of thinking, and we have a different way of processing the world. So, for us, we talk about the sensory process and how we can be really sensitive to sensory processing. We have a hyper or hypo responsive brain to sensory input. But that’s an area where a lot of us have commonality.
Another area where a lot of us have commonality is with our executive functioning – meaning how your working memory works, whether or not you can put tasks in order of the first step to the last step, right? There’s lots of other intricacies as you become an adult in terms of executive functioning, like leaving the house with your keys and everything intact!
We also all share for whatever reason a lot of commonality with gastrointestinal issues, right? And some other physical issues that come along with it that seem to be, for whatever reason, common to the most of us.
And then the last category, which is what has always given us the most attention is our social communication issues. And it’s really not a social communication issue. What it is that we communicate socially in a different way. And because our world has decided that there’s one right way to communicate socially, it has been deemed that the autistic version of communicating socially is not correct. So, it’s looked at as a deficit. But really, it’s a difference. We just do it differently.
How do autistic people communicate socially?
The best example I can give and the, and the one that’s most comfortable for me to give, I think is the one I experience the most, right?
For example, I am somebody who is very direct and I’m very organized and I’m very detail oriented, right? So, when I’m in a conversation with somebody, especially if it’s about work, especially if it’s about something that’s needing to happen and we need to get something done. I don’t waste words.
I’m very direct. I don’t do softness. I don’t couch things. And for autistic people, that’s the way we communicate. We prefer to say exactly what it is that we are going to do, exactly what is going to happen exactly the way it is without couching it with any kind of quote unquote niceties.
Those niceties seem to be something that’s required for holistic or neurotypical communication styles. You guys seem to require that from each other when you communicate, when two autistics communicate, we don’t. When we use our version of communication with the neuromajority, we are deemed as rude or difficult or stubborn. But mostly rude. Rude is the one we get the most.
But direct isn’t rude. Direct is just direct, right? There’s no judgment with directness. It’s just direct.
So, we’re often told that the way we communicate is not okay and that we need to change our communication style to match that of the neuromajority.
And so, while that is a diagnostic criterion, I have to ask, who made that criterion. A whole bunch of neurotypicals, right? And so, when we look at it, we have to say, really is that you know, the crux of having a different brain, or is that really the way that society looks at difference? Right.
What typically do you do with clients to help promote an inclusive workplace and process?
Well for a lot of people, for most companies, I want to say that starts with their desire.
I’m not a cold caller. I don’t walk around and knock on your door and say, can I help you with this thing? I have a vacuum cleaner to sell you. That’s not how I do my job.
So, it really begins with a company or an organization deciding that employee wellbeing is going to be a priority.
And I think as they jump into that rabbit hole of employee wellbeing, we run quickly into employee resource groups and how we can do PL programming.
And these days you dip your toe in the water of employee wellbeing and DEIB, it’s like in your face, right? And we’re talking about equity and we’re talking about an inclusive environment and all of those things. But up until really recently we have not added disabled folks to that group. We’ve addressed it in terms of race and religion and gender and sexuality, but we haven’t allowed disability to be part of that conversation.
Disabled folks are a huge portion of our population and so, it’s crazy that we can talk about inclusion and not have included disabled folk.
So, that’s really where I come in for companies, when they’ve decided they’re going to tackle their DEI. It all will always depend of course upon the size of a company. If you are a mom and pop and it’s the two of you and three employees, your programming is going to look different. And how you take care of employee wellbeing is going to look different than a monolith company like JP Morgan or Google or something like that, right?
So, the approach we take depends on the size of the company. But no matter the size, it all begins with that desire to make those changes and to improve the way that they are doing things, to improve this intangible thing we call company culture.
And that’s where I come in and I say, okay, well let’s talk about the disabled folks in your company.
What are, what could we do be doing? What are we doing that we should be changing? What things should we not be doing at all? Right? Because sometimes it is that and it can come down to big things like the way that you process your hiring all the way through retiring, right?
