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Kate Woods - Mental Health In An Unequal World

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

A global pandemic, prolonged remote work and learning, an economy in flux, a tense socio political environment, and increasing mental health challenges as a result of the unprecedented situation and associated uncertainty have created an environment that is rife for stress and burnout, ultimately leading to high turnover, lack of productivity and negative health effects. During locked down Kate was challenged with Zoom, yes Zoom and went on a quest to understand how she was experiencing this new remote work and learning world.

She was diagnosed with Autism and it all made sense.

Each year we host a variety of conversations to celebration World Mental Health Day on October 10. This year the theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 is Mental Health In An Unequal World. We are delighted to welcome Neurodiversity Consultant, Kate Woods for this conversation.

Kate shares her story and also wonderful insights of how we can all celebrate differences in our teams at work, at play and at home.

About Kate Woods

Kate first became enthralled with the question of ‘why do people behave as they do?” as a teenager. This led to a lifetime of investigating topics in psychology, organisational behaviour, injury management and workplace rehabilitation, personality disorders, spirituality, and politics – all the while focusing on how systems operate.

Until COVID-19 hit and the resultant lockdown, without the need to ‘mask’ in daily life, triggered an understanding of some key differences about her interaction with the world. Suddenly a question - was the lifelong fascination with human behaviour in fact her brain’s way of solving for being born without the inbuilt social ‘rule book’? AHA! She followed the clues and was finally diagnosed with autism and ADHD at the age of 42.

Now she is living a life based on autistic ‘thriving’ - joining the ranks of many neurodivergent people promoting autism acceptance and working to address inequalities that affect autistic wellbeing and health outcomes.


  • In 2018, the ABS reported there were 205,200 people in Australia with an autism diagnosis. 1.3% of males and 0.4% in females.

  • Given the large numbers (particularly adults) who remain undiagnosed, true prevalence is likely to be considerably higher.

  • The numbers are up 217% over the last decade (far greater than for other disabilities). [1]

  • Girls and women are underdiagnosed. Current ABS figures reveal the estimated ratio of autistic boys and men to autistic girls and women is 3.5:1. This is likely a significant underestimate.

Autistic people face a huge gap in health outcomes:

  • International evidence reveals autistic people have a life expectancy of 20-36 years shorter than the general population.

  • A 2019 study found autistic people are more than twice as likely to die before turning 75 as the general population. This is largely due to the high incidence of mental health conditions.

  • Mental ill health impacts the majority of autistic people with between 50-70% of autistic people experience co-existing mental health conditions. Anxiety and depressive disorders are the most prevalent, particularly among autistic females.

  • Suicide is a major issue. A 2015 study found that adults with autism and no additional learning disability are over 9 times more likely (relative to a general population) to commit suicide. 66% of adults newly diagnosed with ASD contemplate suicide, compared to 17% of the general population, and 35% plan or attempt to end their lives.

Employment outcomes for autistic people are poor

  • In 2018 the ABS reported that unemployment among autistic people was a staggering 34.1% - more than three times the rate for all people with disability and almost eight times the rate of people without disability.

  • Labour force participation was just 38%, compared to all people with disability (53.4%) and less than half that of people without disability (84.1%).

Autistic people with intersecting disadvantages – those in low socio-economic households and neighbourhoods; with co-occurring disabilities; with low English proficiency; and those living in regional and remote communities face heightened risks of even poorer outcomes in health and employment.

Source: The Australian Autism Alliance Submission to the Senate Select Committee on Autism.

What IS autism?

Under the medical model, autism is defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes deficits in social interaction and communication, along with restricted and repetitive behaviours.

In the social model, autism is a different way of thinking. Another way, that is just as valid and valuable as the ‘norm.’

And autistic people are not disabled by our autism; we are disabled by our environment.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than a mere list of deficits and dysfunctions.”

“The idea of neurodiversity has inspired the creation of a rapidly growing civil rights movement, based on the simple idea that the most astute interpreters of autistic people themselves, rather than their parents or doctors.”

(Autistic people are discovering)…”that many of the challenges they face daily are not ‘symptoms’ of their autism, but hardships imposed by a society that refuses to make basic accommodations for people with cognitive disabilities as it does for people with physical disabilities… After seventy years of research on autism, why do we still know so little about it?”

Source: Steve Silberman. From his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

What is the autistic spectrum, really?

“Most, if not all, people have heard of the concept of the autistic spectrum…but very few people actually understand what it means. The autistic spectrum isn’t a continuum of less or more autistic on which we can plot individual people according to how severe their autistic traits are.

It’s more accurate to think of the autistic spectrum as something like a colour wheel where each radius-strand of colour represents a quality such as: ability to focus, ability to read body language, ability to spot patterns, abstract thinking, executive functioning, motor skills, propensity towards anxiety, social skills, and sensitivity to sensory stimuli, etc.

Most neurotypical people will have a fairly average distribution of segments across each of these aspects and have a relatively smooth or spherical profile.

What distinguishes autistic and other neurodivergent people from the neurotypical population is a greater variety in the distribution of these segments, and, therefore, a more spiky profile.

For example, to go with a common cliché, an autistic person may have an enhanced ability to spot patterns but a reduced ability to read body language. In other words, autistic people tend to be stronger than average in some areas, and weaker than average in other areas.”

Source: Oliver Downing.

What is the Double Empathy problem?

It means that autistic people might find it hard to understand people who are not autistic; and people who are not autistic might find it hard to understand autistic people.

Double empathy says that autistic people do have empathy. Many people think autistic people do not have empathy. Double empathy says that autistic people can show emotions, communicate, and make relationships in a different way to people who are not autistic.

People who are not autistic can help by understanding that autistic empathy is just as thoughtful, human and caring, but looks different.

Source: Reframing Autism.

Amazon container

Dave Finch, autistic co-host of the podcast Uniquely Human, has discussed the question of whether to disclose a diagnosis to others, saying this is like “a change in parameters once someone is aware of your diagnosis – like being placed into an Amazon shipping container.”

Autism Is Often Misunderstood By Workplaces and Their Employees: Let's talk about that...

Five benefits of autistic employees

  1. Integrity: we have an innate sense of fairness and justice

  2. Systems thinking: we look for patterns and automatically test ideas, looking for faults to resolve

  3. Tenacity: we often keep pushing forward until we’ve ‘solved’ an issue, long after others have given up

  4. Hyperfocus: when our work and our interests align, we are capable of deep concentration

  5. Straightforward: we say what we mean, and we mean what we say

Questions employers can ask neurodiverse employees:

  • Do you have any special interests and, if so, what are they?

  • What strengths do you display through your special interests?

  • What other strengths are you aware of?

  • What thing distresses you most?

  • What situations do you find most challenging?

  • What physical environment do you find most challenging?

  • Which strategies help you when you are anxious?

[1] Note: This has prompted some commentators to suggest that there is an ‘epidemic’ of autism, or that it is being ‘over-diagnosed.’ However, it is much more likely that an increase in autism awareness has led to greater numbers of people seeking a formal diagnosis.

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