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In Conversation With Geoffrey Cook

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
Strategist believes that being autistic is an opportunity to champion difference

April is Autism Awareness Month which celebrates the resilience of those affected by the disorder, while supporting causes that promote its acceptance. DENTSU CREATIVE US's strategist Geoffrey Cook shared with us how his own autistic/ADHD mind benefits him in a creative workspace. Plus, he had some sound ideas about how marketers and hiring managers can create safe spaces for neurodivergent (ND) employees. 

Q> How do you describe neurodiversity? 

Geoffrey> It’s a term that refers to anyone born with a neurological difference. It just means your brain is wired differently. The most vocal members of the neurodiversity community are those with Autism and ADHD, but the term also includes those with Tourette's, learning differences, and dyslexia to name a few. 

Q> Why did you get involved in discussions about the neurodivergent community? 

Geoffrey> Primarily it was because I myself am autistic/ADHD and had experienced first-hand some toxic workplaces. I have had a few managers in the past advise me that “It’s probably better if you keep your autism/ADHD to yourself.” Granted they were trying to be helpful and protective, but when I got advice that I should keep what made me unique to myself, that just motivated me to wear it on my sleeve. And from there, I just naturally evolved into wanting to be an advocate to help others like myself. 

Q> What are the benefits of a neurodivergent (ND) mind in the creative workplace? 

Geoffrey> ND minds are naturally disruptive thinkers, which can be a goldmine for new ideas in a creative line of work. We’re also drawn to optimising systems so they can run with as little waste as possible. If we set out on a task that lines up with our interests, we can give you more work than you can imagine. This is because many of us naturally become experts in our areas of interest. For example, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in new tech and video game culture just because those things fascinate me.  

Q> What are things that employers need to be aware of when hiring members of this community, and how can we retain them? 

Geoffrey> There’s an idiom in the autistic community: “If you’ve met one autistic, then you’ve only met ONE autistic.” That being said, there are some considerations to consider that can broadly help ND employees. The first thing to do is learn what their perspective is. How does that employee experience sight, sound, touch, time or even social interactions? Managers need to understand how their employees’ perspectives are different from both their own and from other ND’s.  

The next step is to normalize how your ND employees handle or address these differences. For example, I have days where my sensitivity to light causes migraines requiring me to wear sunglasses daily. And third, once you’ve gotten a handle on some commonalities, start getting proactive. Offer sound canceling headphones or sunglasses if needed. In offices, ensure that ND employees can have a quiet place to work undistracted. Invite NDs to take sick days if they need to recharge (burnout is far more common with NDs). Assist with diagnosis costs (time, money, emotional). Find ways to restructure workloads so that ND employees become more motivated, focused and efficient. An example of that would be to write out a mini brief for projects with clear deadlines and expectations. 

But above all, ensure people are aware of these offerings and why they exist. What’s the point of any of this if these efforts are reactive solutions rather than proactive? In short, invite ND’s to be themselves and advocate for what they need to perform their work better. We don’t want handouts; we want tools and systems that let us give you our best work. 

Q> How has being neurodivergent helped you succeed in adland? 

Geoffrey> When you’re autistic, socializing can feel like speaking a foreign language. While you can become fluent, it takes a lot of effort. This skill lets you work with clients who are trying to understand the current ‘language’ of culture and easily identify why they might be having problem aligning their business with the zeitgeist. Plus, my pattern recognition makes it easy for me to identify macro and micro patterns when researching. Combine those things with a natural disposition for lateral thinking, and I end up bringing a lot of new ideas to the table. 

Q> What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on to date, and how did your unique way of thinking impact it? 

Geoffrey> I was on a pitch for a large video game company. It also happened to be one of my first pitches. I found my creative mind mixed with my deep knowledge of gaming helped me churn out almost a dozen ideas within a night. 

Q> What can marketers do to make the neurodivergent community feel accepted and safe? 

Geoffrey> It all starts at home. We need to make bigger strides in accommodating potential ND employees during their interview process. For example, we need to focus on testing a candidate on their ability to do their job, rather than putting so much emphasis on the face-to-face interview. You might be missing out on a talented candidate simply because they lack social skills. From there, we need to improve retention efforts by educating managers on how to best communicate with ND employees and properly leverage their talent to grow and rise in the organization. There also needs to be a wider understanding of what NDs go through in the workplace. Our lives are very Kafkaesque, where we exist in a system that wasn’t built for us to succeed. But we are placed in a constant battle of attrition as we work to ‘fit in’ and shrug off micro aggressions while also attempting to do our work.  

Q> Can you give us an example of microaggressions to be aware of when working with neurodivergent colleagues? 

Geoffrey> Some that come to mind are: “Can you re-write this; it sounds a bit robotic,” or “It feels like you’re trying to convince people that you’re smart.” Both can relate to your written work. Usually, this stems from NDs tending to write things out in a very literal sense, which at times can come off as academic. An alternative is to say: “Could you re-work this to sound more colloquial? It’s still a bit high level.” Statements like: “Can everyone turn their camera on?” or “I want to see everyone’s smiling faces,” might seem innocuous, but for NDs who find prolonged eye contact to be physically uncomfortable, having to turn your camera on and deal with the large number of faces that are looking back at you can be distracting. 

Those with ADHD might get certain comments relaying how they appear disorganised, lazy or inattentive. All of those are common misconceptions of ADHD workers, especially those who are undiagnosed or haven’t found a personal regiment to manage their symptoms and traits. 

Q> What kind of advice would you give to a colleague who is neurodivergent or a parent who has a neurodivergent child to help them in their personal journey? 

Geoffrey> Fuck being normal. You aren’t broken; you are simply in a world that idealizes an idea of ‘normal’ so much that if you appear outside those hazy lines, you are considered less then. So, turn the idea of normal on its head, and instead of trying to fit a pre-made mold, normalise what makes you different. What are the ways you aren’t normal? What gets you excited, engaged or thinking? It’s that same mindset that guided my parents when raising me. They weren’t trying to normalize me. Instead, they said “Let’s help Geoffrey figure out who/what he is, then help him become the best version of that.” Learn who you are, and work to enhance yourself to be the best version of you that can exist. 

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