And from an HR perspective but it can also be how you want to handle people’s differences when they ask for accommodation. Thigs like remote work, flexible schedules, and even small things like how you organize your meetings and share the information about your meetings can affect accessibility for disabled employees.
When we normalize creating inclusive choices, that’s how we change our company culture, right? And so that’s where I come in.
Listen to this interview on Creating Futures by Salt – our podcast!
Are there any changes that make a difference to an organisation’s DEIB regardless of their size?
Yes. I mean to me there’s some sweeping changes that folk can make and then there’s like really tangible changes that they can make.
So, like big sweeping change to me is really the standards of your company culture.
Because it doesn’t matter how you change your processes, how you change the steps, or how accessible your website is, if once a person starts working for you, it’s not real. Right, and so there’s a difference between being an inclusive with quote marks workplace and a truly inclusive workplace.
And that difference is, you know, do I just have a social responsibility statement on my website, or do my employees feel it every day when they come to work? Right. And so, it’s about, you know, how do I make that decision? And to me that the big sweeping step in there is making a decision that the standard for your company is that you can bring your humanity to work.
Right? And what I mean by that is, for a really long time there was ‘Workplace you’ and then ‘Home you’. And at home, maybe you pee every hour and you have a snack here and there, and you’re in your pyjamas and all of that, and you’re comfortable and productive on your computer that way. But when you go to work, there’s a different version of you that shows up.
That version of you that shows up shouldn’t have to go to the bathroom too often. Shouldn’t need to take a break to go outside, should be able to sit on whatever lighting provided to you by the company, right? That version of you is somehow has to comply with this sameness at the workplace.
And what that is it makes people really shove their needs to the backend in an effort to look like they’re doing right. So, where it’s socially acceptable to run outside and have a cigarette, it’s not socially acceptable to say, I need to take a 10 minute break to stand outside and get some fresh air. Where it’s socially acceptable to say I’m going to go run an errand during my lunchtime, it’s not socially acceptable to say, I don’t want to eat lunch with everybody else. I need some time by myself, and I want to eat alone.
So, when we think about our company culture and we put the humanity back into our workplace, it allows people to do what they need to do without the fear of judgment to take care of themselves.
When that fear of judgment is removed, people can be more productive. They’re wasting less energy trying to like to hide their needs or push it aside. They’re just doing themselves.
I think we find innovation in that. I think we find new ways to be productive. But I think what we also do is remember that we are human beings, and that work is not the end all, be all of everything. That we have families, we have lives out of it. Hopefully we have joy somewhere, right? And I think that’s a really big important step for a lot of companies to say like, no, I want my employee’s quality of life and my employee’s wellness to be really priority in our company and I mean it.
And that’s top down. Equity is equity, so it has to be everywhere.
Little things that folks can do in terms of low hanging fruit is looking for options.
When I say options, I mean look for alternatives. When you are sending out a job posting and you’re putting out a job posting, make sure that your language is there. But make sure that you’re not just telling folks that they can fax their email, but there’s a call number or they can chat, right?
Or that you’ll do remote job interviews or you’ll make certain accommodations. Acknowledging to someone that you will be flexible in the interview process lets them know that you’re probably flexible all around. And flexibility is a number one when it comes to hosting disabled people.
So, to be looking to create options for your employees and the way they communicate with you. Can they email? Can they text? Can they also send you a video chat? Just provide choices. Choices so that they can do what’s best for them.
Think about your meetings. How am I planning them? Are there multiple ways people can show up? Am I letting them know they don’t have to have their camera on? Am I letting them know they can ask their questions in chat?Am I just normalizing that there’s more than one way to show up. That’s what you’re looking for in terms of making some changes.
How can companies bring this DEIB perspective into their recruitment:
So, so far what the disability community has been served in terms of DEIV has been a whole lot of attention paid in terms of hiring, right?
