Meet Pavani: mapping success beyond ADHD

Find out how Pavani is navigating her Geospatial career with resilience and determination.

Pavani is one of our data analysts in our Melbourne office. She is an aspiring ecologist passionate about climate change, sustainability, and environmental conservation, with a Master of Environment from the University of Melbourne. She is interested in pursuing a career focusing on environmental management and promoting sustainable practices. In this analyst story, find out how she has overcome the challenges that neurodivergence can bring.

Pavani Manchanayake: I’m a first-generation Australian with a Sri Lankan background. My parents moved to Australia in 1995 with my brother, who was two at the time, and I came along after that. I grew up in a conservative community and culture where neurodiversity is not a common topic of conversation. It's very much like if neurodiversity exists, it's ignored or not acknowledged. I have family members that are neurodivergent, so it does run in our family.

I didn’t know I was neurodivergent until quite recently—I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in late 2023. It's one of those things of being female where ADHD is often not diagnosed until later in life, and then you realise how it’s affected you.

“With my background, school is very important to your parents and family. You try and get the best grades you can. I was a high achiever and in the accelerated class in high school. And school was easy—until it wasn’t. When things became challenging, I was encouraged to just put my head down and keep working. But when things got difficult, it became very tough to keep working, and I burned out. After being diagnosed with ADHD, I'm not surprised that school ended up becoming hard due to procrastination and the like.”

And I think that carried through when I did my undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Science majoring in Ecology and Conservation Biology, and my Masters as well. But as always, when I hit the wall, it was very much a thing of keep working. I did my Masters during COVID as well, with all the added pressures of the pandemic in Melbourne—the world’s most locked-down city. After I finished my Masters, I found it very difficult to start my career and find work. It's one of those things where you have to stay motivated, but it's hard to stay that way when you receive rejection after rejection.

In the environmental sector, it can be very competitive. I wanted to be part of it because it’s essential for everyone’s future. I wanted to try to help, but my values clashed with those of other organisations, and I found that frustrating. I first found work in the financial services area—and hated every moment of it. I was there for about four months, and let’s say the work environment left a lot to be desired. I started just after the floods in October 2022, so there was a huge backlog of work and claims to process. But it wasn't a supportive environment, especially when our leaders told us we had to meet call quotas when all you want to do is help the people you're talking to on the phone. Because of this workplace environment, I quit.

But then I came across ASA and was interested in how they provided geospatial and engineering careers for young adults. Currently, I’m working as a Geospatial Data Analyst, working on creating a single source of truth for Queensland’s electricity assets—one of the world’s largest electrical networks. I’m proud to be working on it, and it’s also great to be recognised for technical excellence by the Geospatial Council of Australia.

“And then I found out I had ADHD, and it explained everything. A lot of my life made sense after my diagnosis.”

I found that trying to be acknowledged by others that I was being diagnosed with ADHD was difficult. When I told my friends, and these are friends that I grew up with from the same community, they just said, no, you’re fine; what do you mean? They probably didn’t pick up on it because I had been masking it for so long. It was hard for me to tell them because I was thinking negatively in the back of my mind, and it was one of those compelling, loud voices.

Having previously worked in toxic environments, I love how supportive it is here. It's nice to have a safe working environment where people come first. The fact that we have People Success Officers (PSOs) that we can chat with when we need help, as well as our Lead Data Analysts, it’s great that everyone is kind and supportive. It's always nice to be heard when you need to be heard. I have learnt a lot about myself and neurodiversity since I started here.

Stress and burnout are something that I still deal with. After working in places where taking breaks is almost frowned upon, I still feel bad if I do it here. But I know that ASA prioritises the care and wellbeing of their staff over everything else, which is a breath of fresh air. Working on ASA projects with such supportive people, I know I can be comfortable letting them know that if I feel overloaded, I may need an easier task to complete that may help bring me back to 100%.

“I have never been in a more nurturing, supportive workplace environment than ASA. I love working at an organisation that supports its people and helps them develop and grow. The people that I work with are great. The senior management team has also made me feel extremely welcome; special shoutout to Tai (Program Coordinator), Melissa (Program Manager), and my project leads. ASA has definitely helped me grow my confidence, my abilities and my leadership skills. I know what I am capable of achieving.”

At ASA, I really enjoy speaking face-to-face with others. I made it a mission of mine to know everyone in the Melbourne office when I first started by joining the end-of-year party planning committee. It made it a lot easier to get to know everyone and build rapport, even if some team members were shy. I also got to know many people from our other offices.

“Other organisations can learn a lot from ASA. When it comes to enabling neurodiversity in the workplace, patience is vital. I feel most workplaces don’t accommodate different learning styles and assume everyone learns the same way. I know this isn't true—it was the same when I went to school. The speed and way that some people learn and absorb knowledge compared to others is always different. It’s acknowledged and encouraged here at ASA, which is refreshing and comforting.”

For example, when learning new software programs, people's different learning styles are accounted for, especially when you haven’t used them before. But it should be the norm everywhere. I feel many organisations take the attitude of ‘this is a presentation, and you're going to listen to me talk for the next three days.’ Here, it’s very much sitting down, talking it through, and asking questions when needed. Plus, ASA is patient with people and their differences, such as how long they may take to learn new skills. We also have our one-on-one chats, which is a huge thing that many companies don't have.

I still think there is a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance by society about what it means to be neurodivergent. I’ll give you an example. I went camping with my partner over a long weekend. I noticed the interactions between a young child and his parent. He was talking a lot and was probably neurodivergent. But the parent didn't understand that and asked why you are talking so much? But the child kept saying that he liked talking. It's one of those things that you see in the real world. I’ve also heard terrible stories from my team members about how awful they have been treated. I’m glad ASA is helping get the word out that neurodivergent people bring unique skills to the workforce.

“I have some tips for organisations on how they can help their neurodivergent team members. 1. Create an environment so that everyone can be heard. 2. Always take time to provide support, even when you’re busy. 3. I think every company should have PSOs! They’re a great resource to talk to, even if you don't know how you're feeling. But when you chat, everything comes out, and you can manage it.”

Working at ASA has opened my eyes to the power of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and how it can be applied to the environmental sector because I have a lot of fieldwork experience. Since I started, I’ve been able to use my new technical knowledge and upskill, which has been great because this provides me with new opportunities. I have especially enjoyed learning from others and passing that knowledge on to new team members. I also like how ASA collaborates with like-minded organisations like the Department of Resources and Acciona, where people are embedded in their offices learning new skills.

At the moment, I am really enjoying my role at ASA, which is helping me build my technical, interpersonal and leadership skills. Working at ASA has definitely opened new avenues for my career that weren’t previously available. My ambition is to become a Lead Data Analyst; from there, who knows? Watch this space!

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