Autism Interview #175: David Hall, Marcelle Ciampi, Tabitha Molett, and Carrie Blackman on the #DiversityWithDignity Global Roundtable

I’m excited to share the upcoming launch of the Diversity with Dignity Global Roundtable! This new online event will share resources and insights related to neurodiversity, autism, or similar neurological profiles. You can find updates at Spectrum Suite LLC on LinkedIn. The Diversity with Dignity Global Roundtable is a unique platform welcome to everyone (neurotypical or neurodivergent) that will enable questions to be asked and questions to be answered by multiple people from all walks of life. 

This month I met with the creators of the #diversitywithdignity Global Roundtable to discuss how the event formed and their backgrounds working in DEI. I met with J. David Hall, the founder of the Foundation for LifeGuides for Autistics/NeuroGuides; Marcelle Ciampi (a.k.a. Samantha Craft), author and DEI senior manager at Ultranauts Inc.; Tabitha Molett, who recently served as the Head of School at a private academy for gifted and twice exceptional students in Austin, Texas and co-founded an educational company for exceptional thinkers; and Carrie Blackman, the lead recruiter at Ultranauts Inc. They are experts in their fields with a wealth of experience in neurodiversity and inclusion. Their full bios can be found at the end of this interview. 

Our online meeting was recorded, transcribed, and edited for clarity. 

How did the Diversity with Dignity Roundtable Form? How did you become involved?

David:

It’s time. It’s really time to do this. I understand this in the sense of my own work as an autistic individual, as an advocate, as a life coach for autistic people worldwide, and actively being involved in the autistic community over the last decade. Three of my children are diagnosed on the spectrum, and I was diagnosed two years ago. The narrative on autism has been dominated in all regards by neurotypicals and by what we call the ‘deficit model.’ I and others have been involved with large corporate groups, working with “autism at work” and other disability initiatives. These have been dominated by neurotypicals, not offering any leeway, not allowing neurodivergent, autistic persons to step in or even have any relevance or voice. This situation is only now, in the last two years, being flipped over.

The narrative is finally changing, and you’re seeing autistic people becoming empowered, stepping up, for a cause. I think it’s time to do something very different. What we’re doing with this is opening up, taking the stage, and inviting autistic people to have a place at the table.  

But this is important: we’re not going to turn the tables and shut down the voices of neurotypical people. In fact, my dream is that we demonstrate and display true neurodiversity and acceptance of all neurotypes and we give people equal room at the table. We weren’t treated that way, but that’s okay. We’re going to take the higher road to the higher ground.

Marcelle:

For me, there are three reasons for the Diversity with Dignity Roundtable. One is similar to what David was expressing in that I’ve been advocating in the autism at work community for about six and a half years now. And by and large, about 99% of the time, there are no people who are autistic in positions of paid power at the meetings and events about “Autism at Work.” If they are there, it’s usually on a volunteer, non-paid basis. I’ve yet to meet one person in my hundreds and hundreds of outreach calls, who is in a similar position as I am, where they had paid authority in neurodivergent hiring  initiatives. This is true across the board, globally.

The primary reason the four of us are starting the Diversity with Dignity Roundtable is so we can give autistic people a true place at the table. Not tokenism, not commodifying people without having true and equal representation. It’s called ‘diversity with dignity.’ Dignity because it’s about not being forced to disclose personal information, such as a diagnosis, condition, or disability in order to receive the basic support that any human beings should be able to receive, such as a support person; a peer mentor; clear and straightforward procedures and processes; a friendly, welcoming, and clear onboarding process; clear job descriptions; and a precise and smooth recruitment process free from bias, othering, and ableism.

The second reason is to address the split in the professional world between camps of autistic people and neurotypical people. There’s not a lot of bridges where we can meet and be together as equals, wherein autistic people are not inferior and in the back seat. We’re going to have shared leadership, equal representation for all, and be true role models for what inclusivity and belonging is; and this  doesn’t mean making one person or group a subset or inferior and another superior. We’re trying to recreate the dynamics around neurodiversity conversations.

The final reason we wanted to start this is because we’re planning a 2022 Diversity with Dignity Global Summit in the fall. People who are interested in joining us in the Roundtable may also have an interest in planning the summit. We plan to use the Roundtable as a way to spread the word about the summit and invite people to use their skills, talents, and experience to help create the global summit, which is going to have equal shared leadership between autistic people and non-autistic people and all neurodivergents, such as ADHD, dyslexic, people with mood conditions, and so forth.