Are we letting them be hired? Are we letting them come into our companies? All of this stuff… But very little attention has been paid to the fact that disabled people have our own standards, and that we don’t want to just come into anywhere, and that we are looking at your job postings because what we’re looking for is some place where we can have sustained employment.
That means it’s not just about having a good interview process. Right. Does your whole company culture, and I say from hiring to retiring is how I really want people to remember it, right? Your DEI programming has to run through the whole life cycle.
You can’t do your best to meet people where they’re at in the interview process and then stop. You have to understand that these changes have to meet people through the whole process once they’ve said yes to your Yes. Right? Because they can still say no to you!
So once disabled people have bought into your stuff and they’re ready to sign on with you, you now have an obligation to meet them where they’re at for the rest of the time that they work for you.
For a lot of companies, it can mean making changes in the way they offer their benefits programs because it’s really expensive to be a disabled person. We have extra expenses. So, it’ll be offering to do things like pay their co-pay, that makes you an employer that’s truly inclusive and gets it.
When we make little changes in the way that we do our every day and when we address our employees through their life cycle, you’ve got it. That’s it. There are no more secrets to it than that.
It’s that it has to be built in to happen every day, all day long, 365 days a year until that person says, thank you so much. I’m turning in. And so absolutely. That’s why we talk ERGs. That’s why we talk about doing programming, right? Because that’s for your current employees, right?
And so, it’s at all the different points. That’s where you want to meet everybody.
What is some career advice you wish you’d heard earlier on?
I have a lot of advice to give, but I think the one that is probably most important to the folks who’d be listening to this would bewhen as a disabled person, you go on an interview, first of all, you don’t owe anybody any personal information throughout this process, right?
You are disabled, you are not not a human. And just like you wouldn’t go into an interview and answer a question about the colour of your underwear, you don’t have to answer a question about your disability.
They’re not allowed to ask it, and if they do ask it, that is a giant red flag to you. So first make sure that you’re not oversharing, and you have no obligation to share that information.
I think the second half of that information, in terms of interviewing that I want to share with you guys in terms of tips is when you go into an interview, remember that you are interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you.
So, you can ask your questions, but also just be observant. Just make sure that you’re looking around at how everybody’s talking to each other, what people are wearing, what the workplace looks like. If it’s a virtual call, just doing your best to pay attention to whether or not the person arrived on time, right? That’s information that is important to us.
Did they make it easy for you to get onto the video call? Did you have to chase around for information? Interviews are two ways you don’t want to say yes just because somebody said yes to you. You want to say yes because a job is going to work for you and a workplace is going to work for you.
They can offer you the job. That doesn’t mean you have to take the job.
So that’s advice that I wish I had gotten away early on. And I think that’s probably the most important advice for those of us who are out there looking for work.
I think if you are in a job, my advice in terms of being in a job is if you are seeing red flags, meaning like if you are l or being done with your day of work and you are feeling unwell, like sick to your stomach, things just don’t feel right, it’s too draining to be doing this job, you’re not happy, it’s not giving you joy… You can choose to look for another job, but you can also ask to talk to your boss and see if things can get better.
Nobody should stay at a job where they are taking work home with them, where they are carrying the emotions of the workplace with them home. That’s how we can notice that a workplace is a toxic environment. And so, if that’s happening, know that that’s not normal and you don’t have to sit back and accept it.
That’s where I come in!
Is there a learning moment that really stands out to you that really changed the way that you look at work and life going forward?
Yes, there was one, and I want to give it as an example. It’s not a happy example, but I want to give it as an example because I need folks to understand the full impact of bias and stigma in the workplace.
Okay. I am someone who is openly autistic. If you spend five minutes with me and you don’t know I’m autistic, then I don’t know, just your Google broken is kind of how I feel, right?
So, that’s my life. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case. There was a time when I was newly diagnosed and I was still choosing carefully, or I thought I was choosing carefully, who to share that information.
