April 26, 2023

A Conversation with IBM’s Global Neurodiversity Advancement Leader during Autism Acceptance Month

April is Autism Acceptance Month in the U.S. Globally, it is celebrated as World Autism Month. This year, organizations and individuals around the world are building awareness around and promoting acceptance of autism, advocating for inclusivity, and sharing resources during the month of April.

At CMD-IT, we celebrate the unique experiences that bring about innovations in tech. To learn more about how organizations can attract and retain neurodivergent individuals and support their long-term success in the technology sector, we spoke with Natalia (Nat) Lyckowski,  the Global Neurodiversity Advancement Leader with IBM. Nat empowers acceptance by designing safe spaces to self-identify and developing initiatives that improve trust and allyship. She is a well-regarded speaker and organizer of global enablement initiatives. Nat is proudly neurodivergent and the parent of an autistic IT Professional.

What does your role as the Global Neurodiversity Advancement Leader at IBM entail? 1:20 people are neurodivergent. This term encompasses individuals who identify as neurologically different, such as autistics, dyslexics, and beyond. These identity differences are not something to be cured or masked. 

My job is to help neurodivergents succeed and advance not only within IBM, but in our external communities as well. Our motto for our Neurodiversity@IBM program is “Nothing About Us, Without Us”. Our global program is neurodivergent run and led to ensure representation from the community. It entails enablement, education, and providing safe spaces for neurodivergent IBMers to come together for peer support and help steer our initiatives. 

I help serve as a thought leader in the neurodiversity space, and this includes public speaking, attending conferences, etc. My goal is to help normalize talking about neurodiversity, having it become another diversity factor, just like race, gender, or sexual orientation, and helping to ensure that neurological differences are seen, valued, and respected. 

How can we become more inclusive and supportive of neurodivergent job applicants and team members? Neurodivergent-targeted hiring has been around for almost a decade. Many foundations and organizations have studied it, finding that neurodivergent individuals are measurably more productive, loyal, and innovative with almost no cost to accommodate. If you look at closing the skills gap impacting industries today, there are a ton of talented neurodivergent people that have blockers to getting hired into the workforce due to bias. 

IBM has had neurodivergent-targeted hiring in eleven countries so far, and we also offer IBMers neurodiversity acceptance training that over 10K employees have completed. While one needs to start with awareness to learn about the topic, being aware is passive. We challenge individuals to step up their allyship and move to a place where neurological differences are not only accepted but embrace a call to action to help advance the development and understanding of the neurodivergent community. This is why IBM calls the month of April Neurodiversity Advancement Month at IBM, and we host events and activities around the world. 

There are toy stores now that have quiet hours to provide a more welcoming place to shop for all kids. Why wouldn’t we do that for a job fair? This example highlights the bias that neurodivergence is something you outgrow. We need to change the narrative from ‘do you need an accommodation,’ to ‘how can I help you succeed?’ The attitude and social model that we want to move into is that neurodiversity is not a medical deficit, it’s part of our fabric of human variation. 

One of the things we started at IBM is an Executive ND-out program, where executives can come forward to say, ‘I am neurodivergent.’ It helps to see that anyone can be neurodivergent and help make it understood and celebrated. At the core, being neurodivergent-friendly is being human-friendly. What do all our team members need to be successful? 

Together, we can create a culture where understanding and sharing that ‘I think about things differently’ doesn’t take courage because it’s become the norm. There is so much more work to do, and it’s going to take time until saying ‘I am ND’ is the same as saying ‘I am right or left-handed.’ 

To learn more about IBM’s efforts to create a more inclusive work environment, click here

To get involved this Autism Acceptance Month, you can download Autism Society resources to spread awareness, promote inclusion, and practice acceptance so Autistic individuals can live fully. More information is available at ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network).