A black-and-white photo of a young man with short hair and a Pacman suit. There is a orange to blue gradient in the background and big, white text above and below the image that reads 'In conversation with Andrew Pfeiffer, neurodiversity advocate.'
12 May

In conversation with Andrew Pfeiffer

All views represented in this interview are Andrew’s personal views, not those of the Commonwealth Public Sector or the Australian Government.

This month, we caught up with neurodiversity advocate Andrew Pfeiffer, co-founder of the Australian Tax Office’s Neurodiversity Network and member of the National Autism Strategy's Oversight Council! We spoke about his experience discovering he was autistic, his neurodiversity advocacy and his hopes for the future of neurodivergent employees across all industries.  

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Andrew! You’ve explained that before discovering you're autistic in 2019, you found certain things, such as networking events, incredibly challenging. Have these situations become easier to navigate since finding out that you’re autistic?

As a data scientist, the analogy that I like to use is that discovering that I’m autistic didn’t change the data about me. Instead, it’s a trend line that explains the data about me in a powerful way. In other words, finding out that I’m autistic has given me a really powerful self-awareness of my strengths and challenges. Of course, such self-awareness isn’t a magic bullet - it doesn’t solve my challenges by itself. However, it means I can think strategically about situations I find challenging, like networking events, and plan how to tackle such challenges. Many autistic people love planning, after all!

We’re all, of course, huge fans of your novelty suits. So what made you start wearing them in social settings, and how did you discover that they helped alleviate some of the challenges those situations can bring?

I bought a novelty suit for a TED talk I gave at my old workplace in 2017. I spoke about some aspects of my role as a data scientist, and I thought that a Pac-Man suit would be thematically consistent with my talk and give the audience an incredible first impression! Then I started wearing the suit at work more regularly, and everyone loved it! Since then, I’ve been building my collection - I now have over ten novelty suits in my wardrobe!

I also discovered that wearing novelty suits at networking and social events functions as an ice-breaker - people want to know where I get them from! This was an absolute game-changer for me. I experience intense social anxiety, making initiating conversations with people I don’t know incredibly challenging. However, if someone asks me about something I’m particularly interested in - like my novelty suits! - then you’ll struggle to shut me up!

You mentioned in your 2022 TED talk that ‘organisations that become employers of choice for neurodivergent staff will have a profound competitive advantage.’ What is this competitive advantage?

Neurodivergent people have incredible strengths and often outperform their neurotypical peers in their areas of expertise. While every neurodivergent individual is unique, common neurodivergent strengths include pattern recognition, memory, mathematics, creatively thinking outside the box, the ability to hyperfocus, and the ability to hold a lot of information in working memory simultaneously.

However, neurodivergent people are much more likely to be unemployed. For example, according to 2018 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 3 autistic adults are unemployed, and underemployment and labour force participation rates for autistic people are worse as well.

Since neurodivergent people have incredible strengths and are much more likely to be unemployed, the neurodivergent community represents a massive pool of untapped talent. Thus, organisations that tap into our talent by making recruitment processes and workplace culture more inclusive will have a profound competitive advantage.

We were so pleased to hear that 165 staff from 35 agencies attended the cross-agency meeting you recently organised for neurodiversity inclusion. What do these meetings involve, and why are they so important?

We’ve only had one meeting of the Public Sector Neurodiversity Community of Practice (CoP) so far. However, we’re planning a second meeting soon!

I co-founded and co-chair the CoP because I wanted to bring together staff in the Commonwealth Public Sector who are part of their agency’s neurodiversity network, want to start up a neurodiversity network in their agency, or want to find out more about how they can be more inclusive of neurodivergent staff. I co-founded the neurodiversity network at my previous agency, not knowing that another agency had a neurodiversity network that had been running for years! I don’t want anyone to reinvent the wheel like I inadvertently did, and I want to foster collaboration and resource sharing on neurodiversity inclusion in the Public Sector. I also want to make sure that neurodivergent staff in the Public Sector know that we’re here to help advocate for them.

It sounds like the Commonwealth Public Sector has been incredibly supportive of your advocacy work. Tell us more about what that support has looked like.

I’ve been so fortunate to work for supportive employers in the Commonwealth Public Sector:

  • My managers have given me incredible flexibility to spend some of my work time on my advocacy work, like co-founding the Neurodiversity Network at my old agency and the cross-agency Community of Practice.
  • Colleagues from across the Government have invited me to speak to them about neurodiversity inclusion. (I often encourage them to have a panel discussion, so I can invite other neurodivergent staff to join me on the panel and provide their unique perspectives. As a straight white male data scientist, I still have a lot of privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility.)
  • Other colleagues have created videos of me talking about the importance of neurodiversity inclusion and published them online.
  • I was supported and trained to appear on a podcast about embracing neurodiversity inclusion in the public sector with two colleagues.
  • Colleagues from human resources teams have sought my advice on neurodiversity inclusion in diversity and inclusion strategies and recruitment processes.

