“Some People Assume I Lack Competency and Social Skills. Others Assume I’m a Genius”: Living With Autism as a Data Engineer

By Riccardo Duberry

Diversity has always been a subject close to my heart. 

During my university days, I immersed myself in numerous modules focused on understanding and appreciating the multifaceted nature of diversity. This passion naturally extended into my professional life when I embarked on a career in recruitment. It was here that I began to explore how diversity impacts the various markets I worked within, particularly the data industry. 

In the early stages of my recruitment career, it became evident that diversity in the data industry is a complex and rich field with much to uncover. The more I delved into it, the more I realized the profound impact that diversity—or the lack thereof—can have on innovation, team dynamics, and overall industry progress. 

By highlighting the personal journeys of several individuals within the data industry, as well as raising awareness about the current state of diversity, we can better understand how to foster an environment of continuous improvement.

In part one of my Diversity in Data series I speak to Ian Baynham, an army veteran who self-identifies as autistic and neurodivergent. Ian recounts his journey into a data career and his experiences within the industry so far.

RICCARDO: As part of our discussion on diversity in data engineering, I’d like to understand how you identify, and from your perspective as a self-identified individual, what are your experiences? 

IAN: I identify as autistic or neurodivergent, and I’m also an army veteran. My experiences have been shaped significantly by both of these aspects of my identity. Autism, or neurodivergence, often carries a stigma, and I sometimes choose not to disclose it due to potential misunderstandings. Additionally, being a veteran in the UK doesn’t hold the same recognition or support as it might in other countries, which is crucial considering the mental health and homelessness challenges many veterans face. 

My journey with autism began at a time when there was limited understanding and awareness. Initially diagnosed with what was termed Asperger’s Syndrome, and later reclassified under the broader autism spectrum condition (ASC) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), my early years involved a lot of learning how to mask my differences. Masking, or hiding my autistic traits to fit in, became a significant part of my upbringing, often leading to panic attacks and meltdowns due to sensory overload. 

Disabled people with autism were among the disabled people with the lowest employment rate [Source: Office for National Statistics]

This constant need to adapt influenced the direction of my life profoundly. I found solace in learning to write computer programs, as it offered a structured environment with minimal social interaction, which made sense to me. I also noticed similar masking behaviours in my daughters at school, which deepened my understanding of our shared experiences. 

After leaving the army, my first significant role was in tech, working for the NHS. This transition was pivotal for me, as working with data provided a structured and continuous environment that I found very fulfilling. I was able to leverage my skills to build proof-of-concept projects and develop data engineering solutions. 

What are some of the more common misconceptions of identifying with a marginalised group within the data engineering space?

The biggest one for me as an autistic individual, is the assumption that we lack social skills. This stereotype oversimplifies the diverse experiences of autistic people. 

While it’s true that social skills and communication can be challenging and often misunderstood, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of interacting effectively. Many autistic individuals can focus intensely and excel in programming, but it requires a significant amount of energy to manage sensory overload and maintain this focus. 

Ian identifies as autistic or neurodivergent, and was in the army prior to his involvement with the NHS and data

Another issue is that group projects can be overwhelming due to the sheer amount of information to process. A particularly busy week can leave me non-verbal and needing a recharge. If someone catches me in a non-verbal state, it might come across as rude, but it’s simply a matter of needing time to recover from sensory and cognitive overload. 

Research from JP Morgan has shown that autistic individuals can be 160% more effective due to hyperfocus, debunking the myth that we can’t be productive. However, another misconception is the paradoxical belief that all autistic people are geniuses. While some may have exceptional abilities, it’s not representative of everyone on the spectrum. 

What are some challenges that individuals from marginalised groups might face, particularly when their identities intersect?

Individuals from marginalized groups face unique challenges, especially when their identities intersect. For example, dual discrimination is a significant issue, where someone might experience biases based on multiple aspects of their identity simultaneously. In the military, for instance, PTSD can exhibit similar traits to autism, leading to misdiagnoses. This intersection of mental health and neurodiversity complicates accurate diagnosis and appropriate support. 

Gender and multiculturalism also add layers to these challenges. Organizations, despite their best efforts to be inclusive, often inadvertently discriminate. Autism is the lowest demographic of employment in the UK, and autistic individuals tend to gravitate towards STEM fields due to the way their brains tend to be wired. When factors like race and gender intersect with autism, the barriers to employment can become even more pronounced. 

Discriminatory hiring practices still exist, partly because foundational support structures are lacking. Neurodiverse individuals are also more likely to identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, adding another layer of complexity to their experiences. Women, in particular, often face misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis of autism, leading to further marginalization. 

Indirect discrimination is another pervasive issue. For example, if there are five positions available and four go to males with one to a female who ends up leading, it can cause resentment among others about the gender distribution. Additionally, neurodiverse individuals may not immediately be visible, which can lead to their unique needs being overlooked. 

If you were an employer and you were hiring someone similar to yourself, what steps would you take to ensure that person feels comfortable, included and equal?

As an employer, if I were hiring someone similar to myself, ensuring their comfort, inclusion, and equality would be paramount. Drawing from my experience working with neurodivergent individuals in my team, I recognize the importance of viewing situations from their perspective. 

[Source: Bloomberg]

Creating an environment where individuals feel safe to unmask and showcase their unique talents is essential. For instance, I recently had an engineer who provided an abstract solution to a challenging business problem that no one else could solve. Instead of expecting them to present their solution to a large audience, I initiated a conversation with them to explore alternative options, such as pre-recording their demonstration or offering a recorded presentation. 

Moreover, fostering a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration enables individuals to learn from each other’s experiences and strategies. By creating a two-way street where everyone feels valued and supported, we can cultivate an environment where individuals feel comfortable and empowered to contribute their best work. 

Ultimately, it’s about recognizing the unique strengths and needs of each individual and taking proactive steps to ensure their comfort, inclusion, and equality in the workplace. 

Are there any final thoughts you would like to leave with readers?

The biggest frustration I have is that achieving true inclusivity and diversity is much easier than it seems. It starts with being humble and willing to learn. Contrary to common belief, fostering an inclusive environment isn’t overly expensive or difficult; it just requires the right people and the right approach. 

Many individuals are naturally drawn to STEM fields because of their mindset and problem-solving abilities. However, true innovation often comes from within the company, driven by individuals who bring diverse perspectives. Leadership alone can’t drive all innovation; it’s the varied viewpoints and experiences of team members that fuel progress. 

One important concept to remember is the “curb cut effect,” which highlights how solutions designed for accessibility often benefit everyone. When we approach innovation and technology with an accessibility mindset, we create better outcomes for all. 

In summary, inclusivity isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a practical one that leads to greater innovation and success. By embracing diversity and accessibility, we can build a more effective and forward-thinking industry. 

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