In 2018, M/SIX was the first media agency to launch an internship programme designed to actively champion neurodiversity and unlock the potential of young autistic adults. We still feel there is little meaningful action within neurodiversity even as the industry continues to make progress in areas such as gender, ethnicity and social mobility. The programme we devised alongside Ambitious about Autism was rewarding and inspirational for both the interns and the agency.
Our aim was to raise understanding and awareness of autism within the agency, as well as provide an opportunity for non-neurotypical talent to shine. M/SIX UK chief executive Alistair MacCallum believed that if our own talent would gain a deeper professional experience managing more complex individuals, it would ultimately help them be better leaders.
To kick off the process, we asked the whole agency which teams and individuals were interested in working and managing an intern for three months. More than 30% of the agency volunteered and training was carried out by a representative from Ambitious about Autism. Training was open for both those directly working with the individuals and anyone else in the agency who expressed an interest.
The training covered key themes such as how to flex your communication style and your management technique, and crucially how to ensure our interns were treated in the same way as any other colleague. M/SIX employees were encouraged to be inquisitive with the interns, with their permission, allowing them to open up about their condition as well as their life and professional experiences.
The interns were fully integrated into the agency and all carried out roles in varying teams: comms planning, performance planning and press buying. They also followed a more flexible working routine, starting later in the morning, since commuting can often be challenging. The three interns formed a close friendship, learning to navigate the agency and enjoy their experience together.
We kept in close contact with Ambitious about Autism throughout the internship, ensuring they were well-informed about the development of the interns. The charity was the perfect partner for M/SIX in managing such a programme. The team there were supportive, informative and thrilled to be working together on developing an unforgettable experience for a group of people whose talent is often overlooked.
Our key learning and advice for other agencies looking to expand their approach to inclusion, and more specifically neurodiversity, is first and foremost to offer a full internship programme, as opposed to a short work experience stint. Agencies should look to partner a leading charity in the field to open up involvement and volunteering across the business. We are thrilled to be continuing this opportunity in 2019.
Working with Ambitious about Autism has been an incredible experience for us all at M/SIX. Learning how to flex your communication style and be more inclusive in how we work together is a vital skill that we can all benefit from in both our work and personal lives. Our interns were so talented and brought so much to our agency; I would urge others to lean into this sadly underutilised talent pool. We can’t wait to work with Ambitious about Autism again next year and look forward to exploring other forms of neurodiversity, such dyslexia, as part of our diversity and inclusion strategy this year.
Siobhan Brunwin is head of people at M/SIX
A view from Christian Butler, one of the interns
Stepping into the role at M/SIX with few preconceived notions of how a media agency operates, my expectations were exceeded as to just how stimulating the environment turned out to be. What made a key difference was that those running the internship were keen to explain how all the departments worked outside the teams we worked with. Instead of just doing typical intern tasks without explanation, this information not only explained how our smaller tasks fitted into the eventual output of the agency but will also set us up with vital knowledge should we apply for a different role in media in the future.
Beyond the mechanisms of how a media agency operates, the internship was also a fantastic chance to experience the social aspect of a professional environment. Because the staff allowed for any concessions the autistic interns requested, this removed some of the pressures of social interactions. In this more relaxed environment, there was more opportunity to see the interrelations of those who work together and how they interact with clients and those outside the agency. Such life skills are much better observed in reality than the abstract role-playing autistic people are usually more likely to be subjected to.
The internship was not merely a good opportunity for the autistic – it would be a fantastic opportunity for anyone who wishes to get into media. It would be very easy for an agency to establish a token internship, such as offering the autistic to work for free for a week. M/SIX, however, offered a salaried position for three months. Too often, the autistic are treated like grown children rather than adults who are simply disabled. For autistic adults not to be treated like children, such internships are not important for the "experience", but actually as the first step in a career. The autistic do not want to be pitied or patronised; they want to work.
Ideas of neurodiversity – and diversity at large– encourages a clinical outlook of this group as a mass of homogenous victims. This tendency is exacerbated further with the disabled. However, the real benefit of neurodiversity is how it affects individuals. In our office, I am not representing the autistic; I am representing myself. The thing I am most proud of doing at the agency was shattering preconceptions. Those who have not met an autistic person before have nothing to go on but media portrayals and Rain Man-like stereotypes. Those who worked with me on the internship were able to see how different I was to such fiction. They saw beyond merely how I fit into an autistic spectrum, but how I am a human with the same needs, wants and desires as themselves.
The internship has been a remarkable experience. It is the first time my skillset has been genuinely valued in a professional context. Those I worked with were eager to push my abilities and get the absolute best out of me. Despite my low entry role, I have been shown respect that I have never experienced before. They have also given me realistic expectations of what skills are needed in the media industry. Following this, I have no interest to be part of the estimated 84% of autistic adults who are not working full-time. I choose not to see this as the end of my internship, but the start of my career in media. If you ask me, I think that is what it truly means to be ambitious about autism.