Unlocking the Superpowers of the Neurodiverse

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The neurodiverse are an underutilized pool of talented men and women who can prosper in the workforce. They just need a fair chance.

Shaloni Winston, CEO of the Lexington, NY chapter of The Arc and Founder of Transitions, is here to expand our knowledge of neurodiversity.

Shaloni believes that, through honest communication, employers can unlock the potential of every neurodiverse worker.

Empowering a neurodiverse workforce is just the beginning as we work to understand how our differences make us stronger.

Join us as we discuss:

- Common misconceptions centered around neurodiversity

- How employers can help their workers socially navigate the office

- Giving neurodiverse employees the right tools to succeed

Craving more? You can find this interview and many more by subscribing to C-Suite Blueprint on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

How can we help people realize their optimal potential? What is neural diversity and how can we sit at the workplace in a way that allows people to fully explore their superpowers? These topics are more explored today with Shaloni Winston. Shaloni is the founder of the transitions organization. Transitions helps teens and young adults prepare for life, school and work. They also help their workplace prepare for engaging workforces like this. The topics makes for today. While they might be about people with autism and learning differences, I think they applied to all humans. We all are different, we perform differently, we perform differently in different environments. So I'm very pleased to welcome Shaloni Winston. You're listening to C suite blueprint, the show for C suite leaders. Here we discuss no bys approaches to organizational readiness and digital transformation. Let's start the show, Shaloni. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you, George. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about what I'm so Schnett about. Well, you have such a great mission. We're really drawn to it. This phrase neurodiversity is all of a sudden becoming more of a topic that you're hearing about and and in one way I feel like that's that's a great thing, uh in, but there's also part of me that's maybe frustrated by that, because why has it taken this long? You know, and I know that you've been working in this field for quite a while, so I'd love to maybe start off with a little bit of a, you know, a history of how you've gotten into this space and what your organization is doing. I'm going to start there. My educational background is in clinical psychology. So from there I started working thirty years ago with people with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities. Neuro diversity was not a term at that time. And then back in two thousand seven my daughter was fourteen and she brought home an egg that she had to take care of as a science experiment and that egg had been given a diagnosis by her teacher. At that point she comes to me and she says,...

...mom, I have Turner Syndrome. That was a diagnosis that the egg had been given, and she shows it to me and I didn't really pay attention. To make it make a long story short, net the following year because she wasn't growing. We took her to an Endo chronologist and a simple blood test later, she was diagnosed returner syndrome. It's a chromosomal disorder that affects the growth and development of women. Numerous trips started to the doctors and then one diagnosis. There's medical issues, but one diagnosis was particularly devastating and it was by a neuropsychologist of something called nonverbal learning disability. So when you think about new neuro diversity, it's a new diversity refers to anyone that has a brain related condition, developmental disorder condition. In our field we most focus on people with autism, spectrum disorder, a d h d, some kind of learning difference. So nonverbal learning disability was one of them and the neuropsychologists explained to me is imagine you're in a foreign country and everything is in a different language. You are right, you don't know the language. You're right and you'll eventually figure it out, but it's gonna be hard on you, it's going to be different on you. So neurodiversity, people with some type of neuro diversity. They are constantly trying to operate in a world that wasn't designed for them. That wasn't designed with the way they think, they see, they operate. I love to talk about the you know, when people are faced with those lounges, they the way that they overcome them. I...

...feel like they build so many superpowers along the way to be to be able to you know, I mean operating, and it's like operating in a world with heavier gravity. You know, when you come back now, all of a sudden you can jump higher and you can you can run faster. Has that been your experience, as well as just seeing those those little superpowers build? My experience in this is it's they build it, but they also have to be taught it too, to unlock their potential. So, again, coming back to my daughter, I watched her one day. You know, why do you hear all of these things? You read about all of these things. That obviously educated myself, but I saw her. The pizza man came and she's carrying the pizza box inside and she's carrying it sideways, swinging her arms and has no I'm like, where you hold it up and she has no recognition that the cheese is melting and falling and all of that, and that's when it clicked for me. It clicked how she learns differently. Nobody ever teaches you how to carry a pizza box. We just pick it up. Well Pretty, and my daughter doesn't. She has to be taught that. Okay. So you know. I then became her coach and I supported her and helped her learn differently. She graduated from school fifth in her class, with a presidential scholarship to college, Etcetera, etcetera. Then we started thinking life without mom. What do we do? Right? So I looked for programs for her to learn independent living skills and be able to live on our own and be successful in our own so I did Um we found this program, very elite, exclusive program. It was in San Francisco.

