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Accommodations for Neurodivergent Professionals with Natalia Lyckowski

October 15, 2021

Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Natalia Lyckowski and is about the importance of accommodations for neurodivergent professionals.

Nat Lyckowski is the [email protected] Global Business Resource Group Co-Chair. She is proudly neurodivergent and the parent of an autistic IT Professional.

With more than 10 years of experience coaching and mentoring neurodivergent individuals and their caregivers, Nat empowers acceptance culture by designing safe spaces to self-identify, and by developing education and initiatives that improve trust and allyship.

Nat has represented IBM at a conference with the United Nations, highlighting the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion for neurodivergent professionals.

Connect with Nat on LinkedIn

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Want to get in touch? Email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis. And today, we’re lucky to be joined by Nat Lyckowski to talk about neurodiversity.

Nat is a Neurodiversity at IBM Global Business Resource Group Co-Chair. She is proudly neurodivergent and the parent of an autistic IT professional. With more than 10 years of experience coaching and mentoring neurodivergent individuals and their caregivers, Nat empowers acceptance culture by designing safe spaces to self-identify and by developing education and initiatives that improve trust and allyship.

She is a public speaker and the organizer of global enablement via training events, guest speakers, and panel events, both within IBM and externally. Nat has represented IBM at a conference with the United Nations, highlighting the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion for neurodivergent professionals.

Nat is also experienced with cross-identity engagements with PWD, PWDA, LGBTQ+, race, ethnicity, gender, and other identity groups. Nat is a 25-plus-year veteran application developer for IBM Global Financing. I’m so glad you could join us today, Natalia. Let’s jump in to this conversation.

Thank you, Nat. I’d love to start off by learning more about neurodiversity and a little bit about your role at IBM. So for our listeners who may not know what neurodiversity is, can you give us sort of a broad definition?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences should be accepted and respected as any other part of the human variation. And it’s really moving from that medical or deficits model into a social and strength model.

And neurodiversity includes differences like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s, neurological differences that maybe you were born with or acquired over time. And through that, really moving this into a neural minority or another identity group.

Through that, we are very conscious of language and icons. So most of the neurodivergent community, while you should always respect the individual, how they themselves true to label themselves.

As a default, most people within the neurodivergent community prefer identity-first language. So they would say, I’m an autistic person, or I’m a neurodivergent person, and not use microaggressions like with or have. It’s not like, I have a broken bone, or not I’m not a person with femaleness. It’s part of my identity.

And some other language changes that we use is recognize instead of diagnose, or using high or low support needs to measure discretely how much support somebody needs versus saying high or low functioning, because who really gets to decide what functioning is? They’re not always together. And there’s also a lot of biases out there in trying to get recognized. My role within IBM, I’m proudly, for the past, I guess, five or so years, been the neurodiversity at IBM Business Resource Group Co-Chair.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. So I actually wanted to– you led me right into my next question, which is, how did the Business Resource Group start, and how has it grown over the five or six years that you’ve been there and been part of that?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: That’s a really great story. First, I want to add to my prior question is that per the CDC, the statistics are one in 20 individuals you meet are neurodivergent in some way, and one in 50 are autistic. So knowing that that’s such a large percentage of the population, it’s really important that we have this support.

So our Business Resource Group actually started in 2015. One IBMer was actually at the United Nations for World Autism Day, and was able to see what other companies were doing to increase their– at the time, it was focusing specifically on autism– individuals who are autistic, trying to get them into the workforce. And our BRG was predominantly parents and caregivers.

And then the magic happened, which is the neurodivergents within IBM started finding their own voices. So we wound up rebranding RBRG, which was originally called Autism As a Skill, to Neurodiversity at IBM where we were embracing and working on the actual voices of neurodivergents who were IBM.

And since then, we’ve just continued to grow and grow. We started with, I think, 50 members, and we’re close to 2,000 now. So it’s really exciting.

ELISA LEWIS: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that. And now that we have a little bit of background about what neurodiversity is, I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about your life experiences and how you came to be so passionate in making a difference with neurodiversity.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Absolutely. I kind of grew up thinking that I was broken or that there was something wrong with me. How come I wasn’t like everybody else? And it really was not until college that I was formally recognized as being neurodivergent. And it was that aha moment and that sense of relief, and finding myself, and trying to learn at that later stage in life that self-advocacy, and finding companies like IBM that are looking to treasure wild ducks.

We can think of going back all the way in history. You know, the first people on the planet, they had shamans. They had people that could hear better or sense things better. And those skills now for innovation and thinking out of the box are really needed.

