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Shining a Light On Autism and Neurodiversity: A Q&A with Monique Gonggrijp-Bello

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

 

April is Autism Awareness month, bringing the topic of neurodiversity (ND) in the workplace to the forefront. ND is broadly defined as a variation of thinking styles and abilities regarding sociability, learning attention, mood and other neural functions associated with individuals with autism, OCD and more. It is also an increasingly visible part of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), impacting workplace hiring and retention efforts.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, we caught up with Monique Gonggrijp-Bello, Workforce Logiq General Counsel, to dive deeper into the topics of autism and neurodiversity – topics that hold a special place in her heart after her son was diagnosed with autism when he was 4-years-old. She shares her thoughts; plus, what organizations can do better to be more inclusive of these individuals.

Q: What does Autism Awareness mean to you?

The prevalence of autism in the U.S. has risen immensely, jumping from diagnoses being made in 1 in 125 children in 2010 to 1 in 54 children by 2020. Yet despite the growth in ubiquity, there continues to be a great lack of opportunities for employment available to autistic individuals. Because awareness is so low, companies are considerably missing out on qualified, talented candidates simply out of fear that those who are neurodivergent won’t be able to perform as well. This faulty assumption continues to be the root of the issue, and it is what bothers me the most.

Along with the insufficiency of opportunity, there is an even greater lack of recognition of talent and skill belonging to those who are on the spectrum and what that truly means. These individuals are uncomfortable disclosing their diagnosis for fear that the perception of them will be skewed and other’s opinions of them, at work especially, will be diminished. Changing these false perceptions is truly the core of fostering and achieving awareness so that my son, and other children who are neurodiverse, grow up in a better world that is open to their unique talents and one that sees what I see every day when I look at him – a young, bright boy with endless potential to bring great value into his professional and personal life. He is now 10 years old, a grade 2 piano player who has joined a school band and has obtained a gifted score in IQ tests, all thanks to the fact that he is surrounded by friends, teachers and family who believe in him and accept him the way he is without reservations.

Q: Why is incorporating neurodiversity into hiring initiatives so important? What are some of the benefits to hiring employees specifically with autism?

Diversity of any sort has a direct correlation with innovation. Enriching your workplace culture with a variety of employees of different races, backgrounds, education levels, etc. allows your team members to work together and challenge each other, sparking new, creative ways of thinking and problem solving. And neurodiverse hires frequently have the inclination to think creatively and outside the box, opening a variety of possibilities.

For example, people on the spectrum tend to operate in a black-and-white manner, possessing top-tier attention to detail, giving them the ability to identify errors, acutely observe, and precisely retain facts in an almost photographic way. This ultimately develops them into experts in their areas of work. Computer programming and quality assurance specifically are two prime examples of roles autistic individuals often excel at given their innate attention to detail.

I have to say, I often see much of this behavior demonstrated in my son’s actions and behaviors. Whether it be a new project for school, or a recreational game, he dives in headfirst, upholding a strict adherence to, and respect for, instructions. As much as I’d like to take credit for his behavior, this certainly isn’t something I taught him – or something I see in other children his age. It’s inherent in his nature – and a character trait that will help him strive in the long run in all his endeavors (school, career, relationships, etc.). These traits are those that are sought after in any position, lending themselves to excellence and efficiency in all their work.

Q: What steps are being taken by organizations now to enhance ND initiatives – and what can be done better to ensure long-term success by retaining this talent once initial steps are taken?

Social events that occurred in the U.S. last year triggered a lot of conversations about diversity on a much larger scale. And while many were rooted in unfortunate circumstances, the autistic community was able to benefit as a new light was shined on them. It quickly raised the question – why are we primarily speaking about diversity in terms of race, gender, and gender identity?  While these are all under-represented groups that must be part of the D&I dialogue, our community of talent is so much broader, including other major differences such as cognitive functioning and mental health. This gave many charities and non-profits a new chance to be heard as more people took the time to stop and listen.

Several large organizations such as Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Google are great role models to follow, each prioritizing diversity on a high level – and diversity in relation to a variety of factors: Not just race and gender, but mental health, sexual orientation, etc. Companies have realized it’s a must to have a D&I policy – so much so that it’s now a basic necessity. Those that fail to meet these standards will be poorly perceived publicly, as well as internally, ultimately hurting them in the long run.

