What we learned from applying the ‘Square holes’ model

By Sam Buckley

2016 saw the release one of our most exciting and pertinent pieces of research in the form of Disability Consultant Daniel Wiles’ ‘Square holes for square pegs: current practice in employment and autism’ report. Setting out key principles for employing people with autism and properly harnessing their strengths, the report is based on research and first-hand testimonials from various organisations across the UK and abroad.


The panel, L-R: Helen Macfarlane, facilitating; Daniel Wiles, Jonathan Andrews, David Perkins, Michael Vermeersch and Christine Clacey

It was only right that when it came to sharing the research with our Members and Partners, at our event held at Microsoft in November 2016, that we applied the model to our own event.

Bringing together a panel from across various sectors, including Helen Macfarlane and Daniel Wiles of BDF, Jonathan Andrews of Reed Smith, Michael Vermeersch and Christine Clacey of Microsoft and David Perkins of AS Mentoring, the event saw us discuss the ‘Square holes’ model and the employment of people with autism in an open, relaxed environment.

Michael Vermeersch shared his own story of how he was embraced by Microsoft, and particularly how he worked together with colleagues to remove any barriers in communication.

For Michael, the importance of making adjustments in communication to accommodate all employees was encapsulated by the statement “if I can be myself, I can be at my best.”


Michael Vermeersch talked about the benefits of an inclusive culture at Microsoft

Jonathan Andrews of Reed Smith talked about how workplace environments could be adjusted to be more accessible.

David Perkins of AS Mentoring discussed how workplace structures could present barriers through presenting a range of unspoken rules around hierarchy and communication that may land employees with autism in trouble.

The focus on these particular areas within the broader area of employment and autism was reflected in our approach to planning the event.

We specifically applied pointers from ‘Square holes’ to make the event as accessible as possible for people with autism, using a series of discussions to understand how we could use the venue, structure of the event, written and verbal communication to create the best experience for all attendees.

This is in essence the same principle that we would use in making any BDF event inclusive and accessible, but this time we specifically used the findings of our research to inform the way we approached the task.

When it came to the venue, this meant avoiding the problems of over- or under-stimulation, distraction or anxiety that can come from many environments. Specifically, we ensured:

  • That the lighting was appropriate,
  • That a quiet area be designated for delegates to use if they needed a safe space,
  • That the environment was not affected by excessive noise: in particular we introduced hand waving rather than clapping to demonstrate applause

In our communications to promote the event and provide instructions for delegates we were also careful to ensure these were clear and precise, and flexible in terms of offering varying mediums for delegates to contact us about possible barriers and what adjustments they required.

All of this meant a key message for us was that making such adjustments when preparing an event like this yields real rewards for all. These preparations ensured that delegates were able to contribute in the fullest way to the event, which in turn led to fruitful discussion and a lot of learning points for attendees to take back to their organisations.

Recommended reading

One of the requests we had from delegates was for a list of further reading material around the neurodiverse conditions. The panel recommended:

S. Silberman, Neurotribes (2015):

“A great book for people who aren’t autism experts”. Jonathan Andrews

“Neurotribes is excellent. The author was originally a journalist for Wired magazine and became interested in autism when he recognised its prevalence in Silicon Valley. The book is a really good read, and presents a view of autism and Asperger’s that is simultaneously positive and realistic. It’s a book I cheerfully recommend to anybody who’s even take interested in the subject”. David Perkins

R. Simone, Asperger’s on the Job (2010):

“In terms of employment, a book that quite a few people have found helpful is Asperger’s on the Job, by Rudy Simone. Its must-have advice for people with Asperger’s or HFA and their employers, educators and advocates”. David Perkins

V.L. Gaus, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome (2007):

“A lot of the books I can recommend tend to be for people with autism, rather than about them. Cognitive-behavioural therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, by Valerie L Gaus, is superb – not just for the CBT, but for giving a really realistic picture of adult AS”. David Perkins

 J. Andrews, ed., Autism in the Workplace (2016):

“I edited a booklet for Ambitious about Autism which is the first piece to profile autistic people in employment via only case studies”. Jonathan Andrews

N. Higashida, The Reason I Jump (2014):

“It is not a book I would recommend as a first read… what it does phenomenally well is that it describes “features” of autism really well. As one might not have all or any of this, it would not be a good start I think. Plus starting from a FAQ on features/symptoms would probably also not be a brilliant start. Having said that, there were things in there that I said, “Yes, spot on”.” Michael Vermeersch

“That is a book I have also had recommended to me, have read and found useful”. Christine Clacey

T. Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2015):

“Tony Atwood’s books are quite old now and controversial (he believed autistic people couldn’t have creativity), they did lots to expand knowledge of autism at the time”.Jonathan Andrews

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