My work at neurodiversity at IBM really got sparked when I had my son, because he was also recognized as neurodivergent early on in his childhood. And as he grew up, I saw the roadblocks being put in front of him from the elementary school to the university to internships. And at that same time, this neurodiversity movement was starting. So I was very eager to put my personal passion into something larger.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing that. I find it interesting that sometimes it’s easier to advocate for others, that it kind of helps us realize that we need to advocate for ourselves in certain scenarios too. So it’s interesting to hear how watching your son grow up and face different roadblocks really kind of gave you a new perspective about yourself as well.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: That’s very true.

ELISA LEWIS: So back to IBM and neurodiversity at IBM, we know that IBM is a very large company. I’m sure that there needs to be a strong collaboration and communication across all teams for the Business Resource Group in order to achieve their goals. So namely, there needs to be proper accessibility training and education. And I’m curious how you ensure that all employees and teams are educated and understand neurodiversity.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: That’s a great question, and I think it’s always getting better, and it’s always improving. And it’s really exciting as diversity in itself is becoming more in the center stage of all of our lives over the past years. But it does take a lot of collaboration and a lot of synergy between talent and human resources and public relations and education, and even our business units to really work on moving this needle forward.

What we’ve done at IBM is that we do have an internal training course called Neurodiversity 101. And we also have a digital badge called Neurodiversity Ally where after you take the class, you have to do certain activities to show you are more than an ally.

We have an internal website full of resources. We have multiple Slack communities for either neurodivergent and allies. We have some also for neurodivergent families and caregivers.

But what’s really exciting is that we have two Slack communities for IBMers who are neurodivergent themselves. And we use these as task forces. We use these for psychological safety. But it’s not just that warm fuzzy. We can use this community to vet and create initiatives that our community– what do we want to do for April? What do we want to do with this?

And also, we host regular speaking events where we bring in either internal or external people to share their thoughts. And we even have a neurodiversity presentation squad. So if there’s a team within IBM that would like to be educated on this, we have a team of IBMers who are neurodivergent. And we do like an informational roadshow for lunch and learns and team meetings to really make that more personal. We have it recorded also in over 10 languages, but there’s a difference when you can have a fireside chat or really connect with people.

ELISA LEWIS: That’s really great. I guess that’s one of the sort of benefits of being in such a large company, is that you can really create that task force and have a number of people to share their different perspectives. I know you also shared some statistics earlier about just how many individuals are considered or recognized as neurodiverse. And I think it’s something that maybe is more common than people may realize, so it’s very cool to have those dedicated communities and be able to see the impact of that.

So when you were starting your career, did you always know that you wanted to do work to advance acceptance for neurodivergent professionals? I know we talked a little bit about this and you self-identify as neurodivergent. And I’m curious what it was like for you at the beginning of your career, maybe when there weren’t the same kind of resources as there are now such as the Business Group at IBM.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I’ve been with IBM over 25 years, and I definitely am not the same person I was back then from a neurodiversity standpoint. I’m asked. I’ve asked for many, many, many years the same thing I had to do. Reading was not my forte or having sensory issues or trying to go back and ask somebody, can you re-explain this? Or having these wild ideas that I was afraid to share for not really knowing that, are we really treasuring wild ducks and not having that confidence?

And I think, again, going through seeing what my son had to go through, knowing that he– I’m trying to teach him to be his own self and self-advocacy, it was like, I really should be doing the same thing. And through that, I’ve kind of become– not in a pedantic way, like, mother bear of the group and trying to move this forward.

And I’ve seen so many individuals be afraid or only share with me that they’re neurodivergent, and then join the safe space and maybe then get the courage to ask for an accommodation and now be publicly speaking about it. And it’s like coming out, right? This is an invisible identity that unless you have the strength in numbers to say, I am neurodivergent, and you see others in that workspace, that you have the courage to come out as neurodivergent.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I’m curious if there was kind of a freedom when you did share that, particularly in the workplace that you are neurodivergent? And if you’re willing to share, was there any sort of shift in how you were perceived and maybe kind of being recognized as neurodivergent? Were you offered more acceptance or accommodation for some of these kind of outside-the-box ideas more so than you were previously?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I think generally it was like– the reaction was like, oh, that makes so much sense. [LAUGHS] Like, it was there. And then I also had the courage to tell my teammates to have open communication to say, this can really help me succeed. My safe word is pineapple, so I get really, really passionate about things, and that passionate is great and infectious, but sometimes not needed at that moment.