We flew her out there two weeks later. I was just a two week camp. Two weeks later I went to pick her up and honestly, I'm embarrassed to share this, but when I went and I saw her, I was so disappointed. She looked I have never thought of her as somebody with a disability. She looked more like a disabled person. And what stood out to me as yes, they taught her some independent living skills, but they created a more of her dependency and a complacency and it did not unlock her superpowers. And that's when I vowed that we're not going to do this, we're going to have a different alternative. And I was at that time CEO of an organization called the Ark Lexington that's been supporting people with disabilities, intellectual and cognitive disabilities, for the last sixty years, and I had an amazing team. So we took that strength we had and created a program called transitions. And what transitions? Everything we do with transitions while we learn new things and we but it's based on that experience I had, that there's I am not going to create something that makes somebody more dependent. I'M gonna WE'RE gonna help that person, each person, unlock their superpowers. Yeah, empower them, give them some agency. Yeah, and what we do in that is that we don't tell them what to do. You know, we help them focus on their strengths and figure out how to problem solve, how to take...

...their strengths and make them superpowers and bring out um the because of their learning difference, those strengths are hidden. It's their learning differences. It's there, you know. They that they're not able to adapt to our world. Is What keeps their strengths hidden. So we help them unlock that. What I love to talk about this part of our conversation too, is how can we accommodate things better? Because, Um, you know, if I do go to travel to a different land, what's what's in a different language, what's going to help me is if people are pointing to things and telling me what they're called right or they're they're showing me through. And we work with so many organizations, so many companies. They spend so much money running these design workshops and and we help facilitate some of these workshops and they're all about how can we get people thinking differently, how can we think about problems differently? And you would think, if you're doing that, then why not generally make your environment more accommodating to to the ways that different people function and how they exist in the world? Um, and I'd love us to get some some some topics out there that will help those organizations be more accommodating to to focus on the spectrum or other just different learning disabilities. So that is what we focus on. The group that we work with is from sixteen to seven and we support them to be successful in college, careers and life right. So, based on that experience, we help them think for themselves and problem solved. So first I want to give Kudos to all of the employers that are even thinking about this topic and are opening their environments to be more inclusive. So that's the world needs that. So what can they do? Often they think that it's a lot that they have to do with these big things. It doesn't have to be. Okay, what it has to so to me,...

...what you would do is start by listening. Okay, just because you have one neuro diverse person, you only know that one person, right. They're not the same. Just because everybody thinks it's the same, it's not the same. So I would start with simply listening. I would start with talking to your entire employee group, not just the people that have neuro diversity. Give sharing your commitment and showing talking to them about how they have found people with neuro diversity to excel at things and how they benefit the company. And if somebody has something that they want to talk to them about, then create a welcoming environment so that the person can come and talk to you about what they might need. That actually creates a benefit to your entire workforce, because people have differences in many different areas, not just neuro diversity, and it creates an openness that you could come and talk about anything and we will work with you. All right. Yeah, I mean those are just great things to do. In general, I've found it, I don't of musing is the right word, but I've also seen a lot more articles in the past several years just talking about how valuable introverts are, almost as if up until recently we they like introverts were useless. It's almost how some of these topics are coming across now. And you know, especially working in software, you know I've worked with plenty of people that are introverts, people are on the spectrum and there's some of the most brilliant people that I've in talented people I've worked with, and Um, it's Um, it's like, shouldn't we just be doing this stuff anyways? For for everyone, everyone. It's frustrating, right, and you know the example of introverts. They it applies. The issues that an introvert as is that they're not going to often speak up...

