If you’d like to listen to or watch our interview with Kirsty, the episode is available on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.
- The conversation centers Kirsty Cook, the Global Director of Neuroinclusion Services at auticon, and discussed her role and the company's mission.
- auticon is a majority Autistic global social enterprise focused on providing employment opportunities for Autistic individuals and fostering inclusivity.
- Kirsty discusses auticon’s strategies for utilizing the unique skills of Autistic individuals and ensuring their integration into the workforce.
- The conversation offers insights into the initiatives and support systems implemented by auticon to promote neurodiversity in the workplace.
Beaux: Hi and welcome to Brainstorm - Changemakers by Tiimo. In this series, we're talking to experts, activists, and movers who are shaking things up in the neurodivergent space.
My name is Beaux. My pronouns are they/them, and I'm the Inclusion and Belonging Lead at Tiimo, a Danish neuroinclusion company that gives neurodivergent folks the planning power to take charge of their daily lives.e
Today, I have with me Kirsty Cook. Kirsty is the global director of Neuroinclusion Services at auticon, a majority Autistic global social enterprise that's committed to building a more inclusive world. And yeah, for the folks at home, if you just wanted to tell us a little bit about yourself and about your work at auticon, that would be wonderful.
Kirsty: Yeah, my name is Kirsty Cook. I'm the global director of auticon’s Neuroinclusion Services. I've been with auticon for five and a half years now, and I started as a job coach before leading the job coach team in the UK and starting, or helping set up, the Australian and one of our US offices before taking some time out for maternity leave. And I returned last January into this position.
And the role now is setting up officially our consulting services, which means that we help organizations to be able to do what we've been doing for more than a decade, which is to be a neuroinclusive employer, ultimately. So we help them to understand where their maturity is at that point in time for neuroinclusion and hold their hands and take them on the journey for what makes sense for them. It's very unique from client to client towards improving that neurodiversity inclusion.
Quite often, we’re supporting organizations first and foremost to support the talent they've already got; they’re inevitably there whether they realize it or not, neurodivergent. And then kind of working backwards through to that retention piece and how they're attracting neurodivergent talent. But we're very flexible in the way that we do things, and the type of services and products we give to a client are completely tailored to them.
On a personal front, I have ADHD myself.It took me four years at auticon before I realized. So, just as of May 2022, I was actually doing some research about ADHD in females in particular, and I started to watch some lived experience videos and realized that a lot of these women were kind of playing back my life and experiences. So, things started to piece together, and then I was officially diagnosed with ADHD in December. And yes, what else? I have a husband and a labradoodle called Max, and a two-and-a-half-year-old called Grace as well. And yeah, that's me. Incredible.
Beaux: I've obviously done a little bit of research on you and your background, and I'd love to, you know, you have a really interesting and varied background, and I'm just wondering what led you to the work that you do today? What led you to auticon?
Kirsty: I mean, the answer to the variety is ADHD made me do it, pretty much. And I now realize why. But yeah, my background was actually in journalism. That's what my degree was in. I found myself in Moldova and Ukraine at one point researching sex trafficking because there was a great level of impulsivity and sense of justice. And I did Erasmus. I actually lived in Copenhagen for a while and worked at Nyhavn 17. If you can understand my Danish. Nyhavn 17.
While I was working there, I actually got talking to a couple of guys who worked for a company related to the Financial Times. So, at the time, I was wanting to be a journalist. The starry eyes were going, and I moved back home and I was leading on content development, financial services, analyzing lots of trends across industries, across countries for mergers and acquisitions, and leading that along London, Hong Kong, and New York. And yeah, I did that for about five years until I ultimately got a bit bored. It wasn't a challenge anymore, and I went into PR and realized, well, in that I took a role that was very senior compared to what I'd been doing before when I hadn't been in a PR agency and was having quite a lot of anxiety and panic attacks in 2016.
So, it ended up being, I handed in my notice without a role to go to, but I knew that I wanted to resteer my ship towards coaching and supporting mental health. So, I'd been coaching in the background anyway and kind of pulled myself out of what I was feeding in the anxiety at that point, and the role of job coach at auticon came up. So, I came at this from a very, very different angle to a lot of our coaches who come in with quite an extensive psychology background, clinical psychology, working with Autistic, whether it's like children, schools, adults, but working with Autism.
