“Being neurodiverse is a data point, not a summary of who I am.” – Kenneth Munie
In recognition of the United Nations sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day, we spoke with some of our colleagues and asked them to share their thoughts on what autism acceptance looks like at Accenture and in their communities. They shared valuable insights borne from personal experiences, either as a person with autism or as a family member.
Read on to learn from our colleagues, Kenneth Munie, Motlhatlhego Mahlatse Maffa and Guillermo Orrillo, about their experiences with autism and their insights into how we can create a culture of equality and belonging by understanding and embracing what makes us who we are.
Kenneth Munie is recognized for quickly and seamlessly synthesizing large amounts of information and communicating the big picture to help drive the performance of his team and successful engagements with clients. But he shared that he isn’t always perceived as being “good with people.”
As a person with autism, Kenneth processes information somewhat differently than colleagues.
“What’s obvious to me, isn’t obvious to everyone else. For example, I’ll sit in a client meeting and say, ‘The answer is this…’ Then they’ll look at me and say, ‘What?’ I need to articulate the often non-linear, cross-concept connections I made for them to understand how I’m getting from A to Z.”
Kenneth has learned to adapt by taking the time to map out how he comes to conclusions. But sometimes, he wishes others could adapt a little, too, especially when interpreting his behavior. “I get dinged a lot for being too quiet,” he notes, “but that doesn’t mean I’m holding back. In my mind, I don’t want to repeat what someone else says because it’s already been said. I only talk when I think it will add value and progress the conversation. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s important to play back what they’ve said because it helps validate and progress the discussion.”
Kenneth notes that once he understands how others are thinking, he’s able to adapt. He notes it would help everyone if people’s patterns of thinking were more visible.
“It would make it so much easier if you just walked into a room and you could see how people think—this is a very emotional person, this is a very logical person, this is a neurodiverse person, this is a neurotypical person, this person has anxiety and this person suffers from depression.”
Kenneth believes this level of openness and understanding could create meaningful changes in teams and team dynamics.
“I wish people were comfortable talking about neurodiversity and even joking with me about it. I don’t want people to treat me differently, just understand how I think differently.”
Kenneth notes that sharing his diagnosis is an important part of building awareness and understanding. While he is concerned that people won’t joke with him anymore about his “parkour” way of thinking or that they may limit their understanding of him, he wants people to see that being a person with autism is “a data point, not a summary” of who he is.
For Motlhatlhego Mahlatse Maffa, sharing his story is a significant part of his neurodiversity journey. It’s a brave step toward being open about his diagnosis.
“I’ve spent most of my life trying to fit in,” he says. “When someone would ask, ‘What is your favorite sport?’ I would say, ‘Soccer.’ They’d ask, ‘Which team?’ and I would just pick any. I felt like I always needed to fake things to meet standards. There are so many simple questions that I cannot answer. I don’t have a favorite movie or place to travel. I don’t get excited about my birthday or make plans. This complicates the hundreds of small social interactions most people make every day.”
After an engaging conversation with Dr. Lutza Ireland, psychologist and social designer, Mahlatse realized he’s autistic. He’s starting to understand that his way of relating to the world is different from some, but like many others. For most of his life, though, he dwelled on his differences.
“I’ve tried to adjust or fit in, to the point of feeling like I’m killing myself inside. It is only now I can be myself.”
Previously, when Mahlatse received a task or instruction, he might not immediately understand what to do without having the instructions explained in a way he could process.
“I’d try to figure it out myself and do something,” he says. “If it turned out wrong, I’d try to explain my work versus acknowledging that I didn’t understand the instruction.”
The situation became so acute, Mahlatse notes, it led to a demotion with a previous employer. Now, however, he’s feeling more empowered to be himself and to learn about his neurodiversity.
One of the things Mahlatse has learned is that he has a habit of interrupting people. “When someone is talking to me about a subject,” he recalls, “I can predict what they’ll say next. So, I’d stop them when I know where they’re going. People got offended.”
Since understanding this was his tendency — one common to those with autism — he’s learned to listen to people while they’re speaking and wait for them to finish. These and other realizations unlock new ways of working for Mahlatse.
When asked what would create a stronger understanding of autism at Accenture, Mahlatse suggests convening groups of people with autism. “I think it will help build more confidence, and people will be able to come forward. They will learn to understand that autism is in its way ‘normal,’ and help create an environment that is friendly for people and support us all to fully function.”
As the caregiver of a child with autism, Guillermo Orrillo has faced challenges he never imagined. At the same time, he’s become empowered to be a protagonist for positive change at Accenture. His goal is to help people with autism reach their potential.
Guillermo’s experiences with people who are autistic have given him valuable insights into the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace. However, he notes that they’ll need two things for people to excel.
First, companies need to change the way they recruit and hire. “What happens,” he notes, “is that companies have hiring processes that can present barriers to people with autism. We look for outspoken people in interviews, people who are nice and articulate, who make you laugh. But what if you were to interview an autistic person who didn’t disclose? How would you respond to this candidate?”
We might think the candidate is too quiet, shy or direct. If we knew the candidate was autistic, notes Guillermo, could we reach a different conclusion? Would we have a better chance of identifying a candidate who could significantly contribute to our teams?
Companies also need to seek out neurodiverse candidates, shifting stances from accepting or attracting these candidates to going out and looking for them. “It’s about looking for diversity,” says Guillermo. “We have to look for diversity, find it, think about it, brainstorm how we can ensure we have different identities on our teams.” And once candidates are selected, he recommends customizing how people work so that people with different abilities can stand out.
Guillermo has noticed that people have felt empowered to reach out to him since he’s shared that he has a child with autism.
“One day, one of our senior managers called me to say he too has an autistic child and asked if I could help.”
Guillermo is part of a network of colleagues at Accenture threading new dialogues into the culture and creating an even greater sense of openness and inclusion.
“The level of confidence you have with the team—the level of openness you have—if you can talk about that, you can talk about everything. It makes all the difference in the way we work together.”