...right. So same thing may apply to people with neurodiversity. They're trying to figure out this world by themselves. So you want to ask them, you want to talk to them. It may often require very small accommodations, very small adjustments, such as, you know, Um listening to music while working with headphones right so that they're not distracted and they are able to not get overstimulated with everything, the ability to record a meeting, a little extra time that is possible for projects, Guy, Um, a little administrative organization, that support that you can provide them. It's not that they can't do their job. It's not they can do their job. They can do often do their work at a higher level of strength and higher level of expertise than others may be able to, but they just need some slight accommodations. Even to think about the entire population. Try One thing an employer can do is try to give direction or in different ways. So you could do verbally, you could have a visual you could have a kinesthetic, hands on approach. Now I remember one of the first jobs my daughter had. She was a lifeguard and she was actually fired from that. Jay was such a big thing for her. She loved it. She was great as a lifeguard. She passed all of that, but she took too long to change lane lines. Nobody teaches you how to change lane lines right. So there was these unspoken unwritten things that most people with neurodiversity are not are trying to navigate themselves. Now that's probably the biggest thing. If you do your communication, if you open your channel of communication and you make it okay to be different again, not...

...just people with new diversity, with anyone right, and you're clear in your instructions, oftentimes it's very helpful. Okay to that person. The other thing, this is a generality, but people with new diversity have a hard time with the environment and they hustle and bustle of a culture that's very fast paced. So you can look at simple things in the environment. You can look at the lights, you can look at the stimulation. Is there a space? You know we have companies have that bullpen type of office space. That's not the perfect space for somebody with neuro diversity and is there someplace that they can escape to for a little bit? Okay, one example we have seen. One difficulty is remember the whole foreign country thing. So when somebody is trying to to constantly, they're working harder than another person. So they need time and space to chill. Back to the introvert thing is they need more of that recharge time, right. And Yeah, I feel like the office is there's while there's been a lot of of of improvements in workspaces and off spaces, I feel like there's still this trap where you fall into a one size fits all. You know, even as I saw all these organizations moved to an office, you know, open office and collaboration space, it's like, yes, that's great that you have that, but not everyone can work in this often on this open office space collaboration space. You know, even myself, I know I need to put on some noise canceling headphones and dim the lights and, you know, really focus on something rather than that. And and even look at what's happened in the past couple of years with the pandemic, right, all of a sudden people are realizing, Oh, some people work better at home, some people do not work better at home whatsoever. And you know, how can we um really embrace tell these different ways...

...of people working? So, in addition to the passion and the programs that we have, we employ employees. So we're a large employer and we're a top workplace. Okay, so through the pandemic. We have learned that there are many people that actually do better and I'm more productive in a remote work environment. So that is something to consider. Now again, I've not just because one person who's neuro diverse one needs that doesn't mean that everybody needs that right. So any suggestion, any comments are making, you have to the bottom line of it is you have to talk to the person. You have to make it open for them too and comfortable for them to come to you and ask you. You know, sometimes you don't realize there's a strong smell, there's a color that is distracting to the person, clutter. Clutter is a big thing that we find that is distracting towards these are simple fixes. These are not something that an employer has to change and make it very special for that one person. And these are things that apply to other people as well. It's very easy to make assumptions that people you know about things. You know the the you know the pizza box, example. You just assume someone knows how to hold a pizza box. You assume someone knows how to change the lanes. But you know, if I think about any great manager or any great leader like you're always trying to find what assumptions am I making that I shouldn't be making to get this person to excel in their role. So aget, like so much of this, just sounds like it's just it's being a good human and treating people like a good human. You know it is. Employers are not trying to be not good humans. There simply are not focused on it or thinking about it. So it's just about more about awareness. The one thing we have seen consistently very common with people with your...

