Guest post by Yolande Loftus, BA, LLB.
Even the world’s most outgoing social butterfly probably hates job interviews. The awkwardness of tooting your own horn to impress a watchful stranger is stressful on many levels. For many on the spectrum, a slightly awkward social interaction would most likely constitute a best case scenario when seeking employment. If maintaining eye gaze feels physically painful, if social cues are confusing, and if an unpredictable sensory environment induces anxiety, the very first step in gaining employment may seem insurmountable.
This could be part of the reason why unemployment rates in capable working-age adults may be up to 83%. For most of us, a job means independence, it provides a sense of purpose and belonging; a job and workplace aligned to our skills and strengths may even make us feel valued, seen, and connected to a like-minded community.
Increasing access to employment may help reduce poor mental health in adults on the spectrum, but once an autistic person defies the unfair odds and enters the workplace, they need appropriate support and an inclusive environment to function optimally.
Answering questions about navigating the workplace for young adults on the spectrum, neurodivergence advocate Kelly Grainger, from Perfectly Autistic, provided me with inside information. He spoke with me for the Autism Parenting Summit about the uncertainties and unpredictability of the social sphere of the workplace, where each new day brings diverse circumstances and fresh challenges. Work can quickly become a difficult environment for a mind with a preference for structure and sameness.
Kelly also mentioned trivial aspects of work that could lead to major issues and conflict when employers do not accommodate neurodiversity. A good example is the introductory niceties most neurotypical employees include in emails without much thought. Conversely, many on the spectrum like to get to the point straight away. They may not see a need for enquiring how a colleague is doing every single day. This may lead to being perceived as rude, but to some employees, getting their job done and getting straight to the point, may very well be the point of work!
A heartbreaking TikTok video of an employee who resorted to putting up a sign explaining how autistic people communicate differently made viral waves. Apparently the sign was made in response to facing disciplinary action for being a “bad communicator.” Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by socio-communication difficulties. Struggling with social interaction is not a choice, being “bad” at communication is not an act of rudeness or defiance.
While the term disability is controversial when used to describe autism, it does speak to the need for workplace accommodations and support. Autistic individuals are not being particular when they ask for a quiet workspace or detailed instructions. They should be treated with the same consideration as a person with a visible disability.
The (practical) path to inclusivity
Many companies and organizations would benefit from the strengths of the autistic mind: razor sharp focus when specializing in a field of interest, hyper-systemizing, attention to detail, honesty, and loyalty are only some of the more common examples.
Interestingly, according to Prof. Baron-Cohen’s book The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention, a brain geared to hyper-systemizing (many autistic people possess this “brain type”) may possess pattern-seeking ability driving human invention. These and other strengths could mean specific jobs, requiring a particular skill-set, are especially suitable for autistic people.
But to utilize such incredible strengths, neurodivergent individuals should feel safe to apply and interview for jobs where their unique approach to work will be accepted and appreciated. Prof. Baron-Cohen provides a great example of an autism-friendly interview in his book: Thorkil Sonne (Founder of Specialisterne) would, for example, ask applicants to build and program Lego robots to showcase strengths like problem solving. This approach focuses on autistic strengths rather than areas of challenge — a traditional interview is a stressful social interaction which clearly does not play to the many neurodivergent areas of strength.
Tips for supporting autistic employees in the workplace
Once an autistic employee is hired, some of the following may help them feel included, accepted, and safe:
- Transitions are tricky, adjusting to a new job is difficult for everyone. For autistic people, it may be more intense and more time may be needed to adjust to the overwhelming world of work.
- Sensory and other needs should be taken into consideration; adjustment of workstations or offices for neurodivergent individuals may be necessary. Ticking clocks, chatty colleagues, and pinging phones kill concentration; more worryingly, being bombarded with stimuli all day long may lead to meltdowns. Often small accommodations, like making noise-canceling headphones part of company culture, go a long way to making neurodivergent individuals feel included.
- Communication is almost always better received and understood when it is simple, concise, and clear.
- Many autistic individuals thrive when they are allowed to pursue their interests, or do their job without feeling like they have to mask their autism. Employees should feel safe declining lunch with colleagues to get on with work or to go for a walk. Autistic individuals should not feel shame when stimming or when solitude is needed to self-regulate.
- Flexibility is very important; some autistic individuals produce great work in the comfort of their home where they are in control of the environment. Others may prefer the structure and routine of going to work everyday. The spectrum is wide; each individual should be accommodated so that weaknesses are supported and strengths are highlighted.
According to Autism Parenting Magazine’s HR Manager Carole Laubscher, open and honest conversations about neurodivergence in the workplace should be prioritized: “It’s important that colleagues are not ignorant of neurodiversity. Speak to them about people’s differences, ensure they understand how to support their neurodivergent colleagues and know how to make them feel welcome, appreciated, and accepted. Include everyone in these chats, so it doesn’t become an ‘us and them’ situation.”
We are only beginning the process of defining autism in terms of strengths in lieu of a fixed focus on deficits and impairments. An inclusive workplace where differently wired minds can bring fresh perspectives to society’s seemingly unsolvable problems will benefit everyone: providing purpose for talented but excluded individuals who deserve to feel valued, connected and seen, and perhaps, according to Prof. Baron-Cohen, when given the right environment may be the drivers of invention!
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