Embracing uniqueness: Neurodiversity at SumUp
Ranko Miklin is a Senior Salesforce Developer working in Berlin, and is one of the community representatives for the Neurodiversity network at SumUp. A network is a group of SumUppers united by causes such as racial diversity, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. This is his story.
“Being neurodivergent just means that my brain is different from whatever the default settings are,” explained Ranko.
But what makes up these ‘default settings’ is anyone’s guess.
“It’s possible that even people who’d call themselves neurotypical are all a bit off too, yet not enough to register in a diagnosable way.”
Enter, neurodiversity. A concept that acknowledges the uniqueness of each individual and celebrates that everybody thinks, feels and understands things in their own way. It’s also a great concept on which to build an accessible environment not only for those who identify as neurodivergent, but indeed, neurotypical too.
Though SumUp’s Neurodiversity network was founded by neurodivergent employees, those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyslexia, it has everyone’s best interests in mind. “Our approach is very much that you can be yourself, and we’re quite happy accepting any vague differences rather than requiring outright any specific diagnosis,” Ranko emphasised. “Everyone is valued and everyone contributes to a neurodiverse workplace.”
This openness is particularly important to Ranko because he’s never been officially diagnosed with autism.
“Other conditions are harder to miss, because you’ll know if you have problems with letters or numbers, but for me, until a little over a year ago autism was only what movies and TV shows showed — everything from being a maths genius to not being able to communicate at all.
“Even in primary school, I saw that I didn’t think like other people. I was different, but there was no explanation. And of course, I wasn’t good at noticing my difficulties either.”
Growing up undiagnosed was tough, “If someone told me something that didn’t make any sense, I brushed it off, and looking back I see that it probably caused a lot of misunderstandings,” Ranko said. “But when you’re young, no one tells you that there are people out there who simply process information differently.”
Ranko explained that before the 2000’s, the bar for an official autism diagnosis was high — you really had to be non-functional in an area for it to even be considered. Getting a diagnosis usually starts with parents or teachers identifying difficulties in a child, but if they have no awareness, particularly of functional cases like Ranko’s, it’s easy to see how it can go unrecognised.
“I know that I was considered weird, but I got good grades in school, and I could hold conversations, so everyone was happy with that,” Ranko said. “Since then I’ve spent 11 years learning how to handle social situations.
“One thing I’ve had to learn is small talk. It’s not useless, I just think there are more interesting things people could be talking about. It still doesn’t make sense to me, but I know what’s expected and I’m able to get by like everybody else.”
It was last year that a recent emergence of autism representation and awareness in society led Ranko and his wife to discover more about the condition — which they both immediately identified with. Now though, waiting lists for diagnosis in Berlin are long, especially as more people grow up and start to realise what was missed in their childhood. Ranko is content however, “I don’t need any official status. There might be some benefit but I managed without for 35 years, I can manage many more.
“Probably though, my education and working life up to now would’ve been much easier had I known about autism and what to look out for.”
Of course, from SumUp’s perspective you don’t need an official diagnosis to identify as neurodivergent. But for those who might want to do it for peace of mind or to receive more support, the Neurodiversity network has been collecting information on clinics that can offer it. And whilst Ranko has been able to adapt and get by, that’s not to say that people should be encouraged to just fit in.
“Ideally it’d be a two-way street. We’d know what to look out for, and neurotypical people would understand the possible causes of miscommunication,” said Ranko. “I think our work at SumUp will mean neurodivergent people won’t have to mimic ‘normal’ behaviour as often.”
Ranko imagines a kind of status or description showing an individual’s preferred communication methods so everyone would know what works best for each other. “I have a colleague who kept organising calls, which at first felt strange because I prefer to do things asynchronously. We discussed it and found that they like to be hands-on and do things face to face. We now work well together but if their preferences were outlined earlier it would’ve benefited us both from the start,” he said.
Levelling the playing field
The Neurodiversity network is currently working to help shape SumUp’s new office space with quiet rooms, places where light and other stimuli can be adjusted and noise-cancelling headphones for those who need them. The members also hosted an educational webinar for Autism Awareness Day in April and will have another at the end of 2021. The group hopes that by the end of the year more SumUppers are aware of neurodiversity and its implications.
“I think that by its nature, SumUp is really diverse anyway and for most, English isn’t their first language.” Because of this, Ranko, who’s Croatian, has a theory that even if he misspeaks or presents something in an unusual way, people will think it’s because of a language error or cultural reason. They’ll therefore be more willing to ask for clarification — rather than judging Ranko, or realising straight away that he has autism. “I definitely get the benefit of the doubt here,” he said.
Even so, there are some broad actions that SumUp is taking that should help people, but as Ranko explained, it’s important to always be open. “It’s about having options to suit individual needs and a way for people to suggest new ideas going forward.”
One key change would be a team culture that accommodates neurodivergent people from the start — without anyone needing to disclose their needs.
“At first, it was hard for me to come forward. The network started in August 2020, and it was only after having a few calls with the group that I realised the time was right to speak to my team about autism, Ranko said. “This really helped, and I don’t feel that being open negatively changed anyone’s perception of me or my work.”
The network also wants to make SumUp’s recruitment process more accessible for neurodivergent people. For example, educating recruiters in different communication styles, like becoming aware that some candidates might struggle with eye contact, or to not automatically expect a handshake. “There are some big societal expectations that don’t necessarily affect a person’s ability to do a job.” One silver lining for Ranko though: “We’re in a pandemic now so at least we’ve stopped with physical contact for a while.”
And just how has the coronavirus situation impacted Ranko’s working habits?
“I worked remotely for 3 years before SumUp anyway, so it’s felt normal. Although one of the reasons I joined was because I missed the social interactions in an office. I was the only person working remotely then, but now everyone’s having to get used to it.
“We’re all in front of screens, and learning how to express ourselves without the social cues that you’d get from being in the same room,” said Ranko. “So I actually think it’s easier for me virtually as I’m not missing the things in communication I usually would. That’s a potential benefit — it’s levelled the playing field.”
Despite the efforts of the Neurodiversity network, Ranko explained that damaging stereotypes about autism are still common — and for change to come about, challenging these is important. “Not everyone will be an amazing software developer. Not everyone will be a maths wizard. Not everyone will be unable to look you in the eye or speak up. Brains are complex and autism is just an umbrella term for a spectrum. No two people will be the same.”
For Ranko, “Neurodiversity is abstract because only you know how you think, you have pieces of what other people communicate but you can’t tell what’s actually going on in their head.
“But being open to new things is something that everyone could benefit from. I don’t even know how much of it has to do with autism, but I’m super happy to be proven wrong, to be shown things that don’t align with my point of view. So I think, and hope, that others can learn from that too.”
This is the essence of neurodiversity at SumUp: we’re embracing opinions, attitudes, experiences — and working with people’s differences, rather than against them.
A huge thank you to Ranko Miklin for taking the time to share his story with us.