Harrison (or, as we all know him, Harry!) is one of ASA’s Lead Data Analysts. Harry works on many of our Digital Engineering projects, documenting and drafting important information about Australia’s critical civil infrastructure that we all use, such as roads, railways, ports and even the National Broadband Network! This article highlights his lived experience of being neurodivergent and what neurodiversity looks like in the workplace so that everyone can thrive. He also covers what employers can do to enable a supportive and inclusive work environment for neurodivergent people based on his experience.
Find out more about his incredible story below.
Harrison Mobbs: I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2008 when I was eight years old. What led to my diagnosis was my erratic behaviour as a child. Most of it was due to the sensory issues I experienced and how difficult it was for me to regulate them. The food court was my worst nightmare. There are so many different and loud sounds in an enclosed space. I just couldn’t tune them out and focus on what I wanted to. Instead, I would put my hands on my ears and hum until it was over. Even things as minor as the material of my jumper being too ‘itchy’ would agitate me enough to ruin my day.
Autistic people often struggle with communication and social cues. A personal example is when my housemate told me the washing machine had finished when he wanted to use it. He got frustrated for a while because he thought I knew he wanted to use it, and I was ignoring him. But I just thought he was letting me know it was finished. Eventually, he brought it up, and we figured out that ‘Your washing is ready, and I’d like to use the machine, please’ worked better for us.
Neurodiversity is a term that you may have heard of. It is growing in popularity, and it’s used to describe the diversity of human brains and how they work. It is often used to talk about neurodivergent people, meaning they have different ways of thinking and learning than the typical or expected norm, neurotypical. Some examples of neurodivergent conditions are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and ASD. These conditions are not diseases, but natural brain development and function variations.
People with autism or ADHD may behave differently in the workplace depending on their individual traits, needs, and challenges. For example, some people with autism may experience sensory overload, difficulty with social interactions, or a need for routine and structure. Some people with ADHD may struggle with attention, organisation, or impulsivity. These differences can affect their performance, well-being, and satisfaction at work.
“However, people with autism or ADHD can also bring valuable skills, perspectives, and strengths to their jobs. With proper accommodations, support, and understanding from employers and coworkers, they can thrive and contribute to the workplace.”
Autism or ASD is one of the most common conditions that you might have heard of. There are around 375,000 people in Australia who identify as having ASD. Unfortunately, many companies haven’t caught on to the potential that neurodiversity can bring to the workplace, and there are still many barriers to employment. The unemployment rate for autistic people in Australia is a staggering 34%. That’s more than triple the unemployment rate of people with a disability. The most important thing to understand about these conditions is that they can vary significantly. These experiences I’m talking about are from my perspective, but please note that while my experiences may be similar to other neurodivergent people, they are not representative as a whole.
For a lot of autistic people, the isolation imposed by the consequences of poor social skills drew them towards the internet and computers. At a young age, I was obsessed with the family computer. I wanted to know everything about how it worked and what it could do. These commonly found technology skills among neurodivergent people give me and many others the ability to use a computer, much like a carpenter would use a hammer. Before ChatGPT, I used to be the person you’d ask why your Excel formula was broken. A common trait of autism is these special interests or, as the diagnostic criteria like to put it, 'restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities’. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved aviation. My father was a skydive pilot, and my uncle was a First Officer for Qantas. I didn’t have to look far to understand why I always wanted to be a pilot growing up!
This led me to a few years ago when I was in my second year of studying aviation to become a pilot. With the pandemic, all my courses transitioned online, and my favourite aspect, the simulator time, was cancelled. I was falling behind after these changes and was really struggling to stay engaged. Around then, I learned that the medication my psychiatrist prescribed me for my newly diagnosed ADHD would disqualify me from passing the medical exam I needed to be a pilot. This was an absolute kick to the guts. Over a year of progress down the drain. To avoid any more student debt, I dropped out of the course. My Centrelink student support supplement ran out, and I had to pick up more shifts from my casual retail job.
