Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Over the past decade Michael Barton has educated and inspired thousands of people on the power of neurodiversity. He is autistic himself and has written three books on the subject and contributed to numerous others. He focuses on the positive aspects of autism, relating its traits to those displayed by some of the most successful people in history.

One thing that I would like to see even more of is not just having the policies in place, but the people acting on them as well. The biggest problem that autistic people face is a lack of understanding and awareness from other people around us. Personally, I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at age three, and then I went on to receive my autism diagnosis aged seven. I'm Michael Barton, and this is my Manageable Guide to neurodiversity.

So, when I was in junior school, I found it very difficult and confusing to understand exactly what people were trying to tell me because autistic people have a very literal way of thinking. This doesn't match well to the fact that the English language is full of idioms, metaphors, euphemisms, and other such figures of speech. So, a strategy, which we came up with, was to have an exercise book in which I'd write down the expression, I draw a picture, the first thing that came to my mind, and then my support assistant would write the true meaning below. We found that with this exercise book, not only did it help me to understand the intricacies of the English language, but it also helped my teachers, family, and friends alike to understand how the autistic mind works. That was the idea behind my first published book, It's Raining Cats and Dogs.

There are many positive aspects of being autistic. Certainly, when it came to looking for a job, I decided to say on my CV that I was autistic, portraying it in a very positive light with traits, such as: it means that I'm very logical, I have a very analytical way of thinking as well. I also have an exceptional attention to detail, I'm very punctual, honest, reliable, and I can also be a very quick learner.

Neurodiversity has two definitions there. First is that different people have different brains, so it's essentially another word for cognitive diversity. If I asked everyone to get a pen and paper and to draw a picture, chances are everyone would draw a different picture. But it can also mean that when we're talking about people with conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, or Tourette's, to say that our brains are fundamentally wired differently to that of most people. On top of this, the neurodiversity movement aims to suggest that we should just look at people as human beings as a whole because we need to eradicate the stigma that said diagnoses can bring individuals. You'll see autism in the dictionary as a condition that's defined by the deficits a person displays when interacting with other people. Autism is also a lifelong condition, which means that someone is born autistic, and they will grow up to be an autistic adult. It's often referred to as a hidden condition or disability because you can't tell if somebody's autistic just by looking at them.

In the United States, The CDC, the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recently suggested a figure of one in 44, or just over 2% of the population is autistic. Now, if we extrapolate this to the 7.9 billion people also on the planet, we can then assume that there are about 150 million autistic people in the world today. Of course, this is only the case for people that have actually been diagnosed as autistic. I believe that there are many more autistic people out there who are yet to be diagnosed either because of the long waiting times that there are for getting an autism diagnosis, or the fact that in countries outside of the United Kingdom access to a diagnosis can be expensive, as well as the fact that there are people out there who simply may not wish to be diagnosed with autism due to the stigma that it can bring.

In 2021, the ONS, the Office for National Statistics in the UK, came out with a figure saying that only 22% of autistic adults in the UK are in employment, which is the lowest figure for any specific condition. The ONS ran the same survey again, and the results were released in 2022. Now 29% of autistic people are in some form of employment, which is the most significant leap compared to any other condition that they registered and reported on. However, I will still stress that that's only 29% of autistic people in some form of employment. This compares to over half of the disabled population, and 81% of the general population. Therefore, there's still a lot of work to do when it comes to awareness and acceptance of autism and other neurodiverse conditions.

If somebody discloses a condition on their CV, or during the interview process, employers are obliged, under the Equality Act 2010, to make reasonable adjustments for this employee to help them work. I feel that neurodiversity is something that managers need to be aware because in a world that's not designed for us, where our brains are wired differently to most people, it's often the case that small changes can make a big difference. For example, I met a man who was working for the Cardiff Department of Highways and Transport at a talk. He told me that he had an autistic colleague that was struggling, so he took them aside into a meeting, and he asked what they could do to help them work to their best potential.

After this meeting, they came up with three simple adjustments for this employee. The first was that they'd have their own parking space. This meant they knew where they were going to park which removed any of the stress and anxiety of finding a place or being late. Secondly, they had their own fixed desk in a corner of the room, which in a hot desking environment, which is particularly common in companies nowadays, can in itself make a noticeable difference. Thirdly, other colleagues are only allowed to speak to this person during certain times of the day. This meant that for the rest of the day, they knew that they could focus on their work uninterrupted and meant that they could be a lot more productive.

One thing that I've certainly benefited from as a result of the pandemic is the idea of remote working. I know this has certainly benefited me not just in saving time having to commute to the office and back, but also means I have a lot more control over my environment at home, which definitely makes me less stressed. If you think about it, nobody wants to go commuting on the London Underground while being sandwiched into a tube where your only coping mechanism is Candy Crush. So as far as reasonable adjustments go, as I said, there are several free or low-cost reasonable adjustments that you can make as employees. However, if there are any particularly expensive adjustments that need to be made, you can access the government's Access to Work scheme to help reduce the cost.

Something that I've been researching extensively over the past few years is how the autistic way of thinking is not only been beneficial to society, but I believe has helped to revolutionise the world that we currently live in. I would even go as far as to say that we wouldn't be living in the society we have today, if it weren't for people with a strong number of autistic traits. Now it is important to specify autistic traits for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you can't diagnose someone who's autistic posthumously. And secondly, there are people alive today who could be autistic, and yet haven't been diagnosed either because of the long waiting times, or they may not wish to be diagnosed in the first place. In my latest book, “What Has Autism Every Done for Us?”, I go through several famous people explaining why I think they have a significant number of autistic traits, relating these traits to the incredible achievements that they have made to the world, as well as to my own personal experiences.

If we look at Albert Einstein, for example, once he graduated from university, he worked in a patent office. He was able to do his work so quickly, and with such accuracy, that he was able to do an entire day's work in just a few hours, and then his employer let him take the rest of the day off to work on his physics theories. Now, it was while doing this in his mid 20s, that he published his very significant papers, including his one on the photoelectric effect, which won him a Nobel Prize. On top of this, a few years later, someone else won a Nobel Prize simply by proving one of his theories right. If you look at someone who is currently still alive, I believe that Bill Gates has a significant number of autistic traits. This isn't just because he'd spent his entire waking hours writing computer programmes. There's also the fact that he came with that completely revolutionary, out of the box idea of separating the software from the hardware of a computer, which has led to the computer revolution that we have seen, and we experienced today.

One of the main things I think companies need to do to help remove the stigma around neurodiversity is to learn more about neurodiversity and all the conditions that encompasses. So, if there's one thing that I would like managers and employers to take away from this Manageable Guide, is the fact that you need to get to know your employees as individuals. It's one thing for me to say what it's like to be autistic from an autistic point of view, and other people can say what it's like from other points of view, but we are human beings as an entirety. Being autistic is just one label, one component of what it's like to be Michael Barton, as a human. As such, I would urge you to just get to know your employees as individuals. And I'll leave you with one other thing in there: I think that one of the most dangerous phrases that people use today is “that's what we do around here”. I'm Michael Barton and this is my Manageable Guide to neurodiversity.