Well, I got a new job and I decided to disclose, and it was a leadership role, a management role, and I decided to disclose to my immediate supervisor my autism. Here I was a proud autistic person, right? Why should I have any shame about my autism? All of this stuff. And it wasn’t right in the interview process or right when I first got the job.
I had been there for a few months and I casually shared it, right? Well in that moment, everything changed for me in that job., I hadn’t considered at all the bias and stigma that that person that I was sharing it with might have in their head about autism and what it means to be an autistic person.
And in that moment, any and all authority or trust that that person had in me disappeared.
Immediately they began to talk to me like I was a small child. Infantilization is a huge problem for the autism community.
After that, every decision, every opinion, every point I weighed in during any meetings was looked at through the lens that I was autistic. Oh, she’s passionate about that. She’s raising her voice because of her autism. She can’t control herself. Oh, she’s making that decision because she’s impulsive, because she’s autistic. Someone makes sure she’s making the right decisions.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t the same person. to them anymore, and that can’t continue. That cannot be the way that we send people to work. That can no longer be the accepted way for it to be.
And so, it takes a whole bunch of people like me out there telling people that that’s not the truth of being autistic, so that that stigma and bias can disappear. Right now, that. Sadly, right now that is not true. I don’t think that it’s very safe to disclose your autism in the workplace. If I wasn’t who I am and if I haven’t already been so openly autistic on the internet, I don’t know that I would have made that choice in terms of employment right now. I know lots of autistic professionals who don’t share their autism with other people.
And that’s because it’s not safe. It’s still not safe. And that’s what I want to leave everybody thinking about is that for everything I’ve just talked about in this moment as you are listening, it is not safe for, I would say 80% of autistics to disclose in the workplace.
What would you describe a toxic workplace as?
I think toxic workplaces in general are my motivating round.
I have to tell you that. And with the exception of where I work right now, I have only experienced toxic workplaces. How scary is it that?
It’s part of the agreement with your employer, your psychological and physical safety is implicit in that agreement with your employee.
And so, if you are not feeling physically and psychologically safe in your job, you hope that you work at a place where when you bring that information forward to somebody, you don’t get penalized. You hope that when you bring that information forward to somebody, that something is actively done to change that, right?
That’s what you hope for. Many of us don’t find that many of us have to instead up to just leave.
Do you have any resources to help people better understand autism?
I would really love to say that I, I do have that resource to share with you, but again there is no one way to be autistic.
So, looking for something that explains it perfectly is kind of a crazy thing. There are many books out there I think that can speak really well to the autistic experience written by autistic people. We would be here for two hours if I tried to list them that you can absolutely take a look at out there.
There’s a book called NeuroTribes out there by Steve Silverman that gives you a really beautiful and intrinsic look at kind of the, the history of neurodiversity and the history of autism and sort of how our community came to be.
And I think that’s always a really important piece to a puzzle for people, right? When we look at marginalized groups, understanding the marginalized perspective or the perspective of that particular marginalized group is really essential. So, if you’ve got a bunch of neuro divergent employees get out there and look for some books.
All you these days, all you have to do is Google Autism and you’ll get a bunch of things. But particularly look for ones that are written by autistic people.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I think my very earliest desire was to be an archaeologist. That was what I really wanted to do as a small child. I was obsessed with the pyramids and kind of digging up all of our fossils and dinosaurs and all of that stuff, and that was really what my little heart wanted to do when I was like, five.
Are you working on anything we should watch out for in 2023?
I am working on a book right now and it is due to come out in the spring. Hopefully I will get it done in time and it will actually come out in the spring.
And then other than that, I’m really just so jazzed about working on DEIB initiatives with companies that are really ready to really embrace their disabled employees and to really embrace future disabled employees. And for that, you can absolutely find me at trulyinclusiveleadership.com. Or you can find me just on LinkedIn and get to me through there. But feel free to reach out if it’s something that you’re considering. I’d love to talk to you!
Contact Becca about her services on her website! Or reach out to her on LinkedIn!
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