Meet Keeton: how he became a Telecommunications Engineering Lead Data Analyst

Keeton Williamson Smith has overcome many obstacles to get to where he is today. After finding school life challenging, he moved around several retail positions. After a chance encounter with Australian Spatial Analytics (ASA) by his mother, Keeton now works as a Lead Data Analyst, managing neurodiverse delivery teams and documenting Australia’s fibre optic cable rollout. This interview highlights his experience of living with autism, plus how a diverse and inclusive workplace can help create both enormous social and economic impact. Find out more about Keeton below.

Keeton Williamson Smith: I grew up in Brisbane and spent much of my childhood struggling to fit into the school system. I found both primary and secondary school very difficult. Along with autism, I also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I like to compare myself to Dug the Golden Retriever from the movie ‘Up’. I could be in the middle of a task, and then if I saw something fly past the window, what I was doing wouldn’t matter anymore. My focus would be then on what I saw fly by.

School life was challenging. I often sat at the back or next to a window, which didn’t work because I was constantly distracted. I needed to be where I could focus, such as at the front. This would have helped me immensely in my learning progression. I hopped around friendship groups because I never really fit in anywhere. But it was during mainstream school that I found out that I liked IT.

“The only place I did fit in was with the ‘techies’, the school department where they worked on computers, and they welcomed me in. So, I got to learn about computers during lunch! When I look back, I think they may have been like-minded! They showed me what to do and how to do it, including many detailed and intricate processes.”

Based on my experience, many teachers didn’t understand neurodiversity. I’d often struggle with the classroom environment and schoolwork. I would ask for feedback on something, and when they provided it, it didn’t make sense to me. I would ask again, which would be met with a short response. They just gave me the answer without providing extra help. I found English especially hard, which caused me a lot of stress.

I couldn’t conform to the mainstream school curriculum and ended up completing my senior years online at the Brisbane School of Distance Education, where I thrived. It was a bit like working during COVID-19. You would clock on in the morning to join a video call in a virtual classroom. The teacher would present and do some work with you, but you’re working externally, from home alone, with your comforts and not worrying about external influences. For example, I built a little shelter with screens and dividers around me to help keep me focused. Surprisingly, this worked well! I was very attentive and ended up getting good grades.

I didn’t make any more friends at the distance school initially, but many people who went there were from army families or had problems with mainstream schools. I’m not an exceptionally outward or social person. But I found it much easier to bond with them as we had similar interests. At many mainstream schools, everything's all about being social, who you know, and who you’re with. At distance education, we had the same interests. You're not always in contact with them because it’s mostly online when you ‘visit’ the school, but we had the odd excursion days and camps where we could talk face-to-face and gel. I’m still in contact with many of my old distance education schoolmates. I went to one of my friends’ weddings recently, which was great.

The distance school helped provide personal and professional growth avenues with others. I liked that we had a lot more independence with the teachers themselves. If I asked a question, their answers were tailored to me. Previously, my regular school teachers would gloss over the question and give me a generalised mish-mash of information that made no sense.

“I loved maths, IT and physics. I even finished maths a year early. IT was a hobby and passion and I found it intriguing. With autism, many people can ‘hyperfocus’, making it much easier to learn a new topic, especially if you enjoy it.”

With family life, while we all got along, I used to butt heads with my mother when it came to school, even though she helped me a lot. Mum actually helped me a lot regarding schoolwork or things happening at school. I never really liked assignments. I’d wait until the last minute, pushing the deadlines, until Mum came to assist me, especially with English. I would write an assignment and think it was okay, but it was just the bare bones, not the meat required. I thought that was enough, but then I would have someone else re-read it while I was in bed. The following day, they would say, ‘What are you trying to say here?’

After I finished school, I had a couple of jobs in customer service and retail. My mother has always been about you working for what you want. So, if you really want something, work for it. You put in the effort, and I will assist you in getting there. I’ve been working since I was 15. There hasn’t been a time when I haven’t had a job. I worked at a newsagent at the front desk for three years in sales, selling lottery and scratch-it tickets. I also did a stint in the post office. I worked at a pet store for a short while but left due to the owner’s treatment of the animals, which did not match my values.

When I turned 18, I applied for a job at a bottle shop organisation. At the time, they were paying pretty good rates and were looking for people to do the night shift. As a night owl, I thought that was great! I moved around different stores for the next five years, and that’s when I learned to get outside my comfort zone.

“I taught myself to maintain eye contact and talk with people based on cues like body movements. I also learnt how to approach different situations and deal with all sorts of customers, including highly aggressive people. I’ve had to call the police because sharp objects were involved! I definitely learnt a lot about the general public and how retail workers are treated. I think I chose the most volatile field to work in–alcohol!”

In terms of the neurodiversity support I received during my retail jobs, it was pretty much one out of 10. The one is for the family-run newsagent, so they were more open to my needs and helped me, but they didn’t understand them. For example, if I wasn’t doing well from a mental health perspective. For other roles, if I disclosed I was neurodivergent, I was exposed to the stigma, and people would look at me differently. I removed ‘neurodivergent’ from my CV and job interview conversations because I felt it would affect my chances of landing the job.