Tabitha:

I’ve worked the last 20 or so years in education, specifically with the twice exceptional population, which refers to people who have a high intelligence, which is considered their first exceptionality, and then also a condition, disability, or learning difference, which is their second exceptionality. So much of my work has focused around viewing this neurology through a strength-based lens and not through a deficit model, which David and Marcelle spoke to, and then finding a way to honor an individual’s intellect, gifts, talents, and whatever they do. Within that, I’ve done a lot of training, coaching, and advocacy work around neurodiversity inclusion, and now I’m making this transition from the education world to the corporate world.

For much of this Diversity with Dignity Global Roundtable, I echo what David and Marcelle have shared. For me, I have seen this through the lens of how parents and teachers treat other students or other individuals who are neurodivergent. I have seen this through the HR lens in trying to hire and appoint neurodivergent people in leadership positions within a school setting. I have seen what it can look like amongst peers when inclusion and belonging are not part of the culture. I’ve also seen this from a really unique perspective in nonprofit work and the functionality and dysfunctionality of boards in supporting this mission and vision.

Carrie:

I am the lead recruiter at Ultranauts, and I’ve been with the company almost four years now. Before that I was in the higher education world and worked as a career advisor for a little over 10 years and also taught career preparation classes working with both neurodivergent students and a lot of non-traditional students. It was a good exposure to begin with, but I didn’t really have the understanding and knowledge until I started working with Marcelle. And she’s been an amazing mentor and friend.

My oldest son is 13 and non-speaking, so that’s had its unique challenges and blessings along the way. My youngest is 10, and I have suspicion that he might be an aspie, but I don’t know for sure. We haven’t pursued diagnosis, but he’s the biggest little brother you’ve ever seen and really amazing with his older brother. The Diversity with Dignity Roundtable really hit home to me. When my son was younger, we were pushed into ABA and found that it was not a good fit for us. And I didn’t really know why until I got to know the community and heard more about the dangers and the darker side of It. I just didn’t know any better as a parent.

When I changed over from the education side to the corporate side, I received great education and learning opportunities. Seventy-five percent of our team members at Ultranauts are neurodivergent and have been fabulous coworkers to learn from and collaborate with. But I’ve also found as I’ve attended virtual career fairs and other roundtables with other employers, like Marcelle mentioned, that there’s a disproportionate amount of neurotypicals who are leading and putting together these events.

And it’s very much an ‘us’ and ‘them’ feel. It just doesn’t feel very right. Without having the leadership representation, or leaders sensitive to neurodivergent colleagues, those who are not comfortable speaking up verbally may not be acknowledged when contributing in chat. To be able to put together an event where everyone has a voice and is at the table is huge. I’ve also been learning a lot in the past year about universal design and realizing that many of the ways we go about the recruitment process, onboarding, and supporting employees is really what’s best for everybody AND any population that we’re trying to target.

I personally have really enjoyed being able to meet with David as the job coach who Ultanauts contracts with so that all of our employees get free job coaching through him that the company pays for. We all have access to mental health services, which has been especially beneficial in this past year. I think my son had to quarantine four or five times after exposure and move to online learning. I think we were both stressed through that whole process. It was a stress on my own mental health. Having the supports that the company provided was huge. The universal design piece goes right into what we’re doing with the Diversity with Dignity Roundtable.

David:

In addition to my life/job coaching with Ultranauts Inc. and consulting and training, my primary role is coaching directly one-on-one with autistic individuals each week. So this week, I met with 19 autistic individuals and worked with them in a life coaching segment. There were a lot of amazing stories, but one of them sticks out to me this morning in regards to this conversation we’re having here.

It was an inside consultation–no cost–just a time to share and get to know this person and offer any insight and resources that I could. He had impeccable background training in the tech sector, with software, coding–everything. He was brought into one of the corporations doing the Autism at Work initiatives. He is the kindest soul, just a wonderful, extraordinary, intelligent person. As he’s describing his experience there over three months, he described in meticulous detail everything he had done so well. But after he revealed that he was on the spectrum, they moved him over into this Autism at Work initiative and assigned him a neurotypical manager program lead, and everything went downhill.

I listened to him saying, “I don’t understand, David. I did these things, and I tried so hard, and now… ” And I just stopped him, and I said, “It’s not you.” This is the outcome of the deficit model thinking. When these corporations fake it or pretend to do inclusivity, they’re causing so much hardship and misunderstanding and disconnection with these wonderful autistic individuals.