But my route was wanting to help people with their mental health, and inherently for somebody that's on the spectrum, neurodivergent, anxiety and depression are very commonly hand in hand. But it was within a very short period of time being there, I realized I've got several family members who were on the spectrum, and I didn't understand at the time why it was so natural to me to understand the people I was speaking to and to empathize and, yeah, just be able to help them quite easily. And yeah, that was because we were sharing some common traits, and yeah, it worked out very well too, even if I didn't know it at the time. Yeah, cool.
Beaux: I'm also wondering, what the spark for creating auticon’s neuroinclusion services was and, you know, what needs you identified that these services were kind of designed to meet? Yeah, so in the UK we're very—we're that bit further ahead with the wellness and understanding of neurodiversity, and specifically neurodiversity in the workplace, than other countries. You know, 3 to 4 years ago in particular, the conversation started shifting.
Kirsty: So the clients we were talking to, they were clients because they had Autistic technology consultants working with them, so they could see the value and they could see the benefits. We've broken down the stereotypes and the myths that they had had and their preconceptions before they started working with them. And so, they then were coming to us and there were kind of two situations where people would be more proactive.
The first one was, they were coming to us and saying, I want to do this for myself. How do I hire more neurodivergent talent? There was, and is, a lot of conversation at that point about the strengths and the benefits of neurodivergent people, and Autistic people in particular at that point. And a lot of organizations, of course, have a huge skills gap, particularly in technology. So they were looking for that extra route to be able to hire the people that they needed.
But unfortunately, the second scenario was realizing that they do, in fact, already work with neurodivergent talent because people were coming to us with crisis situations, unfortunately, where neurodivergent people were working, they were burning out, they weren’t in a neuroinclusive environment, and it reached breaking point ultimately. So managers and HR teams were coming to us for job coaching support to help those individuals, but their managers as well, to steer things back on track.
Or people were starting to feel more comfortable and open to share that they identify as neurodivergent or they're going through a diagnosis. And at that point, HR teams and managers were just very scared, ultimately very fearful, because they didn't know what to do. They didn't have the right thing to say or the right approach to make sure that person was getting the support that they needed. And so, that was the other situation they'd commonly come to us.
So, neuroinclusion services were – it's been born out of a need, ultimately, and a need that we didn't assume, but we heard directly from people seeking help and asking how to do it.
Beaux: You also shared that you're a majority Autistic organization, and I'm wondering what percentage of your workforce is actually neurodivergent and what percentage of your management is neurodivergent as well? The figure for globally, we're a global organization, worldwide we've got 80% of people who identify as neurodivergent at auticon. I don't have any figures for the management team, there are a few of us that identify as neurodivergent and that's open. There may be others that haven't shared or don't realize it, and that's just included in the overall data. How do you create kind of an inclusive working environment for those 80 plus percent of your workforce?
Kirsty: There's lots that we do and that we recommend to our clients on how to do it. But I think there's a couple of things that's important to remember that you can kind of take on as values and very practical base way of approaching being neuroinclusive. And the first one is to remember that it's not static. You don't suddenly put in lots of different accommodations and different ways of working, and then you can tick the box and say you’re neuroinclusive.
It changes a lot, even at auticon, because ultimately the people we're working with are different from person to person, different people that we're hiring. They'll be in different challenges and positions in their career that they might not have dealt with before or maybe even that we haven't dealt with. So we have to respond accordingly. And an example of that is when I mentioned earlier, we do a kind of maturity rating for our organizations to understand where they're at right now and where we can be going, and the highest level somebody can get is four, which is optimizing and auticon would 100% still be there.
We're still always looking at different things and different approaches we can do to improve our neuroinclusion. The way that we do that is, I think, it’s very automatic for us to look at everything we do from a neuroinclusion lens, first and foremost. We don't have anything that's specifically for neurodivergent people and specifically for non-neurodivergent people. It's all the same. We're all just employees at auticon. And it's done with a kind of universal design approach. So, as far as possible, we take on that neurodivergent lens and we ultimately want to have the biggest, most positive impacts for the majority of people. And by doing that inevitably is positive for anybody else that isn't neurodivergent at the same time.
And a lot of things that we put in place, for auticon and with our clients, you mention to people that you don't have a diagnosis or don't identify as anything. They just say, yeah, I'd find that really helpful to do anyway. So yeah, it's taking that approach. Same thing here.
But then, there are obviously things that come up that are very specific to an individual. So, while we go down the route of universal design, it's with the acknowledgment that we need to be flexible and human-centered and really understand the individual and what's going on for them, and what their needs are.
