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Dame Stephanie Shirley on changing attitudes to autism in the workplace

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Technology entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley has donated substantial sums of her considerable wealth from the sale of her software business Freelance Programmers towards autism research charities.

It’s a subject very close to her heart: Dame Stephanie’s late son Giles had a severe form of the condition. Her charitable Shirley Foundation awarded more than £50m ($63.3m) in grants to support more than 100 projects, including those devoted to scientific research into autism spectrum disorders, since it was founded in 1996.

Dame Stephanie now describes herself as a “venture philanthropist,” who helps get such projects off the ground. (The Shirley Foundation closed at the end of 2018, with all remaining funds transferred to the UK autism research charity Autistica.)

Speaking on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Dame Stephanie said autism “used to be considered as a psychological problem.”

“It’s now known to be a brain disorder — 80% genetic, 20% still unknown,” she added.

Watch the full Dame Stephanie Shirley Global Change Agents interview here

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley. Photo: Getty Images

Society’s attitude to autism has changed over the years, Dame Stephanie said.

“We are beginning to view people with autism for what they can do, for the skills that they have rather than ‘he can’t do this, she can’t do that’,” she said. “That means that we are really looking at people with autism as an important part of our community and are benefiting from the changes that they can suggest.”

As an example, she described an autism research project she had recently worked on.

“The chairman, and I, and the chief executive had spent ages working on the agenda for something, then somebody with autism came in and said, ‘but you’ve forgotten so-and-so’,” said Dame Stephanie. “And indeed we had. They had focused on things in a completely different way and came out with very valuable solutions.”

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.