EMPLOYMENT STORIES Stories by autistic workers Employee case study - IBM Employee case study - IBM Autistic employee - Anthony Birley Until 2019, I was working for IBM in the UK, on their graduate scheme, in a Technical Solution Manager role. My role was focused on producing and designing solutions - cost models, contract documents, tender responses and more. I would help produce the proposals that would be put in front of customers (other companies in the public, private and third sectors). It was specific to digital workplace solutions, which included device management (managing work iPhones, Android devices, tablets, etc., for other companies’ employees), collaborative tools (e.g. Microsoft Office and Skype for Business), remote access tools, smart printing solutions and more. After completing the graduate scheme I took a Leave of Absence from IBM in 2019 to complete a full-time Masters degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The degree, in LSE’s Department of Management, was an MSc in Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation (MISDI). I returned to IBM in January 2021 having successfully graduated with a Masters. The experience of an industrial placement with IBM while at university led to Anthony seeking a permanent role My route to my role started when I was completing my undergraduate degree at City, University of London. Between my second and third years I earned a place on IBM’s university (industrial) placement scheme, completing a 1-year paid role in IBM’s cloud business. It was during this time that I realised I wanted to continue working for IBM and as I was finishing the placement I applied for IBM’s graduate scheme. I earned a place on it a few months later. On telling employers about his autism diagnosis When applying for roles, I have personally been somewhat reluctant to describe my autism diagnosis. I have always wanted to earn my achievements based on my skills, knowledge and capabilities alone, comparable to other applicants and not because of any adjustment or sympathy based on any diagnoses. To one assessment centre organiser for the placement scheme, I did mention about my diagnosis so assessors could be aware. However, there were no adjustments made at any stages, in comparison to others, for any application processes, for either role or degrees. All stages were the same for all applicants. I did, however, mention in my written applications about my diagnosis. I explained how it had provided me with specific skills and knowledge. Furthermore, it could allow interviewers and potential managers, to be informed of the fact before speaking to me. “I realised that when working, telling employers, specifically managers and close colleagues, about my diagnosis and its effects, makes things a lot easier” It helps to explain why I may communicate, react or interact in certain ways. During my placement, having told my managers early on, I realised that I may often say or do things that would be misunderstood or confuse other people. For confidentiality reasons, the managers did not pass on personal information. With the help of a colleague who themselves had or dealt with other similar issues, I sat down with my close colleagues one day and explained my diagnosis and what it meant. It made things a lot easier. They were all understanding and in fact, to most people I have told, it has not been a surprise (at least for those that had familiarity with autism). On adjustments “Telling managers in particular makes things easier as it can help lead to adjustments being made” During my placement I worked in an office where our team had fixed desks. This made things much easier and more structured. During my graduate role however, my team was geographically dispersed and so there was no fixed space to sit in. I would usually sit around my business unit's “hot desk” areas. As I struggled with a lack of structure, one of my managers identified this as an issue and through contacting the Facilities team, obtained a fixed desk for me. This was one of the most important stress-reducing adjustments made. When completing degrees, there is also the opportunity to receive support. I received Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) support during my undergraduate degree, which included, most significantly, a professional university mentor that I could plan and go through work and exams with, alongside some hardware equipment and specialist software. I also obtained DSA support for my Masters, including an external work-focused mentor and specialist software. One example, a professional screen reader, was exceptionally useful when reading many long papers. I encourage anyone who can get DSA support to do it. It made things a lot easier, particularly the early entry into university study at undergraduate level, as I had eschewed A Levels in favour of a BTEC ICT course, which meant I had studied differently to some of my peers, as for example, BTECs do not include exams. “I was fortunate to have worked for a company that is one of the leaders in diversity support” As a pioneer in LGBT+ and working parent initiatives, for example, coming out with something personal, in IBM, is not a new thing. Many managers and colleagues often have experience of working with or managing people, or having children or relatives, with autism and similar diagnoses, meaning understanding and making adjustments are often not new. On strengths One of the major strengths I bring to my role is attention to detail. Combined with my writing skills, it is especially useful when reviewing customer proposals, tender responses, presentations and contract documents. Additionally, my personal experiences of having support and recognising the value of it, alongside my passion for promoting the company and my universities, has led me to taking on many recruitment initiatives. This has included running sessions and presentations with school, college and university students. I am an IBM Campus Ambassador at the LSE, playing a major part in enhancing the relationship between our two institutions. On barriers “When it comes to barriers and how autistic people can succeed in the workplace, I think a major useful step for employers is to increase the awareness from managers and employees of autism and similar things employees face” When employees tell managers and colleagues that they have something, it can then be less of a surprise and confusing. Within the workplace, in the last few years, especially in many big companies, there has been a big focus on “invisible” issues, such as stress and mental health issues. Coffee mornings, workshops, World Mental Health Day and more are now major features of workplaces. IBM now has “Mental Health First Aiders”, which is a huge step forward. Anthony's advice Finally, in terms of tips for a successful employment experience, whether for those with autism or not, I offer two pieces of advice: Be honest about struggles upfront. Not in terms of posting it on LinkedIn or on your CV, but in terms of verbally telling your managers, colleagues and friends. It will make work a lot easier. If you struggle with your job and find things tough, as I have done, find other things to do alongside it, which you enjoy. For example, whilst on the graduate scheme, I organised Executive Roundtables for senior IBM executives to conduct face-to-face Q&A sessions with early professionals (graduates, interns, apprentices, etc.) This will mean you can mix initiatives and work and have other things to look forward to.