I then stumbled across ASA by accident because my mother is a teaching assistant in a special needs department at a school. They had a careers expo; my mother brought some students along, and ASA was there. They were pretty small at the time, with only around 20 employees, and my mother met (Chief People Officer) Samantha Garbutt. They talked about many of the skills ASA were after, and my mother said that my son checks many of the boxes. It was a chance encounter, and I was encouraged to apply.

It was at a time when I had been with the bottle shop company for quite a while and wasn’t receiving the support I was after. I needed management training support but was forced to learn everything by myself. The training never came. I wasn’t in a good place then, so I needed a change.

“When I applied at ASA, I found the recruitment process really cool! I did some online spatial recognition tests that, being a gamer, came in handy!  Everything was easy to understand. The interview process was super friendly with Geoff (CEO) and Samantha (Chief People Officer), even though I was very nervous!”

The thing was that I’m very loyal, which can be a ‘fatal flaw’ for people who are neurodivergent, who can sometimes not wish to change the status quo. I didn’t want to leave where I was because even though I was feeling down, I hoped they would show me the kindness to train me in everything I was after.

A couple of days later, I was offered a role at ASA. I started working three days a week and another three at the bottle shop doing odd shifts. After a short period, I’d had enough and realised I had learnt more at ASA in three months than at the bottle shop in five years! I knew I had found a better place to learn so much more. ASA cared about me; I wasn’t just another cog in the wheel. I chatted with Geoff about going full-time at ASA, and he said definitely! I started in both the geospatial and telco engineering areas and have progressed to focusing on documenting the fibre optic cable rollout across Australia.

I’ve just passed my second work anniversary here at ASA (as of November 2023). I like a lot of things about working here. I love the workplace and, more specifically, the people. You can get along with everyone and be yourself. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. Everyone has their own quirks, and no one judges you.

What I like about working here is how easy it is to ask for help when you need it. Even better, you actually receive it! If you need assistance, whether it be training or feeling like you’re lacking in a particular area, ASA is always open to it. There's always someone who can give direction. No other organisation has ever done that for me. Watching ASA grow is so rewarding. I was the 23rd employee; now we are over 120. I’m really impressed with how ASA lives and breathes what they do.

I also like the flexibility. Sometimes, I’ve needed to take a day off to look after my family, care for some things, or have a break. A People Success Officer (one of ASA’s mental health support people) is always available to talk to or support. In other places, I felt guilty if I needed time to deal with things in my personal life.

With my team’s neurodivergent strengths, I think it's just the ability to try and understand how other people are and that they're not the same. You can't treat everyone the same. I have some very quirky team members! So, to look after them, I have to know their strengths. This means I know how to assign specific tasks to them that not only make their day better, but they know exactly how to do it, and they're not stressing about new information. I also know when to do further training and all that stuff.

"Learning how to work with neurodivergent people is great because when you work to their strengths, they do amazing work. For example, the ability to hyperfocus allows them to concentrate intensely on what they need to do and smash it out. This is critical because I know who to give certain tasks to if I have a deadline. Others are good at managing tasks and timelines at specific times. It’s finding out what works best for them and then working together.”

The ASA managers have helped me with so much. Before I started, I had zero technical knowledge of the work. They trained me from the ground up. Being in a Lead Data Analyst position means I look after other people now and help them. The culture here is that if a task stresses someone out, you find another avenue that works. ASA’s ability to work with every employee to get the best out of them is one of their strongest points.

Working at ASA has definitely given me confidence and financial stability. I don’t have to worry about what’s coming next. I’ve also learnt how to communicate with others better by refining what I say and write. For example, I ask people for feedback on how they would like me to approach a situation. I see that as my reference guide for the next time to try and help accommodate them. I aim to keep on growing here.

Previously, when I disclosed that I have autism, I felt there was a subconscious bias. Some people have looked at me differently until I finally show them it's not such a bad thing. I have always been told to own my uniqueness and be proud of it. The media generally talk about non-verbal, high-support individuals. It’s like saying there’s only one level of hot sauce! People then make assumptions and hold onto the stigmas. That’s not fun to say, but it’s the truth.

“Neurodivergent people aren’t in the workplace to disrupt the flow of a company. They want to be there and show what they can do. Maybe they might need some help initially but won’t somewhere down the line, and then they can help others. You need to build a solid foundation. You need to find out what people are interested in.”

Many workplaces, like the school system, use a cookie-cutter approach. I know from my experience here at ASA that other workplaces can help neurodivergent people by reducing their anxiety and the stigma that comes with it. They need to get to know the person and have a more open view of the world. What would help is that every organisation has at least one person who understands neurodiversity so others can listen.

Things that may cause anxiety for neurodivergent people, especially new starters, is information overload: bite-size and structured chunks of information work. For example, we might spread training over two weeks instead of an intensive two-day process. With all our projects, we have detailed documentation and how-to guides for people to refer to anytime. We encourage people to ease into things. There is always someone around to help. We like to give information in a structured way.

ASA is setting up neurodivergent people for the future. For me, I love what I am doing, and I go where the wind takes me. I’m also open to working at other neuro-inclusive organisations. I know ASA’s goal is to develop people and transition them into careers at other organisations, but I’m very loyal to ASA for what they’ve done.

Because of that, ASA will always be a home for me.

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