That one stood out to me because this person was not doing anything wrong. He was simply caught up in a system that didn’t understand him and with people who are putting their own deficit model presuppositions onto persons like this and everyone else. And that must change. It must.

Marcelle:

From a recruiting standpoint, I think everybody has some degree of anxiety going into an interview process or recruitment process–-period. At Ultranauts, we have a review document that explains what to expect about our process. This way there is no hidden agenda or feeling like you have to sell yourself. Nobody wants to be made to feel they have to play a game to get employment. I try to put myself in the candidate’s shoes. I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t know what came next, or if the employer would get back with me, or if I’ll just get a form letter response every time.

I think what’s best for everybody is to take out the games that naturally come with the hiring process as much as possible and make it more objective. We then need to train those involved in the process at every level, not just an HR team. We need to be ambassadors, to represent the company in a way that really stands true with the organization’s mission and the dignity of all human beings.

I really like what everyone is saying about the inclusion process of helping neurotypicals feel safe too, because I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m very conscious of that, and I try to work towards what’s best while acknowledging that I am going to continue making mistakes. So it’s great to have a safe space for that. I appreciate a place to guide me that understands I want to do the right thing, even if I haven’t done it in the past. I think a lot of parents need to hear that.

Marcelle:

I think it’s important for everyone to realize that autistic or not autistic, neurodivergent or not neurodivergent, that we all make mistakes; we’re human beings. I make mistakes as an advocate, as an activist, as a mother, as a partner, and as a friend. Part of treating people with dignity is recognizing that we all have challenges and we all have strengths. A major part of universal design with inclusion is recognizing that we all have strengths and weaknesses, we all need support at some point in our lives, and some days are harder than others. We are all very unique human beings with our own personhood. It’s essential to give the benefit of the doubt to and look for individual potential.

David:

I appreciate what you said about making mistakes. As a parent of three autistic persons myself, I’ve made plenty. If I look back over 20 years in my own journey, I would have to say probably 80 or 90% of all the things that I used to believe when I first started looking for answers at that panic moment, I no longer believe. I have a completely different view, and that’s just a part of that journey. So I think we need to be gentle and kind to one another as parents, as allies, as advocates, as autistic people in the community and just realize that we’re all on this journey. We shouldn’t hold onto any shame in that, because we need to speak out for things that are right.

I tried ABA for a couple months with one of my kids–my oldest. I had a conversation with him about six months ago, and he mentioned ABA. I said, “Yeah, well, I tried to do that with you.” He got quiet and smiled. Then he said, “Yeah, that was what I call dog training.” I was taken aback. But then he said, “Dad, it’s okay. I forgive you. It’s okay.” And we’ve all been there. We’ve all made lots of mistakes, and we just have to keep going. And we have to stand up for what’s true. And do it in a way that builds community.

Does anyone have examples of something specific they can talk about where you have seen inclusion done really well in the workplace? 

Marcelle:

We have ongoing community gatherings. The whole company is invited to come, and part of it is paid time. It’s a time where we talk about what’s working and what’s not working in the workplace, key workplace issues, such as feeling a sense of belonging at work as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, upcoming performance reviews, trends, and other topics. We also have a half hour social time where we have different activities, such as “Would you rather…” and then we ask discussion questions so that we can bond as a remote team.

What’s interesting is that before COVID, the national average for people feeling lonely at work was 40%, and at Ultranauts it was always 10%; but during COVID, our ‘feeling lonely at work’ numbers actually dropped to 5%. So the company and employer community is communicating inclusivity. People feel they belong, that they’re connected, and they’re reporting feelings of less loneliness and less isolation.

David:

In addition to the life coaching with Ultranauts team members, I also lead a team forum every other week, which was designed around the idea that everyone needs support and encouragement, connection, and community building with everything we’re going through with the pandemic. And we’ve just kept going. It’s wonderful. So people are able to open up, share, and find some encouragement, perhaps a bit of humor at times. There’ve been plenty of tears too, but it’s just a good time to share. This forum is really unique.

Tabitha:

It’s such a pleasure to be part of an organization that honors that safe space, belonging, community building and risk-taking. Because at its core, you can’t have that flow and discovery if you’re afraid of making a mistake. So honoring that is critical in neurodiversity inclusion. I would also say that the social lens of all that collaboration we were talking about earlier–where everyone has a seat at the table, where there can be real purposeful learning and acts of gratitude­–is pretty important.