An example is, if we were doing a workplace assessment with a client and we could see they had very nice, new, but very loud, hand dryers in all of their bathrooms. We wouldn't suggest you need to take all of those out because, for people with sensory needs, that's going to be really challenging. It would be about implementing alternatives and making sure there's still some way that's just as comfortable and inclusive for them to go, or options like hand towels in the bathroom at the same time.
So yeah, it's, as I say, universal, flexible, and trying to help the majority rather than the minority. I love that. That's also the approach we take at Tiimo. Just creating things that are neuroinclusive. But then they, you know, work for visual thinkers; they work for anyone who resonates with the tools that we've created. I love that. Yeah, it's simpler as well. Honestly, it's, as I said, definitely more inclusive rather than creating silos of what's inclusive for neurodivergent people and so on.
But if you think of a business that has thousands and thousands of employees, it's unreasonable to expect them to put in lots of individual things. You know, that's up to the manager to understand their employees. And then, how do you work with organizations to help them become more neuroinclusive?
It really varies. We've got lots of services that we offer, like training, coaching, maturity assessment. The first stage, you know, the first starting point will vary from client to client depending on what their needs are, what their challenges are at any given point. But in the absolute ideal world, we start with doing a neuroinclusion maturity assessment and the value of that is we help the client as well as ourselves to understand what's going on in terms of neuroinclusion at every stage of the employee lifecycle, so it’s attraction, your recruitment, your onboarding, and your retention pieces.
And it wouldn't be right for us to assume things about the organization, even though there are definitely things we can assume most people don't do. But it's a very, very data-driven approach, both on the qualitative and quantitative to understand what they're doing well, where the gaps are, what they're doing – but we could probably improve, where the inconsistencies are and maybe within particular teams that we might need to focus on and work with more so than others.
And so, it helps us to understand what it is we need to do to be able to help and improve that client, but also where to start. That is the age-old question of we know, we've got work to do, but where do we go from here? And depending on the maturity states that come out in the results, we work with the client to understand whether on everything else strategically, and with DNI in particular, so that we can complement and boost what they're doing, not add workload to DNI, HR, and management teams.
We know everyone is very time poor and stretched right now. And to be sticky and to make sure that your neuroinclusion is actually sustainable, we need to make sure that it makes sense and is sustainable for them strategically. So then we design a pathway plan and work with a client on the timings of that. What makes sense? What will they, as I say, what they're doing? What we can make the most of and boost and what the priorities are.
So, if we know that a client's priorities, they're reviewing everything that they're doing about onboarding because they've been having a lot of a lot of feedback that's quite negative. And people have very poor experiences. Based on what we've learned from our maturity assessment, we could work to complement what they're doing with onboarding before sale recruitment because they've also got recruitment goals. And so the same way that we try to be neuroinclusive and what we tell our neurodivergent colleagues, we do the exact same thing with our clients. So again, taking on that universal approach and being as flexible as we can and everything that we do services and product-wise, we at auticon have ultimately been the guinea pigs for ten years and it's all based on what we know and what we've been doing.
There's a lot of expertise in-house, but the most important thing is we've been and we are a profitable business. We know what it's like to manage DE&I and strategic goals at the same side as there's commercial goals and targets to achieve at the same time. So we use all of that experience to share with our clients and help them not make the mistakes that we have and to learn from the successes that we've had as well.
Beaux: Incredible. Yeah, I love this idea of, you know, also helping folks because it can feel really overwhelming to get started on this work. And so to have an expert come in that's had this much experience must be really comforting for the organizations that you're working with. Yeah.
I'm wondering too what the benefits are of tapping into the neurodivergent talent pool and you know, also what the challenges may be.
Kirsty: Yeah, I mean, for each different condition there’s various different benefits and strengths that come from that. But I think the important thing is to be mindful, for everyone to be mindful that if somebody’s neurodivergent it doesn't mean they’re superhuman. You're getting rid of the 'rain man' example and remembering as well that you know, these benefits and the strengths really, really do shine when the challenges are supported and when they are ultimately in a safe, neuroinclusive environment as far as possible.
Yeah, it is very, very difficult for somebody that's neurodivergent to show their strengths and thrive in the workplace based on their strengths, like creativity, you know, having a different approach to solving a problem, pattern recognition, attention to detail, and so on. Sometimes that's very difficult to come through if they are generally struggling because of the noise in the workplace or because of the type of communication with their manager, or just from having to hide their neurodivergent traits every day.