So having a team member know to say pineapple, and that lets me know I’ve gone too far, and we can then get back on track. But I think it really aids communication across all the teams.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah, I think it brings up an interesting concept. We at 3Play talk a lot about accommodations, particularly in the video accessibility space. But really, I think one thing we learned from COVID times and from everyone working remotely is that there are all sorts of accommodations. Needing a space at home or maybe a laptop instead of a desk with a big monitor. Those are all considered or could be considered accommodations.

And it’s just kind of interesting that you mentioned your safe word, but there are all kinds of things that if we were comfortable and able to have more open communication with our team members about the different ways we learn and the different ways we process things, at the end of the day, everyone really kind of benefits from– whether you call it an accommodation or not, it is.

I’m curious. You shared a little bit about your team, but I’m curious more broadly across IBM what accommodations at work do look like. And specifically for neurodivergent professionals, what are some other accommodations that are common and could be beneficial?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Yeah, I think what you said just before that is really pivotal and ties into my answer, is that we really have to start moving the narrative, right? Let’s move out of that medical model to say, what accommodations do you need? And instead change it to, how can I help you succeed?

Do we need to require somebody to have a medical letter to say, I can’t sit near the elevator because it’s going ping, ping all day long and distracting me? Do I need a medical letter to say, I need to have a break in the day when we offer breaks in the day to go pray or express breast milk? You don’t require that medical letter.

And it also puts the burden on the individual. There’s huge biases in trying to get that golden ticket, that diagnosis paper. There’s biases in trying to find a provider. If you have insurance, if that insurance takes an adult, if there’s not a two-year wait list to see such a provider.

Or finally getting to the provider and then using a rubric or a test that has biases built into it, because it was for nine-year-old white boys back in the early ’90s, and you don’t check enough boxes to be able to get that ticket. So we can really separate by asking the simple question, how do you work best?

So some of these can easily be asking for office location. And many of these things cost nothing, right? Whether we need to sit facing the wall or down a quiet hallway, or have active noise-canceling headphones, or having office etiquette things like not wearing strong perfume or being conscious of hallway conversations. Really having open communication.

If you have the freedom to tell your manager, when you stop by my office or when you Slacked me or team messaged me at 10:00 to say, can we talk at 2:00, I spent the next four hours rolling through my head, did I forget a report? Or it’s like your partner says, when you get home, we need to talk. And you’re like, did I forget an anniversary? Did I forget to put the cap on the toothpaste? What is it? And you’re not efficient in your day.

Whereas if you can say, hey, when you do that, it causes me a lot of anxiety. Could you instead say, let’s talk at 2 o’clock about the whatever project, or about that email that– some context, that can ease communication on both sides, reduce anxiety. I’m not going to be thinking all day or having popcorn stuck in my teeth to be like, I can’t focus on my work to really have radical candor.

You can have things like social contracting, like talking about how we’re going to do stuff, things about workload balancing. Or changing biases, right? Not having an understanding that if I don’t look you in the eye when I speak, that does not mean I’m not paying attention to you. Whether it’s true or not, there’s cultural biases in there. Let’s just work together. And if you go through this open communication and radical candor and getting agendas for meetings, it really helps everyone.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think you made some really great points, and it’s so true. I think the word accommodation can also really trip us up. And it’s just different needs, even preferences. I think you talked about location of a desk in the office. Those are things that are so simple. And for a variety of reasons, people may have different preferences, and it can make a big difference. I think you shared some really great examples.

I’m wondering if there are any other specific examples that you can think of specifically for a remote environment or even a hybrid environment, which has, of course, become very commonplace and very popular sort of in this ongoing pandemic.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Yeah, the pandemic has actually brought a silver lining to the whole world, because a lot of neurodivergents– not all– prefer to work at home where they can control their own lighting, their own experience of how they go through the day. And a lot of companies prior to COVID did not embrace the whole work-from-home idea. Oh, you’re not going to get your work done.

And that’s really shined a light on a lot of benefits to working from home, whether you have a long commute, you’re not as stressed for the day, you can take care of your family better. All of those things.

Some of the work-from-home things– IBM actually had a work-from-home pledge that we posted. Things like, I pledge not to always be camera-ready or to be understanding if you are not camera-ready. If it is a client call, that the cameras will be on, we will include that in the meeting notice so you can be aware of that. And going through those simple things.

It’s really about thinking about that sensory diet. You almost think of, what’s on the menu of that person– of the sensory coming in? If you’re in the office, do you really need to walk to a conference room and change that sensory experience to work with others? Even in an agile workspace, we had one individual that just had an extra wall available to him so when he felt the need to work in a quiet space, he just rolled the extra wall, and that was the signal that he was working.