...diversity is social navigation is very difficult for them. Typically it's almost like an introvert right Um, but they don't often present as an introvert. It may not be that, but it's just that the social side, and when I say social, there's also there's a friends and that kind of social but there's an office social and an office etiquette. So we have consistently found that having a mentor a Buddy to help with those unwritten rules has been extremely helpful. They having somebody that kind of you know, it's that concept of a big brother big sister kind of a thing, somebody who looks out for you and helps you assimilate. That is has been tremendously helpful. We've had young adults who are extremely bright, extremely talented. It they're not. We see these things that it's hard for them to go into a break room, it's hard for them to know what to do when you're eating lunch. It's hard for them to know how to leave their work space and go to the bathroom now because they've had in their mind that they're supposed to work. Yeah, Um, so having a social mentor. I wouldn't call it a social mentor, but creating some connection with each person. That I think is very helpful and for the non neuro diverse population, we have found that people just want to help and people want to help others succeed. So it actually gives them a passion and a mission. That makes a lot of sense and it's it's probably makes it that much more important to write down the things that are typically not written down. You know you're Patrick lincone talks about highly functioning teams and you know you wanna, you want to openly say what are the norms of this...

...team, and those are generally unsaid, but it creates such a safer environment once you do, and it might even seem silly to some people to write down some of these these norms. But Um, and maybe to your point earlier, maybe it's not just writing it down, but it's recording something about them. You know, multiple different ways that someone can absorb that information is just to be so clear about what your team norms are. You make a great point and Patrick Lencioni has been there for years and there's been multitude of companies that follow and other leaders. So businesses know how to do this, they just haven't applied it to a neuro diverse population. Yeah, it's not more valuable than than, you know, a collection of people that think differently, you know, and especially in a world where resources are getting harder and harder to find. You know, why not open up the net wider and then really create an environment for them? One of the things we do is developed companies so so that they would be willing to taken our students as interns and subsequently as employees, and we have been very successful and we have actually heard from companies how it's actually benefited their environment. It isn't about just that one person. They're proud that they're supporting the one person or two people that they hire, but it's actually benefited their entire employee population. So I just give Kudos to employers that are open to it and and at this point it's a necessity, m H. it's a necessity because there are many people out there. Autism. Is One in forty four now, and many of these folks they bring skills and traits and knowledge that really benefits the workplace. They bring exceptional talent in areas that a non neuro diverse person may not have, that there are specific skill sense to it. You know, Um students with...

...autism, people with autism, they have. Well, I'll give you an example. We had a student we supported in our finance department and he literally had a hard time walking down the hallway to the office. But we were giving in to internship. He had just graduated from high school and we had these two complex excel spreadsheets and we were looking for the differences between the two. He's a cake for him, not from it for any of our other staff were employeed there, right, but yet he could not pick up the phone to call somebody because he's never used a desk phone. Right. So nobody teaches you that. So it's both ways. They bring talents, those superpowers that you referenced it to be that really enhances the workplace. I'd love the devetail on that and maybe have you talked a little bit about a a success story or two? So there's one young man that comes to my mind. I met him seven years ago and he was in college and he was failing college and he went his apartment. He was trying to live on his own and he himself described it years later that it looked like a bomb had gone off in his apartment. I got to meet him because I was in some meetings with him and he would just sit there with his head down, take notes and never said a word. M Hm. He became part of our program and three years ago he graduated. He has gotten his associates degree on the Dean's list. He has enrolled in a bachelor's degree program through the internships he's Um he wants to be an environmental conservation so he's been able to, through his intern ships, get experience in that and his internships site has...