It’s also important to create a space where intellect is honored, so that there’s challenge in whatever someone does based on their strengths, and that someone can be promoted and not be typecast, labeled, or pigeonholed into one particular area, if they have the strengths. I love that idea of honoring that part of them.

Carrie:

At Ultranauts, team members’ contributions and questions provided via chat are read aloud and treated with equal value as those spoken aloud. The company has also added closed captioning to meetings for those who need to read transcripts vs. attend in an auditory fashion. Additionally, by not requiring individuals to be on camera during meetings, anxiety is reduced for everyone and focus is placed more on the content of the meeting than concern for how one is perceived visually.

Could any of you offer a specific example that might be common practice in the workforce that is not inclusive? This could be in the interview process, onboarding, training, etc. Anything you’ve seen that perhaps is apparent in a lot of places?

Carrie:

I think forcing someone to be on visual and to communicate verbally, when that’s not their comfort zone (or even ability, in some cases) is definitely detrimental. That’s why we always offer the option of doing different formats for interviews. Even for company meetings, most of the time, the majority of our team members are off visual and the chat box is active, because that’s where everybody is comfortable. When we did have an employee who came on board needing to read transcripts, we made sure to add the ability to do a closed captioning for all of our meetings.

We also welcome job coaches or support people to sit in on the interview with applicants to be there for that support piece. There are many companies that aren’t doing any of these things. In the last year, with so many companies moving to virtual without having the support system to know how to do it well, we saw a lot of really bad things happening with employee mental health because they were getting Zoom fatigue, and because they’re thrown into a different world without any instruction or support to be successful in that virtual world.

Marcelle:

Additionally, the benefits of a flexible work environment aren’t restricted to neurodivergent people. Take for instance, members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, such as transgender individuals. If they don’t have to go on visuals, they’re not going to be subjected to people’s preconceived ideas, bias, and othering. They’re going to be hired for what they share and what they bring, not because of someone’s prejudice or thoughts about their way of life. I love that.

In most cases, there’s really no reason why we need to visually see someone to hire them to do a job unless we’re basing who they are on some outside features, such as their body language, their weight, their gender identity, etc.

This goes back to what Carrie was saying–when we’re helping autistic people and those with similar neurological profiles, we’re also helping all those other underrepresented groups, such as people who are members of a certain race who have been historically oppressed and historically not given equal opportunity. We all have implicit bias, whether we like it or not. By removing a visual, we’re taking away some of that bias. We’re having to focus on the skill set and experience 

In an interview, you’re being judged on what you wear, how you walk, and how you sit. These are all things that autistic people sometimes struggle with, perhaps because of their ligament structure, because of the way they choose not to conform to current hair style or fashion trends. It’s important to remove all those what-we-see obstacles, and offer the choice that if someone wants to show their image or be on video, they can.

In this day and age, there’s really no reason to have initial interviews in-person, unless you want to, and that’s awesome because it accommodates a lot of people with physical disabilities who have difficulties driving and getting somewhere. By the time they get there, all their spoons are lost because they’re exhausted from chronic pain, or they’re exhausted from cognitive functioning, or they have dyslexia or dyspraxia– they’re trying to figure out what direction to go: “Do I go right? Do I go left?” etc.

Universal design and inclusivity is about looking at a broken workplace system that we’ve had for over 100 years, and revamping it, giving it a tune-up, a new look, so that it can be more inclusive and give underrepresented groups a chance at true liberty.

That makes a lot of sense. Inclusive spaces are better spaces for everybody.

David:

There seems to be a misconception that goes along with universal design in that we’re doing something great to raise only this one specific group up in its specialness. But what you’re doing is raising all people up. When you do one of these inclusive methodologies and processes in hiring and onboarding, for example, in the workplace, you’re making it better for people all across the board; you’re improving all things for all people. And that’s what is so often overlooked, and we need to amplify that.

Do you anticipate that neurotypical professionals will be in your Diversity with Dignity Global Roundtable audience?

Marcelle:

Most definitely. In fact, most of the people interested right now are neurotypicals. And they’re very excited to be allies and learn more. We have HR professionals, coaches, educators, people from colleges all over the map and all over the world ready to share. We’re creating a bridge and a platform where we can all meet together and share. So one person can ask a question, and they have a variety of people from all different walks of life who can respond.