For example, there must be less importance put on the typical interview process to make strides in neurodiverse hiring. The focus should be on the potential of the candidate and what value they will bring to an organization. Those on the spectrum are most likely not going to be the standouts of the typical interview process.  I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when I hear candidates being dismissed because they “didn’t look me in the eye” or “have a firm handshake.”  Come on – people are so much more than those simplistic hurdles. Instead, concentration should be on developing a tool or process to explore the benefits of candidates on a deeper level, otherwise organizations will continue to miss out on this large pool of valuable talent.

Once hired, retaining this talent with proper training should be a priority for managers and coworkers alike. As organizations do with any employee, proper accommodations must be tailored to the individual coming in so that everyone is comfortable in their working environment. For example, an employee with a bad back is given a special chair to enhance his or her day-to-day experience. This same principle should be applied to those on the spectrum or with neurodiverse needs, such as regular breaks or social gatherings to foster inclusivity. Overall success is inherently reliant on communication – from the start of the initiative and beyond.

I think it’s also important to have a conversation about the often-hidden impact of neurodiversity in the workforce as a parent of an autistic child. I personally have different challenges that impact the way I work given my son’s different needs – like working with specialized doctors, therapists, etc. who often require scheduling appointments during the workday. It’s crucial that organizations are mindful, sensitive, and attentive to working parents of neurodiverse children as their time and schedules are allotted differently than the average parent in the workforce. Moving beyond awareness, when organizations take real action to tend to those different needs is a sign of true progress. I am more than thankful to my employer for allowing me to speak about my experience and for creating a fantastic opportunity to create awareness in the workplace.

Q: What are the major challenges associated with becoming more neurodiverse?

There’s always a risk with any new hire. Every time a new employee is brought on board, there is the subconscious fear and question of “is this person going to perform?” regardless of how thorough your vetting process may be. You hire based on all available information to you – their interview, cover letter, writing samples, etc., but you never really know how well they will actually perform in the long term. And this is no different when looking at it from a neurodiverse perspective.

To overcome this fear, organizations must try to promote support and build confidence when they hire autistic individuals – from the hiring process through onboarding and well into their tenure with the company. And ensuring others around them are adequately informed and trained so everyone is operating at their optimal levels is another critical key to success. It very much is a learning curve for everyone involved, but if communication is open and understanding is encouraged, you’ll be on the path to prosperity.

Improving for the future

As we continue to evolve in the way we speak about and act on D&I in the workplace, it’s critical to uphold accountability. There’s no doubt it is a complex issue, but there are basic steps organizations can take to transform current processes – and you’d be surprised to find out just how many neurodiverse employees you already have. Organizations must leverage the resources and expertise they already possess to navigate the process and let their neurodiverse workers know their organization embraces them to give them the confidence and support they need for optimal success.

People within the workforce that have the power and influence must take advantage of that platform to promote and foster inclusivity of all shapes and forms. Working together to create more diverse cultures will make us all stronger— and ultimately better—in the long run.

To learn more about autism and neurodiversity, check out our recent Q&A with Jeff Diegel, President of Infotree Global Solutions.

Learn how Workforce Logiq is helping employers build a variety of diverse talent pipelines.

 

Monique Gonggrijp-Bello, General Counsel

Monique joined Workforce Logiq in 2019 and currently serves as the General Counsel overseeing all legal and compliance matters globally. Prior to Workforce Logiq, she was Senior Corporate Counsel at Intercontinental Exchange (owner of NYSE) where she was heavily involved in complex commercial negotiations as well as with Data Protection; and also served as EMEA Corporate Council at IDC. Monique was born and raised in Colombia where she qualified as a lawyer (Civil and Criminal) from The Pontifical Xavierian University, one of the most prestigious Colombian universities based in Bogotá.  In 1999, she moved to the UK where she obtained her LLM Master of Laws at Birkbeck, University of London and as well as a Degree in European Law at City University.  She is fluent in Spanish, Italian, and English – and has a second full-time position as the mother of 3 young boys and an active charity fundraiser and promoter of equal opportunities for youngsters with special needs, with a particular interest in Autism Exchange. 

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