Autism Interview #161, Part One: Marcelle Ciampi on Core Inclusion in the Workplace and School

Image source: The Art of Autism

 Marcelle Ciampi M.Ed. (aka Samantha Craft), a respected Autistic author and worldwide advocate, is best known for her writings found in the well-received book Everyday Aspergers. She serves as the Ambassador and Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Ultranauts Inc., an engineering firm with a neurodiversity-hiring initiative, where Ciampi is credited for developing an innovative universal design approach for inclusion. She also provides keynotes, workshops, corporate training, consulting, and life coaching for Spectrum Suite. In Part One of her two-part interview, Ciampi discussed how Ultranauts is serving as a model of workplace inclusion and offers advice for advocating for inclusion in the educational setting as well.  

Can you tell me about your role at Ultranauts as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer?

I’ve been with Ultranauts for six years. When I started out, there were only 10 employees. It is a startup company founded by two MIT graduates, and it has a mission of hiring people who are on the autism spectrum or have similar profiles. They all work from home across the states, and we’re advancing into Canada as well, mostly in the tech field of software testing and quality assurance engineering. Seventy-five percent of employees are on the autism spectrum, and 45% identify as non-male–a pretty high percentage for a tech field.

I was first a recruiter and largely responsible for architecting the recruitment departments universal design inclusivity, which we call “universal workplace.” This ensures all of our practices don’t single out autistic people as doing things differently. Autistic individuals don’t have a separate interview process. They don’t have a separate onboarding. Everyone is treated the same, which enables them to have more privacy and more dignity. They don’t have to disclose their diagnosis unless they want to.

We also create best practices for engagement and learning around the paradigm of neurodiversity, with an understanding that everyone’s brains vary, and they all are of value. None are lesser than or better than another. Everyone deserves equity and equality in the workplace because they have a brain, a mind, and they’re a human being. This also means we don’t choose one subset of a marginalized group over a general population and give them special treatment because that creates othering, ‘less than’ labels, and inferior/superior constructs. That’s the whole premise of what I’ve been doing for the last six years and what I write about and advocate for–to stop creating such divisions amongst people. We’ve gone from 10 employees to almost a hundred now.

Now I’m the senior manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the company ambassador. I do extensive outreach across the world and give interviews, talks, keynotes, and workshops and write articles and podcasts about the topic.

I used to be a school teacher. I didn’t have any recruiting experience whatsoever. One of the things that I advocate for is being open-minded with recruitment, because you never know what types of skills people can learn or what skillsets are hidden. You also don’t need a degree to do certain jobs, so employers shouldn’t be too dependent on resumes and education and instead look at skillsets and visualize potential.

I understand that your main role as a DEI officer is to recruit talent from all sorts of different backgrounds/profiles. Does race play an active part in recruitment?

We look at all different minority factors. Once they’ve applied, we do blind interviews over the phone once they’re hired, and they’re retained as employment staff, we conduct an optional survey asking for different gender identities, different races, etc. to ensure we are maintaining a diverse employee base.

We look at the gaps of where we might need to hire more people. Indigenous people, for example, is one area we’re currently looking to fill gaps in. We don’t require people to disclose on their application. That’s illegal. Volunteer disclosure is something we’ll probably start to do more frequently if our numbers shift and we see gaps, but we’re not seeing any gaps right now based on current data.

So part of your job is to promote the hiring processes you use, show other companies what you’re doing, so they can incorporate this culture as well?

Yes, that’s the Ambassador part of my title. I represent the company and our mission, which is to be a model for best inclusion practices in the workplace and best practices for people who are on the autism spectrum and similar profiles.

Anything else you’d like to address on this topic?

I’d say that another issue to address is inequality for historically misrepresented groups. We should share our stories, step up and be vulnerable, and be as authentic and transparent as we can, regardless of our neurology. I’m a testimony for being transparent and quirky. I’ve talked to CEOs and big businesses. I have led presentations with staff of larger companies. I try to remain the same person I am in every situation, just be me, just bring me. And that includes my quirkiness. That includes me saying, “Hey, there’s blue jays outside my window!” in the middle of a call or workshop.