Or letting people know, this is when you can Slack me. This is when you can stop by my desk, and this is when you can email me. Some companies have put little red, yellow, green dots on cube walls so you can see before you interrupt somebody if they’re deep in thought and you can send them an email versus that.

Some of it as simple as altering your work hours so you can come in a half hour later and stay later to avoid the stress of the commute, or if you have to drop a kid off. Whatever it might be.

It’s also a perfect time now with COVID redesigns in physical spaces to think about that. Don’t have doors near the bath– or offices near the bathroom or busy places. Think about it. Can you control your own lighting, your own temperature?

ELISA LEWIS: I agree with you that it really is a silver lining that came out of COVID. I know a lot of companies and a lot of individuals who had the experience where they really weren’t allowed to work remotely or they had to have a specific reason like a doctor’s appointment or a family reason that they needed to work from home, and kind of felt like they could only ask in these certain scenarios, whatever the case may be. And it’s interesting just how quickly when push comes to shove, we were able to all shift and in many cases be successful.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Yeah. And in some cases, the hybrid model can cause even more stress to have– doing this one day and doing– like, is it better by week? And really to be able to communicate that. A hybrid could be even for me more stressful than one or the other. It’s reducing sometimes the sense of change.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think a sense of change and also uncertainty. I think that your example is about setting expectations of what is expected and what’s OK, to be on camera or not be on camera, or certain scenarios or situations. You know, I’ve heard from a lot of people just in the workspace, things like Slack.

You know, Slack is pinging all day, and you feel like with these kind of instantaneous type of messages, if you don’t answer, people are going to think that you’re away from your computer or not working. But can we set an expectation that actually, it’s OK to have focus time? And if something’s really urgent, we’ll find you. And otherwise, maybe it’s put in an email, or maybe you can put your Slack on Do Not Disturb, and that will be OK as well.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: It’s funny that you mentioned Slack, because there’s biases not only in physical interaction, but sometimes in the IT tools that we use. And we had an instance where Slack had rolled out a feature that was not welcomed by our neurodiversity community. And we were able to, through our task force, through our voices, through having our executives listen to us, we were able to be connected to Slack directly and say, are you looking at the neurodivergent persona when you’re rolling out features? Can we turn this off?

And it really became a great conversation where we had a Slack champion meet with our IBM neurodivergent community and say, what questions do you need? And we had a one-on-one education session with them where we could ask questions like, how can we reduce that sensory noise? How can we set timers on Slack to have focus time?

And using the tools– and it was a really amazing experience to have not only that collaboration, because now Slack doesn’t drive me crazy. But also to have that within 24 to 48 hours, we already had the connection and the meeting set up, that IBM heard our voices and took action. It wasn’t just, oh, OK, we’ll think about it. It was really moving and powerful.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really powerful and says a lot about IBM. And it’s not something that was pushed under the rug, but that it was really heard. And that says a lot about the resource community that you’ve put together as well. I’m curious if you could share what managers and team members could do to be more aware and be more of an ally and more accommodating to neurodivergent professionals.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: That’s a great question, and I’m going to do something that I really don’t like when people do, is answer a question with another question, which is, how would you answer that question if you were trying to be an ally for women or any other diversity group?

And answering my own question, it’s really about looking at neurodivergents as just another chapter in your diversity story. This is not just the warm fuzzy of people feeling accepted. While it’s super, super important, it actually has been proven by other companies working in this space that you can get more revenue. You can have higher productivity. And there’s lots of studies out there. And this can also help with the skills gap.

So what a manager or a team member can do is really to work on that sense of unconscious bias and learn about microaggressions, and ask the questions from the community itself. Think about your stereotyping, right? If I say an autistic person, you know, people think of Sheldon from Big Bang, right? A white cisgender male who’s really good in IT.

Where it might be somebody not in IT. It might be in accounting or sales. It might be a woman. It might be a person of color. It could be anybody in any role and in any stage of their career. To really think about neurodiversity as a skill and not something– not a deficit or a challenge to be overcome.

You’re trying to get more innovation. You want new thoughts. You need talent. Well, folks are there. And unfortunately, due to a lot of unconscious bias, the unemployment rate and underemployment rate of neurodivergents is– I think I saw one study and it was close to 40% that cannot get past the interview because they don’t smile right, they don’t shake your hand with the right force. Or you may want to talk about the weather to break the ice, and they’re there for the interview. Or during the interview, it was too bright or too noisy.

So what are blockers to there is to really think about the culture change. What can you do to change that environment? Sometimes I use a thought experiment in our education sessions. And I’ll do it with you really quick. I’d like for you to think of a bird, and give me its name. Just think of a bird. What kind of bird are you thinking of?


NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: OK. So, perfect. I’m a penguin. I don’t fly. I’m socially awkward on land. But I’m an excellent swimmer, and I can survive the Antarctic, and I could raise my chick without a nest. But if you put me in a rainforest, I’m not going to do well. And if you as a robin come to the Antarctic, you’re not going to do well either. But both of us are birds. Neither of us are broken. Neither of us need to be cured or trained to do something that we’re not.

ELISA LEWIS: I love that. I think that’s really simple and so powerful.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I’ve used that example– I’m also a scout leader, so I teach disabilities and diversity awareness to use– and I always have one kid in the class that goes, and the ostrich too. So– [LAUGHS]. I love working with the kids. And that’s exactly it. And sometimes they get it more easily than us as adults.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Absolutely. I read that the neurodiversity at IBM motto is nothing about us without us. And I’m wondering if you can explain what this motto means to you and to your Business Resource Group.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Thank you very, very much. That motto is at the core of all of our work. And it’s basically that a well-intentioned ally can do more harm than good.

And if you’re speaking about any community, you have to take the voice and the opinion of those from within that community more so than an ally. We do need synergy, so neurodivergents need to work with neurotypicals, which is somebody who’s not neurodivergent. Our community as a whole is neurodiverse, which means we have both neurodivergents and neurotypicals together.

But you have to ask us, would you run a women’s conference and only invite men? And to really swap that out with any other diversity group. And this is why these safe spaces are so important, because you may have people that are still in the closet about being neurodivergent, and their voices are so critical.

And the same way that you can look at any other organization or charity and look at if they have members from that community in a leadership position. Are they looking for a cure? Are they doing genetic research? What is the purpose of it? And really focusing back on nothing about us without us is, I’m the expert in me.

Now granted, if you’ve met one neurodivergent, you’ve met one neurodivergent, because everyone is so different. But we as a community have to control and help educate on our community.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing that. And I know we’re getting close to our time together, but I also wanted to ask, when leading neurodiversity initiatives, you often advocate for moving away from awareness toward acceptance and advancement. What does this shift mean, and what does it look like in practice?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: Thank you. It’s one of my favorite questions. Awareness is really passive, and it could still lead to discrimination. You could be aware that somebody’s different than you moved on your street, and it just ends there. You’re aware, but as long as you stay over there, I’m OK with that.

We think about an autism awareness walk. Well, what are we really doing to help embrace that identity, right? A lot of things with awareness go for medical things. Like, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is actually– no, it’s October now. [LAUGHS] Or we have these different things for people to be aware. And if we move out of that, move to accept it, it’s where you’re not passive anymore. You’re actively learning. You’re actively reaching out to engage that community.

And even if we swap out some diversity words– like, would we have Woman’s Awareness Day? I think everybody at this point knows what autism is. Neurodiversity is a new term, so you have to start with awareness of what it is. But don’t stay there too long. So acceptance is that phase where you are learning and you’re taking actions to show you’re an ally.

And the last stage of advancement is really where we’re moving into a place of pride, moving into a place of empowerment, moving to a place where neurodivergent voices are not only brought in, at, say an entry-level job where they’re given the same opportunities to be team leaders to, I don’t know, speak with you today.

So it’s really exciting. And everybody’s in their own place on their own journey, so there’s cultural differences. But we kind of hold these three As of you have to start at awareness, but quickly move to acceptance. And when you can, really move to advancement.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you so much. Before we wrap up, I’m curious if there’s anything else you would like to share with our listeners today or any other thoughts that we didn’t cover in our conversation already.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I would just say start having the conversation. And you’re going to make mistakes, just like if I talked to a community that I’m not familiar with. Have that sense of empathy and ask before you assume.

And really think about neurodiversity as an underrepresented group and what you can do to celebrate these voices. And if you are neurodivergent yourself, think about coming out, because we can use all of the help and all of the support, and it’s going to change our culture for the future.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Thank you. And for our listeners who want to learn more about neurodiversity or who want to connect with you, where can they find you online?

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I’m on LinkedIn, and I’m happy to connect. We also have a lot of resources online. So if you look up neurodiversity at IBM, you’ll find a video playlist and lots of resources. And happy to keep the conversation going.

ELISA LEWIS: Perfect. Thank you so much.

NATALIA LYCKOWSKI: I also want to add that through disability in, there’s an employers’ roundtable. So we have companies coming together every month to share best practices. So that’s another great resource.

ELISA LEWIS: Great. Thank you.


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