Unfortunately, we continue to hear stories at AAA of neurodivergent people who found their employers were inclusive in the recruitment phase, but not when it came to employee retention. Why do you think this problem still exists, and what can employers do to address it?

In general, organisations are starting to see the value that neurodivergent staff can provide organisations. Often they will engage a third party to organise a bespoke recruitment process tailored to neurodivergent staff. However, these processes may only give neurodivergent staff a temporary role within an organisation. If these staff want permanency, they must go through standard recruitment processes. In the same way, neurodivergent staff often want to experience career progression like everyone else. However, they need to go through traditional recruitment processes to win promotions. So part of retaining neurodivergent staff is transforming all recruitment processes to be more inclusive of neurodivergent staff, not just recruitment processes for neurodivergent programs.

The other significant factor in employee retention is workplace culture. Anecdotally, a significant predictor of the wellbeing of neurodivergent staff in organisations is how supportive and accepting their manager and broader team are of them and their neurodivergence. It’s not enough to have a grassroots neurodiversity movement in an organisation, or corporate messaging from senior executives. Managers need to understand and accept the social model of neurodivergence, that neurodivergent neurotypes like autism and ADHD aren’t disorders that need to be cured or performance managed. Instead, neurodivergent people have incredible strengths, and managers are responsible for giving neurodivergent people the opportunity to harness their strengths and thrive at work.

You’re a firm believer that changes to the way employers hire and retain their employees will benefit everyone, not just neurodivergent people. Why?

In my 2022 TED talk, I shared some concrete changes that we can make to recruitment processes to make them more inclusive for neurodivergent staff, and it’s self-evident that they benefit everyone. For example, what would it look like:

  • to recruit the best talent
  • to actually assess candidates' aptitude for jobs
  • to stop over-valuing the ability to write applications or speak on the fly in interviews
  • to be clear how written applications are assessed
  • to specify what criteria candidates will be scored against and whether or not these criteria are weighted equally
  • to give candidates interview questions in advance
  • to scrap interviews entirely?

These changes would benefit everyone because all organisations want to recruit the best talent!

The same is true if we think about concrete changes for cultivating a workplace culture that is more inclusive of neurodivergent staff. What would it look like:

  • to retain talented staff;
  • to really get to know them;
  • to ask about their strengths and challenges, their preferred working and communication styles;
  • to ask them if they prefer loud, open-plan offices or using noise-cancelling headphones to help them focus;
  • to stop defaulting to underperformance processes to deal with challenging staff?

After all, all staff will thrive if they can harness their strengths and preferred working styles!

Finally, what advice would you offer your neurodivergent peers looking to enter the workforce or further their existing careers?

Three pieces of advice:

  1. You may need to operate within a flawed system to join a particular employer. For example, you may need to navigate recruitment processes that test aptitude for recruitment processes rather than aptitude for the job itself. In my experience, the best way to develop aptitude for recruitment processes is to gamify it. Recognise that you need to learn the rules of the game of recruitment processes to win the game and the job. It’s a silly game because you won’t use those skills until your next recruitment process, but it may be the game we need to play. For example, you could engage a career coach to train you in these areas or use checklists to write job applications or prepare for interviews.
  2. Of course, once you’ve won the recruitment game once, you’re now inside the system - which means you can advocate for fixing the flawed system! You could join recruitment panels and challenge other panel members’ unconscious biases. For example, “Candidates that don’t give eye contact in an interview aren’t suitable.” You could initiate conversations with your manager, colleagues, and subordinates about your strengths, challenges, and preferred working and communication styles, and encourage them to do the same. You could start up or join a neurodiversity network or community within your organisation.
  3. Find an experienced mentor or coach in your organisation, someone you can bounce ideas off and ask for advice. Every workplace is different, and advocating for change will look different everywhere. Sometimes the wise decision will be moving to another team in your organisation or another organisation entirely. Sadly, some teams and organisations haven’t yet started their journey to being inclusive of neurodivergent staff. Mentors and coaches can help you make these decisions.

Please get in touch via LinkedIn if you want to learn more! Also, learn about the preferred definitions of the neurodivergent community. For example, the majority of autistic people prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”) over person-first language (“person with autism”), and the Australian Government is using identity-first language to talk about the National Autism Strategy.

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