...hired him after the internship and that's another offering internships is a good way of introducing an employer to this type of a workforce and then you have time to um get to know the person and then, Um, you can offer them a position. So he took a break, he did his you know, he was having a part time job because he was at a point, I need a car, I need this, lives on his own, does well and now he just enrolled in a Bachelor's program to add Sonny coble skill and agriculture. We have multiple stories like that right. But talking about him, I want to add one more point to what employers can do. Typically, when you interview someone, what you're looking for a neuro diverse person may not have not in terms of skills, in strengths, but the interview process a lot of times they don't make eye contact, they're looking down. There are a lot of times they're just not spontaneous in their answers and they have anxiety. So I would ask employers to give a longer interview version. Okay, maybe over a week. Have them come in and do something in your environment and don't just make a snap judgment on those traditional skills things that we look for like icon. That's another reason why the internships are so great is you can get real just time and they can start to feel comfortable and you can start to see Um. You know the real value that they bring. You know, and that is just one story. I remember. I don't remember the numbers, but it was very impressive. What was the numbers of the number of young adults that you've helped or some of the statistics that you had shared with me last time we talked? So we have currently full time students enrolled our sixty. Over the seven years of our opera ration we have served...

...over three D students between our preparation camps and then a full time or part time students are one of our success stories is not individual but it's about a business. We have a business here Um that we reached out to. They had never supported anyone with the order diversity. I'm sure they have, they just don't know right. So we specifically reached out and they were very reluctant because not because they didn't want to, but because they just felt inadequate. So we went in and we met with the entire management team and provided some training and sensitivity and said that we will be there right beside them anytime they needed it. They we were able to offer through them, three internships and two of them have turned into jobs and the CEO of the company came to me and said that he wants to commit to a diverse workforce. Wow, that's huge. Yeah, that, to me is just absolutely amazing. And he talked about how dramatically it's impacted their culture. Yeah, because no CEO is going to do that just for charity. You know that he's doing that, but he or hers doing that because of the actual impact, right. Yeah, and our students are not a comport charity. They don't want a job that you're giving them because you know, you feel bad, right. They don't want that. Um, I go back to my daughter, you know, she absolutely doesn't want anything that would be connected to me, because she will she thinks that it's charity or its connections. Now, so where can young adults and parents go? Go for help for a program are? The easiest way is to go to our website, transitions USA. That or...

...okay, Um, that's the easiest way. We offer tours all the time. We will talk to you, take you through. You can meet with our students, our staff anytime and, Um, you know, the contact information is on our website and should, and as some employers should, go to the same place to see how they can get involved in how they can they can be more accommodating? Absolutely, if it interests somebody, there's a form to reach out to us and I actually personally see all of those contacts. And if it's an employer, you know it's a different type of support that we provide and we can make that happen. That's fantastic. Yeah, I mean, as a leader you wanna you want to treat your employees more like humans, you want to find out what their superpower is and everyone. I heard it early in my career how important is to get the right people in the right seats, but you don't realize it until your many years in how impactful that is and how much harder it is than it sounds. And you know what you're doing. I think is just such a great kind of extension and follow through of that same concept of right seats, right people get their superpowers and everyone just it's a better impact and culture to be in something that enables what's unique about us in terms of this type of program is that we are also a large employer in our area, where the largest employer with six employees and with our top place workplace award. We also got a standout award called meaningful, and what that represents is that we had among the top workplaces. We had the highest score on the question that my job helps me feel I'm doing something meaningful. So that's the kind of culture that we create amongst our employees. So that's what we can help other employers create by adding a diverse workforce. That's you. You can't and asked for too much more...

...than that. So, Sloni, before we go, I'd love you know you've been through a lot, you've done a lot. I'm curious what the best advice is that you've ever received. So what the best advice is? My was my daughter's neuropsychologist and he said to me is that just look at her as a person and give her all the tools she needs to support her, micromanage it. Just give her the tools she needs and she will shine. That's great and I've seen that repeatedly with my daughter and I've seen that repeatedly with the students we support. It's about tools and supports and let them think independently and problem solved. That's great. It's also one of those things that's probably a heck of a lot harder than it sounds Um to actually put the place we can help. Yeah, well, Slonie, thank you so much for being here. I love everything you're doing and I appreciate your time. Well, thank you so much, and George, just give me the opportunity to share you've been listening to see sweet blueprint. If you like what you've heard, be sure to hit subscribe wherever you get your podcast to make sure you never miss a new episode. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could leave a radio just give us however many starts you think we deserve. Until next time,.

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