Self-employed Sharon is changing the future for autistic people
Image description: Sharon is smiling facing the camera, sitting in her red and black office chair. She is wearing a floral-patterned top.
Two years ago, at the age of 61, Sharon was diagnosed as autistic. Self-employed Sharon is a scientist, a founder and has a PhD; all of which didn’t come easily to Sharon.
An autism diagnosis at the age of 61
Dr Sharon Zivkovic is a scientist, a founder, a Chief Innovation Officer and a social entrepreneur who has worked with diverse community stakeholders on community capacity-building projects for over 20 years. Sharon is currently studying her 7th degree, a Masters in Autism, and is a “self-confessed workaholic”.
Sharon is autistic. She was only diagnosed as autistic two years ago, at the age of 61. In the words of Sharon, “autism is not linear, it’s a spectrum. We are all neurodiverse. Everyone’s brain functions differently. This is just part of human diversity. While we are all neurodiverse, there are patterns of brain functioning and development that are more common. People who have this more common brain type are considered to be neurotypical and people who do not are referred to as being neurodivergent.”
Sharon describes how neurodivergent people experience and interact with the world differently from neurotypical people. “They are often excluded because just about everything in the world has been designed and developed to cater to the needs of neurotypical people. My brain is neurodivergent, it works differently to the common brain type because I am autistic. This doesn’t mean that I have anything wrong with my brain,” shared Sharon.
Sharon says she always knew her brain worked differently, but because she had learned to adapt her lifestyle to her strengths and challenges over the years, she managed quite well. That was until a few years ago when injuries started to happen due to what Sharon describes as “no body awareness.”
Many autistic individuals have a lack of awareness of their body position and movement (proprioception) and internal body sensations and cues (interoception). Sharon was finding that as her body was ageing, her injuries from not positioning herself correctly or knocking into walls and furniture around her home, were having more serious consequences.
On a mission to change the way society thinks about autism
It was the early 1970’s and Sharon had stopped attending school regularly by the end of primary school and left school entirely by the time she was 14. It was a difficult time to be in the education system as an undiagnosed autistic.
After school, Sharon received welfare support from the Government for sixteen years and then went on to work in various two-year contracts. Sharon found the work difficult due to her monotropic thinking (where Sharon was very focused on her interests, which didn’t always align with the roles she was doing).
Sharon returned to high school in her late twenties, completing year 10. Today, Sharon is currently studying for her seventh degree, a Masters in Autism, and is a “self-confessed workaholic”. “I’m on a social mission changing how people think about autism,” shared Sharon.
Combining her lived experience as an autistic person, her research, work experience and her passions, Sharon is busy driving impact in the world of social enterprise and systems change. Sharon is the Founder and CEO of Community Capacity Builders, an autistic-led organisation that supports changemakers to achieve their desired outcomes and contribute towards addressing complex social policy problems through its programs, research and advocacy.
Sharon is also a Cofounder and Chief Innovation Officer at Wicked Lab. This neurodivergent led social enterprise reinvests 100% of profits back into research and development to build tools and resources that address wicked problems (i.e., complex social policy problems).
Sharon firmly believes that there could be greater impact achieved if we had people with lived experience leading change. This inspired the recent development of Community Capacity Builders’ Centre for Autistic Social Entrepreneurship, which aims to address the gap between inclusion policy and what is occurring in practice, by building the capacity of disability service providers, social enterprise support organisations, and business advisors.
“I’m getting people to transition to a new way of working with autistic people.”
– Dr Sharon Zivkovic.
Sharon is busy! She also has a book chapter in publishing stage in the US, presents at various conferences globally, and is currently developing programs focused on enhancing people’s understanding of autism, building awareness of the strengths of autism, and teaching neurodiversity-affirming practice.
“I’m getting people to transition to a new way of working with autistic people. I’ve developed a model for systems change,” said Sharon.
Some of the challenges Sharon was experiencing before reaching out to JobAccess
Sharon is a member of the “lost generation”, individuals who were not diagnosed as autistic when they were children , and as such, did not receive therapies to assist with body awareness when she was young.
This lack of awareness has resulted in an increasing occurrence of workplace injuries directly related to poor body positioning and movement and a lack of recognition of internal body cues and sensations.
Sharon finds support with JobAccess
It was time to do something about the injuries that she was experiencing in her home office. As a self-employed person who works from home, Sharon was delighted when she discovered that she was able to obtain tailored advice and support with workplace adjustments through JobAccess.
JobAccess helped Sharon organise an Occupational Therapist who took Sharon through various tests to understand the causes of her injuries and suggested adjustments to her work environment to reduce her injuries.
JobAccess also supported Sharon with purchasing a chair, which would assist her with body positioning. These supports were funded by the Australian Government’s Employment Assistance Fund, managed and delivered by JobAccess.
“I’m so glad to have found JobAccess, not only for me but also to have found support for other autistic social entrepreneurs”
– Dr Sharon Zivkovic
On a personal level, Sharon considers the best part of working with JobAccess is that she has been able to address the underpinning causes of her workplace injuries. At a broader autistic community level, Sharon is delighted to be able to share with other autistic social entrepreneurs the opportunity to access support through JobAccess.
“The support from JobAccess was really good, but when I compare it to other processes, it was great. I’m so glad to have found JobAccess, not only for me but also to have found support for other autistic social entrepreneurs. I’ve got the most wonderful life as I can control my work environment, why can’t other Autistic people have this life?” said Sharon.
Sharon is very grateful for the support she has received through JobAccess, as she now has a better understanding of her body awareness challenges and strategies to prevent further workplace injuries.
What motivates Sharon to do the work she does?
In Australia, the unemployment rate for autistic individuals is 34.1 per cent, more than three times the rate for people with disability. Autistic individuals also have the poorest participation and outcome rates at university than for all other disabilities.
Even if an autistic individual completes a university degree, less than half of autistic individuals with a university degree gain employment and those that do often work in low-paid jobs that do not use their skills.
“For autistic social entrepreneurs to thrive, we need to bring together the lived experience of the autistic community, service providers and social enterprise support organisations,” said Sharon.
There are benefits of having an autistic brain for social entrepreneurship. “Like many autistic individuals, my thinking is monotropic. Monotropic thinking is the tendency to focus on one or a narrow number of interests with a high level of concentration. Autistic individuals see patterns amongst all the detailed facts that we have on a topic, and we can creatively develop new concepts and knowledge,” said Sharon.
Sharon is motivated to connect autistic individuals with work, particularly organisations doing work for social good, that are owned and led by autistic individuals. “We are pigeonholing people into one type of job,” shared Sharon.
In good news, last year, the Australian Senate Select Committee on Autism Inquiry recognised supporting autistic-owned and led social enterprises as an approach to addressing the high levels of autistic unemployment.
What does Sharon enjoy most about her role?
“I get to work in a way that matches my brain.”
– Dr Sharon Zivkovic
Sharon is very pleased that she gets to work with her strengths and, in her way, not trying to fit into a neurotypical world.
“I get to work in a way that matches my brain. If I have to force myself to fit into a neurotypical world, I am exhausted. The best part of my work is being able to work with my strengths. I have difficulty reading information, but I can mine text for concepts and see patterns. I get to create and innovate; I’ve got the freedom to do that.”
Sharon’s focus is on impact. She seeks out the projects and work opportunities that have the most potential for change for autistic people. “If it’s impactful, I’m there,” shared Sharon.
Sharon is truly changing the future for autistic people in the workplace.
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