Opening your doors and minds to autistic talent

The lessons from a pioneering internship scheme that demonstrates why the industry can and should embrace neurodiversity.

As the world becomes wiser to autism, and more people are diagnosed, we're finally recognising that it's a more common condition than previously understood and that it's not as clear-cut as was originally thought; there are many nuances to autism, each having different effects on individuals. While it is brilliant that there is more awareness, and adjustments are being made to support more people, it is also time that we reflect on what we can do as an industry to improve the opportunities available to autistic people within the sector.

Back in 2018, M/SIX's former chief executive and trustee of Ambitious about Autism, Alistair MacCallum, partnered with the charity and launched an internship programme; M/SIX was the first media agency to launch a programme designed to actively champion neurodiversity and unlock the potential of young autistic adults. Fast forward to 2021, we continue to dedicate more time and opportunity to the neurodiverse and this summer, as we enter our third year of the internship scheme, we are calling out to the industry to open their doors and minds to this talent pool.

Why autism
As the industry continues to make progress in areas such as gender, ethnicity and social mobility, M/SIX believes there is still little meaningful action within neurodiversity. It's estimated that around one in seven people, that's more than 15% of people within the UK, are neurodivergent and there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum, but according to The Office of National Statistics only 22% of autistic adults are in paid employment.

How can we help as an industry and what will it imply?
Over the years, this has adapted and changed; we've realised that more time is needed, that each individual has their own requirements. We've also witnessed the incredibly positive impact it's had on our workplace and consequently, our people; making us want to further our commitment and encourage others to bring this into their organisation.

Consequently, we've learned a lot and experienced a great amount of positive change, all of which we want to share with others within the industry, in a bid to encourage you all to offer similar opportunities.

1. Flexibility and adaptability

The past year has forced adland to work remotely and adopt new flexible working patterns that are here to stay. M/SIX are strong ambassadors of allowing all our employees to leverage this flexibility and maintain a working pattern that suits them. This flexibility and adaptability lends itself well to our interns; in previous years we adapted their working hours to their individual needs, such as coming into work later to avoid busy commuting times and this year we can continue to offer the flexibility each intern needs to reach their full potential.

2. Adapting the working environment

During previous internships we've learned how important it is to be mindful of sensory sensitivities. As such, we've created quiet zones which are music-free and away from the hustle and bustle of the agency. Within a culture of hotdesking, by contrast, all our interns are offered permanent desks in a specific location each day, so they can continue to enjoy a working routine that works for them.

3. Manager training

The normalisation of remote working has meant that managers have adapted their working styles, but they now have dramatically less visibility on their direct reports and interns day-to-day. We've worked with our managers to help identify their strengths and helped them improve in areas they felt less confident in, offering support and guidance in managing non-neurotypical talent. We are also in the process of developing a new in-house training platform, 'Working the M/SIX Way', which will be accessed by all; featuring information and guidance around learning disabilities, details from our charitable partners (Ambitious About Autism and Dyslexia Incorporation) and six compulsory modules for the whole agency.

4. Tools and platforms

Specialised software has been made available to all staff, not just those who are non-neurotypical. We use the Microsoft suite to turn audio to text, record meetings to watch back, or use tools to help construct grammatically correct emails and communications. We have also supplied bespoke stationery and tools, such as coloured paper, which is a preference for some people, home printers are also made available for those who prefer to read on paper, rather than on screen and extra monitors are provided for people who work better across multiple screens.

5. Innovation beyond profit

M/SIX are proud to support diverse talent and we make sure this is visible in all our actions. Last year we launched The Collective, the central advice board across M/SIX and The&Partnership, to encourage diversity and make sure everyone, at all levels, understands the importance in driving diversity, equity and inclusion. Neurodiversity is one of four pillars within The Collective, which ensures the agency is intersectional in all our efforts and dialogue. It has driven us to change our processes in order to hire, retain and promote diverse talent across the agency group.

6. Creating a psychologically safe environment

In the three years that M/SIX has run the programme, we've not only found great new talent, but we've witnessed an empowerment that the programme has brought to the agency's working culture; with staff learning more from one another, encouraging each other to listen, to give opportunities to speak and allowing each and every member of M/SIX to be their full selves. By being more thoughtful and open in our hiring processes, we've encouraged a supportive workplace that is psychologically safe and have seen an uplift in company morale.

We have learned many things as an agency over the years of running our internship in partnership with Ambitious about Autism, but the fundamental learning is that we should all open our minds to the different styles of learning, working and collaborating that can ultimately strengthen us as a collective. M/SIX have not only welcomed many talented people through the scheme, but we've learned that through increased compassion we can offer an amazing opportunity for those who generally find it difficult to secure work, at the same time as creating an inclusive working environment that supports everyone, no matter their differences, and helps them thrive.

We'd love to connect if you'd like to hear more about our learnings and experience in supporting this group of exceptional, yet overlooked talent.

Halima Khan is the people director of M/SIX 

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