In 2014, I discovered my eldest son was Autistic and had ADHD. It was then an incredibly hard journey to get the diagnosis and then the support he, I and the family needed to help him. In fact, we still at times struggle, and I know many others who have/are still struggling too. Rather than simply give in, I was determined to make a difference, not just for me, but for everyone.
So, in July 2019, I headed off to UCLA to become accredited in the PEERS Social Skills programme, which helps neurodiverse individuals develop social skills to integrate with society more easily. Once back, my passion to help families with autistic individuals was ignited! But I knew I couldn’t do this alone. What I needed was a partner in crime with an interest in a supporting or related field.
Through a friend I found that person, Anton Ashcroft, who met the brief more literally than I had imagined! Anton was a registered psychologist, who had a background in forensic psychology, developing resilience, and also in neuroscience-based leadership programmes. During our first catch up, one of the many things I found interesting getting to know Anton was the high percentage of individuals in the prison system who were neurodiverse, but often undiagnosed, unmedicated and unassisted AND the impact this had on their whole life!! He highlighted how their different, sometimes challenged ability to focus, socialise and learn, could cause their behaviour to get labelled as ‘naughty’ as a child and ‘challenging’ as an adult. He shared how this unhelpful labelling and reactions from family and teachers then often affected their schooling, opportunity to progress in life and participate in society.
As a parent of a neurodiverse child I was able to give a new perspective of the challenge’s families go through to work out why a child is behaving the way they are or their behaviour has radically changed like ours had – even the professionals I first saw were stumped! And the time it takes to navigate the health system. I went private and that took 12 months, I have meet parents who have spent 15 years in the public system – and that is only for diagnosis! I got very little support after that as I was told my son was ‘high functioning’ so not entitled to support. Plus, the judgement on his behaviour and my parenting skills from my family, other parents, teachers and people in public. Dealing with all of that lead to massive anxiety and dark depression for me. This is where my burning drive and passion comes from.
We discussed what a difference it could make for individuals, families, and society if New Zealand front footed these challenges and utilised the money spent imprisoning individuals, poorly educated nurses and doctors, teachers plus the cost of mental health for families due to poorly educated clinical professionals, and on EAP instead on government policies, systems and support networks to enable better identification and understanding of, and support for, neurodiversity.
We also discussed how ironic it was that organisations want to be innovative and high performing, however the people who think differently – the neurodiverse- cannot get through ‘traditional’ recruitment processes. As parents of highly intelligent and talented children with autism, this was concerning for both of us.
Anton noted the fascinating overlap with leadership; many of the skills he was helping leaders develop, often arising from them not ‘getting’ the needs of their employees or themselves, were similar to those he was supporting prisoners with!! (Effective communication, emotional intelligence, perspective taking, influencing, understanding brain differences etc)
Given the benefits of understanding and employing neurodiverse talent already seen in America, Australia, and the UK, it made so much sense for us both to start by helping New Zealand leaders to reap these benefits too. Our aim was then to give back to the community by offering free family focused support programmes for every package of support sold to New Zealand businesses.
We didn’t want to just start a business for us but start a movement in New Zealand!!
We launched DivergenThinking on March 20, 2020, when KPMG hosted a Chief Executive Breakfast with a group CEOs and Chairs of major NZ businesses. Our timing was impeccable – the week before Covid-19 lockdown!
We are living proof of the power of maximising neurodiverse talent and look forward to helping you maximise your own talent to become the innovative and high performing business you dream of too.
On a personal note after working with Anton for a few months and joking I was probably ADHD, Anton confirmed I was so hence the journey and our lived experiences. Anton also recently realised his son is Autistic too – we are always learning.
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