I receive a lot of inquiries, as does David. Instead of saying the same thing over and over to many different people, we can answer questions at one time, and not only that, people can hear answers from multiple viewpoints, because our way isn’t the only way.

How often will the roundtable be held?

Marcelle:

We’re going to start off with one event every month. The first one will be July 28th. Feel free to contact me on Linkedin.


J. David Hall is the founder of the Foundation for LifeGuides for Autistics (LGFA) / NeuroGuides, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization established in 2017. His organization provides business consultations and life coaching for autistic people and other neurodivergent persons worldwide. His team of Neuroguides (life and job coaches) works closely with autistic individuals in helping them to succeed socially, occupationally, and relationally. A father to three autistic persons and on the autism spectrum (ASD) himself, David is passionately focused on guiding neurodivergent persons to discover their strengths and to enjoy meaningful lives. Known as a relentless optimist and encourager, David speaks at various national events and is a sought-after consultant for corporations. LGFA / Neuroguides is partnered with Neoclastic.com, a not-for-profit writers’ platform that documents the autistic experience through the lens and work of autistic individuals. David is a doctoral student in Educational and Organizational Learning and Leadership at Seattle University.

Samantha Craft, M.Ed. (aka Marcelle Ciampi) is a respected autistic author and worldwide advocate best known for her writings found in the well-received book Everyday Aspergers. Her resources have enabled thousands of adults to receive an ASD diagnosis. 

A former school teacher, she has been featured in various literature, including Stanford University project ND GiFTS, ICARE4 Autism, and Autism Parenting Magazine. Considered an expert in the field of neurodiversity in the workplace, Craft has been quoted in multiple books and research studies. She serves as the Senior Manager of DEI at Ultranauts Inc., an engineering firm with an autism hiring initiative. A contributing author of the book Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, she also serves as the founder of Spectrum Suite LLC, Co-Executive of LifeGuides for Autistics, and a contributor and advisor to autism organizations and conferences around the world. Some of her works, especially the Autistic Traits List have been translated into multiple languages and widely shared in counseling offices. Her newest book to be released in late-2021 is Autism in a Briefcase: Straight Talk About Belonging in a Neurodiverse World. Craft is diagnosed as Autistic with gifted-intellect, and is also dyslexic and dyspraxic. She resides in the Pacific Northwest U.S.A. with her sons and life partner.

Tabitha Molett completed her undergraduate work at the University of Arizona and University of Texas at Dallas. She continued her education at Southern Methodist University graduating with honors and obtaining a M.Ed., MRT, and GT Endorsement. She holds a twice exceptional certification and is currently working on her doctorate in Cognitive Diversity at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. She has over 20 years of combined experience within the corporate, education, and nonprofit sectors. Neurodiversity became a focus when Tabitha witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by those who are ‘wired differently.’ She successfully works with professionals, students, parents, and adults within the alphabet soup of labels: gifted, profoundly gifted, ASC, dyslexic, ADHD, dysgraphia, mood disorders, anxiety, SPD, and TS – to name a few. She listens openly, advocates, innovates, and enacts change for the organizations she works with in order to bring diversity, inclusion, and belonging to everyone involved. Recently, Tabitha served as the Head of School at a private academy for gifted and twice exceptional students in Texas, where she completed a significant reorganization to restore stability and realign the school’s mission and vision. She also co-founded an educational company for exceptional thinkers, has presented at multiple conferences, and been a contributing member on several boards. She brings experience in the fields of neurodiversity, gifted education, leadership, policy creation, and purpose-driven program development. Tabitha resides in Wales where she moved to finish her dissertation.

Carrie Blackman is the Lead Recruiter at Ultranauts, and she has been with the company nearly 4 years. Carrie is a strong advocate for neurodiversity and the company’s mission to prove neurodiversity is a competitive advantage in business. Her background includes more than ten years as a college career advisor and educator. Carrie holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Minor in Spanish. She lives in Kansas City, MO, with her husband, Josh, and two sons–Sam (13 years old who is autistic and non-speaking) and David (10 years old). She also has a black lab named Gordon who often snores during meetings or interrupts at cat sightings. In her role as Lead Recruiter, Carrie is an integral partner in managing recruitment activities and building candidate and referral partner relationships, providing candidates with their first impression of Ultranauts, and leading the recruitment team.

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1 Comments

  1. Marcelle Ciampi

    Reply

    Thank you for the opportunity to collaborate. I look forward to future connections. Keep up your good works.

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