My kind of advice to other organizations is to really help yourselves to see those benefits by creating more of a neuroinclusive organization first and foremost and reducing those challenges. And I think one way to do that is to start to be uncomfortable with having what would one day be a comfortable conversation. In the beginning, it’s very difficult, but you know, being okay to ask somebody what their needs are and you're listening to what's going on for them and being okay, that you don't have to have all the answers right away. But just asking the right questions is helpful. It’s a huge step forward to then be able to see those benefits.
There's one example in particular that a lot of clients raise, it’s people with ADHD in their teams, are coming across maybe as quite rude, maybe a bit abrasive, that they're interrupting a lot in meetings. The type of communication that's going on between them and other colleagues isn't going the way that they would and the question is always no; they're too worried, and too scared and too fearful, and you can't know what you don't know.
But unfortunately, as these challenges are honed in on, the actual strengths of how good that person is at their job are just completely, completely missed.Just because the conversation feels a little bit too difficult. So that's one really big, big thing we work with most organizations on, is just being able to start to have these very simple but very scary conversations with some of them.
Yes, purely and simply so that we can help them then build in their strengths-based model and identify what's going really well for somebody.
Beaux: Yeah, absolutely. And then, how do you pitch the unique assets of your neurodivergent workforce in your consulting services to the clients that you're working with without, you know, maybe coming off as tokenizing?
Kirsty: It's a really interesting question because I can see how tokenizing can be thought about and assumed with the way that we do things with our technology consultants.
But honestly, it's not been a big thought from us because we just don't do it and just haven't seen it like that.
At auticon, we set out, I think this is part of the auticon story that helps with this, because the goal was always to reduce unemployment of Autistic people.
So we directly hired Autistic talent. They have a full-time salary, and they're hired in the same way as any other technology consultancy does.
Actually, it's the same business model. And because it is the same business model and there's, we have a neuroinclusive environment way of working, but there's nothing that is outwardly done only because it's neurodivergence that we're working with.
And I think that is heard and heard by the community as well, most importantly, and obviously from our technology consultants.
And, you know, unfortunately is that for a lot of our consultants, they've not been employed for such a long time before they come to work with us.
Arguably, we have the most over-educated pizza delivery driver; he’s based in Scotland now, but he was a pizza delivery driver, had a PhD, incredibly, incredibly intelligent, amazing at what he does.
But he was having to deliver pizzas because he couldn't get past the recruitment process or even get past the CV round in organizations that would hire him for tech-based roles.
So without auticon and without having somebody, a group that knew and understood about Autism. He quite possibly would still be a pizza delivery driver, which is just an absolute waste of potential.
So I think the story always helps with that kind of proof that that's not what's happening.
And unfortunately, sometimes for our clients, seeing is believing, and working with our consultants and being supported by our job coaches on any challenges that might come up. They realize rather than us just telling them that this doesn't have to be difficult, doesn't have to be expensive.
It's not overly complicated. But because there is so much fear about getting it wrong and just not knowing and understanding Autism and neurodiversity, the easy option is just not to do it, and especially not proactively.
So this is why our tech consultants are now kind of embedded into our inclusion services as proof of concept that there's nothing to worry about, and they’re really, really great at their job.
Beaux: Yeah.I love that you have kind of an internal case study that you can show to clients to be like, "See, it actually really works well."
Kirsty: Yeah. Absolutely.
Beaux: You shared that some of your team members are hired out from, you know, two plus years of unemployment. So, given the rates of underemployment in the neurodivergent community, how do you prepare people to reenter the workforce?
Kirsty: So the big selling point here for our consultants to feel confident enough to do that as well is our job coaches.
So any consultant that comes to join us has a dedicated job coach that they see, at least in the beginning, especially at least once a week, they have them on speed dial if they need it. You know, they're available on teams chat; they have conversations.
And so in their coaching sessions, it might be that they're doing quite proactive work. The coach would be working, talking them through things to expect about the workplace, unwritten rules; if we know what project they're going onto in that type of environment, we do a workplace assessment to help reduce anxiety.
What within what accommodations they need and so on, so that they you would have the most support they've ever had for the most part to make sure that, you know, all goes well and they keep hold of that job coach.
You know, sometimes their job coach changes, but they will always have a job coach when they're an auticon employee.
And so we're not prescriptive. There wasn't a big training program or anything that we have. Some countries have it, but at least in the UK, there isn't a training program or anything, but the coach will respond to what the person needs if when they are in the workplace, if their client manager is feeding back that some things are not going so well or that they're seeing particular challenges and the coach would feed that back to the individual and they would work on those things together in coaching sessions.
So yeah, the coaching is the absolute secret sauce to that, for sure.
(interview continues below)