And by and large, 99% of the time, the response and feedback I get about the effect of my presentation style is very positive. It’s freeing when we can be ourselves and other people can see people being themselves, because that allows them that opportunity to step out from the curtain they’re hiding behind and be their true self. And until we’re being our authentic selves, we’re never going to feel like we belong– any sense of belonging we have is false. I advocate for being a transparent, authentic managerial style. I would love to create and write about being a humble manager.

When I manage, I admit I’ve made mistakes. If someone says, “Hey, I’m so sorry, I’m 10 minutes late,” instead of using that for my own power and control and saying, “No. that’s okay,” or being passive aggressive in saying, “Yeah. You know I am used to it,” What I do is I diffuse it, I say, “Don’t worry about it. You know what? I’m late sometimes too, that’s the way technology is, and I totally understand we’re in the middle of a global health crisis!” And so when we are confronted with situations in which a person is feeling less than, or they have made a mistake, or they’re not doing enough to be on that same level, mirror that back and say, “Hey, we’re all doing this. We’re all in this together.”

What happens so much more often is people thinking they need to be superior or they need to have power and authority because that’s the only thing people are going to listen to. But what we really need is for people to be seen and heard and valued and respected as human beings.

I’ve seen resistance to full inclusion in schools, especially in secondary schools. With your background in education, what obstacles to inclusion have you seen, and what did you do about them?

I actually wrote about that. I have a master’s degree in education. My middle son is on the autism spectrum (Aspergers). He’s now going to be 22 and just graduated from a college with a degree in creative writing. He is a brilliant young man. I always say he has better social skills than anyone else in the family. You can learn skills and hone skills as you get older, just like any other human being. Neurotypical or non-neurotypical–honing communication skills is good for everyone! The difference is to approach the process not by trying to change someone, but by trying to give them the skills they can use to be successful in life.

When he was younger, I started advocating for him because he was in the elementary school system, and by the time he got into first grade, they wanted to put him in a special day classroom, the most restrictive environment. I started meeting monthly with the assistant superintendent and citing laws–the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), No Child Left Behind, and I was able to create a policy that ensured children would be not in a restrictive environment, and my son was the first to have a one-on-one aid in the classroom in that district.

I also passed a mandate that all of the teachers would be educated in disability awareness and be given a stipend to attend at least one conference or more a year. I was even given money to buy books for an awareness library because the teachers didn’t have any resources.

I have had a heart for this for many, many years. It’s not something that started recently. I’ve always been like that since I was a little girl. I write in my books that I stopped eating lamb when I was four, and pork when I was in middle school, and all meat when I was in high school, because I had this passion and heart for animals. And I used to visit the homes for the elderly when I was in high school and just sit with them because I recognized that they were isolated and alone and didn’t have the same resources for companionship that a lot of us have. I was born this way, and certain events happen in my life that propel me toward a certain cause. Before it was workplace social justice issues for people who are different, my passion was for people who identified as females, or non-males out of respect for the gender spectrum, who were being disregarded and shamed and misdiagnosed or not diagnosed who were, in fact, on the spectrum.

I still receive a lot of emails and social media messages about professionals in the mental health field or in the academia fields not recognizing autism or what used to be Aspergers (and still is Aspergers outside of the United States), in people all across the gender spectrum, particularly those who are non-males. A lot of people are told that they can’t be on the spectrum because they dress well. They make limited eye contact, they have a relationship, they have children, they have empathy– all these misnomers and all these stereotypes are still being perpetuated.

Unfortunately, if you want to make dynamic, radical change in a school district, you have to start citing laws, highlighting acts and legislation, telling them they are directly at risk for litigation because of these practices, and asking “Why aren’t these children in least restrictive environments?” That’s been my experience. I’m sure there’s a rare occasion where people will do what’s best for the human being, and the human race will listen and make changes. But typically when you’re working with a government agency or a larger organization, you’ll need to cite some laws for them to use those resources of time, energy, and people.

Training isn’t enough, right? Just having everybody attend some kind of training about how inclusion is good–it seems like that’s not enough. What do you think?

Not enough. I think it’s essential, and it’s a start, but I think it needs to be in combination with authority. Martin Luther King and scripture say we need to be the serpent and the dove. The serpent would be that legislation and the dove would be the compassion for human beings, looking at these stories and looking at what’s happening. We need to be that combination to make strides in social justice.

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