Being on a junior wage meant I needed more shifts. There was a point where I had six different casual employment contracts and would have days where I would open one store after closing another. The physical and mental exhaustion from trying to get by each day was immense and impacted my health. I had no time to focus on myself or do the things I enjoy. Even my social life had decayed. After I had turned 21 and was no longer a junior, my employers cut back my shifts from an average of 45 hours a week to just five. I had no choice but to apply for the unemployment benefit, or JobSeeker, at Centrelink. All this despite technically having six jobs at the time. I had the option to look at going onto the Disability Support Pension. But to do that, I had to be assessed for my level of impairment and provide evidence of diagnosis from the paediatrician who assessed me when I was eight. It was not a timely solution for someone struggling to keep a roof over their head.
After my second week of the JobSeeker program, I had applied at about 15 different places with no success. Around that time, I received a call from Autism Queensland—an autism support service that had coincidentally called the wrong number. This was the first time I even heard about them, and a week later, I was sitting down with them, going over what skills I had so they could assist me in connecting with potential employers. In a matter of days, I received an email from Samantha Garbutt (ASA Chief People Officer) inviting me for a job interview at ASA. I received a job offer not long after. Looking back, I think I had better odds at winning the lottery than this freak coincidence happening to me.
“ASA has provided me with stable, secure, and supportive employment since then. Having consistent and secure employment takes full advantage of my psychological need for routine and structure. It makes the act of balancing the many competing priorities of life so much easier. The working environment is much more supportive and geared towards neurodiversity.”
At ASA, my interactions with colleagues are much easier to interpret and understand as the communication is more direct. People can relax and feel like themselves instead of having to mask their behaviours and worry about their presentation as I had to in my previous workplaces. In my pre-employment questionnaire, there was even a question asking if there was anything that ASA could do to support my needs.
“Every other time that I had listed autism as a disability, I was asked if it would impact my ability to do the job. This language is really discouraging and makes neurodivergent people feel like a burden. Unfortunately, this is still the case for many employers.”
Regarding career benefits, I’ve learned and developed various skills and experience at ASA. I started in July 2022, initially learning AutoCAD and the basics of fibre technology for an ongoing National Broadband Network Project. In less than a year, I have managed to go from a junior to a team lead. In late 2023, I wrapped up a project where I coordinated a team of eight to create a digital structural model of a jetty using markups from a group of engineers. All of this is because I was given a chance to live up to the potential that I knew I had. My favourite aspect of having such a diverse team is being able to harness the expertise from the intense interests that neurodivergent people tend to develop in a variety of different areas.
The contrast between an environment that embraces neurodiversity and innovation and one that doesn’t is day and night. I have saved a tremendous amount of time and project hours by capitalising on the innovation that stems from enabling the many diverse ways of thinking within the team. Many people I work with have never been given a chance to reach their potential before, and to see them go the extra mile just because they’re motivated is inspiring and provides a great sense of satisfaction for me.
“So, what’s my advice for companies who want to create an inclusive environment for neurodivergent people? If someone discloses to you that they are neurodivergent, don’t lower your expectations. Instead, increase your range of expectations. They may require more support and can experience difficulties socialising. Still, at the same time, they could also be the solution to your software or process issue or any other problem that aligns with their strengths.”
Cultural and social expectations can be barriers for neurodivergent people. Social cues and indirect communication are what many others and I struggle with. Being more open and direct in your communication can help our interactions for both of us; take my roommate's frustration with my washing machine antics, for example.
Take your time to take note of the things that people have an interest in or express interest towards. Invite more people to participate in problem-solving and leverage the advantages of the different approaches and ways of thinking that everyone has. I’m sure everyone gets excited when talking about what they enjoy—but increase that excitement tenfold for neurodivergent people. We could be deep in conversation, but if I look up and see a plane flying overhead, I’ll probably tell you which model it is, whether you asked me or not!
There is a strong perception bias that many people hold where a person’s level of success is highly dependent on their social abilities. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because I might be a little bit awkward to interact with, doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of doing my job. There is much evidence to support the argument that many people at the top of their field could be neurodivergent. From Charles Darwin to Susan Boyle, there’s no reason for neurodivergent people to be the ones to adapt to society when society should be the one to adapt to them.