Your place of work is diverse. You’ve got C-level executives, VPs, and top-level managers who are women, who are of diverse racial and religious backgrounds, who are from the LGBTQ+ community, who are in wheelchairs or otherwise physically disabled. If this is indeed the case, I applaud you. Fortunately, there are more and more companies embracing diversity. Unfortunately, there are still too few. That your company is more inclusive than most is laudable. So, let me ask you this question: how many people do you have at your company who are neurodiverse: who are autistic, have ADHD, are dyslexic? Chances are, you don’t really know. And that’s cool, that’s really what I expected. That’s also why I’m writing this article. Neurodiversity is often less visible than other disabilities. Also, it is often more stigmatized.
Embracing any kind of diversity, neurodiversity included, starts with one fundamental first step. Awareness. The logic is simple: if you don’t know there’s an opportunity, you can’t take advantage of it, right? Being aware of neurodiversity — of the broad range of cognitive styles, different ways in which our brains are wired — opens the door to opportunities you didn’t even know were there.
Awareness Leads to Opportunity
First, what about your existing employees who may have differently wired brains. With the CDC estimating one child in 68 being diagnosed with some form of autism in the US, and dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia showing even higher rates of prevalence, even a medium-sized business is statistically likely to currently employ people who are not neurotypical. There’s your first opportunity: to get more out of people already working for you, to help them lead more fulfilling lives.
Then there is the talent pool of autistic people out there, a talent pool that is waiting to be tapped. If you’re not aware of what people on the spectrum can bring to your organization, you’re missing out, allowing a competitor to get a jump on you. Note that I will focus on autism in this article because that’s where my experience lies. Know, however, that the same principles apply to all facets of neurodiversity.
There is a talent pool of autistic people out there
The first step in the awareness that will allow you to take advantage of these opportunities is to switch the focus from disability to ability. Yeah, you’ve probably heard that before, but it’s critical. It’s really the same as any opportunity: you have a choice of either focusing on what could go wrong or you could focus on what could go right. When riding a motorcycle, you tend to turn in the direction you’re looking. It’s no different with opportunity: know the hazards of the road, but focus on where you want to go. That’s how you get there.
It must be remembered that the neurodiverse, just like the rest of the population, are ourselves a diverse bunch. Not all are going to have the same combination of characteristics nor are they likely to have the same degree of any particular characteristic. What I offer are guidelines that can help define a strategy for accommodation. A key point to remember is that you are not trying to shoehorn anyone into a prefabricated notion of “the appropriate autistic role”. Each individual brings their own strengths to the equation, so to have them at their best it’s important to keep in mind that we are making modifications to the workplace, not trying to modify the worker.
As many technology companies are starting to recognize, autistic people can be very good at recognizing patterns — and, often more importantly, deviations from a given pattern. This makes many autistic people good candidates for software testing and QA. During my twenty years as a software engineer I have worked with some extremely talented developers who are autistic. Similarly, many autistic people have very good memories. More subtly, but often more importantly, increasing neurodiversity also increases the diversity of creativity and innovation: the “box”, outside which most people struggle to think, has a different shape, a different placement, for those of us who aren’t neurotypical.
We neurodiverse are ourselves a diverse bunch
Another advantage of many autistic people is a deep appreciation for consistency. This certainly ties into the software testing domain, but also extends to many other areas where tasks are repetitive. Some examples are data entry, filing and such; warehouse work like stocking, packing, and sorting; set-up and tear-down; maintenance work. Those of us on the spectrum tend to be at ease with following precise instructions, being punctual (coming and going), sticking to the rules. Largely because of this sort of approach, autistic people also tend to be at least as safe in a work environment as neurotypical workers.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not, by any means, advocating the hiring of autistic people to do low-paying grunt work. Each individual should be assessed on their own, particular merits. This is why the phrase bears repeating: think in terms of ability (individual talents) not disability (e.g. autistic).
What about market penetration? The disabled community constitutes a sizable market — one that you can better penetrate if you are seen as part of that community. What’s more, there’s positive PR in diversity and inclusion. Again: exploitation is not the goal here. The goal is to recognize the strengths of autistic employees and the value that they can bring to your enterprise. But first value the employee.
And what better to value about an employee than loyalty and honesty? Again, no generalization is going to be true in every case, but, by and large, those of us on the spectrum tend to be a straight-up bunch. We’ve usually got a pretty strong sense of fairness, of right and wrong. So right there, by considering autistic candidates, you are building in a higher probability for dependability, dedication, and — if the culture is one of inclusion and compassion — engagement. And what better way to build company-wide morale and engagement than by starting with better engagement? Now, remember: I did say honesty. Don’t be surprised if one of us tells you exactly what we think of the proposal. And don’t get upset, either: you might actually learn something that would improve the proposal.
Again, the important thing is awareness. If you and your staff are aware that people on the spectrum tend to be honest and have lower filters than others, then there’s no reason to be surprised or to take offense when the honesty comes. And, as suggested above, you can appreciate it for what it is: an attempt to improve the idea being discussed. The frank and forthright manner in which we auties (autistic people) sometimes share our honest perspective can — and has many times (as I know well) — been taken for rudeness. But it’s not, not in an intentional way. Our focus is usually laser-targeted on what we perceive to be the reason for the meeting. We are much more concerned, for example, with the quality of the product or the efficacy of the marketing campaign than we are in putting glitter on what we honestly intend as constructive criticism.
Do what you always do when faced with an opportunity: prepare.
We autistics have other quirks that you should be aware of. We tend to take things literally, at face value. How literally depends on the individual and their life experience. When our middle son (also on the spectrum) was four years old, he thought that people in black and white photographs could only see in black and white. For him, because photography directly reproduces reality, the advent of color photography merely revealed the beginning of humans being able to see in color. What could be more logical? For me and many others, it’s more a case of sometimes being thrown off by vagaries or imprecision.
So how do you make all of this work? You’re now aware you may already have neurodiverse employees. You now know that you know hiring people on the spectrum can be beneficial to your business. You also know that we work differently than most people. Now what do you do? You do what you always do when faced with an opportunity. You prepare.
Preparing to Make the Most Out of Neurodiverse Opportunities
Prepare your hiring process by becoming more autism-friendly. Consider virtual interviews. Don’t negatively judge a lack of eye contact. Don’t ask vague, open-ended questions like, “What can you bring to the table?”, but instead ask the candidate something more concrete, such as to describe how they have added value to projects they’ve worked on in the past. If you set tests for your candidates, consider allowing them to sit the test at home. Tests are common with software engineering jobs and they scare me to death. The pressure of performing on the spot like that drives my anxiety through the roof and limits my cognitive flexibility (read: I don’t do well in those situations). Knowing this about myself and not wanting to subject anyone else to the same pressure, I wrote a test for candidate developers that was more involved than most tests but I also let them take it home and I gave no time limit. In fact, the amount of time a candidate told me they spent on the test was itself information. And how often — and how well — do our employees do their work with us standing (even virtually) over their shoulders? I think it’s more useful to test the candidate’s ability to get the work done using the same resources they’d have available if in the position they’re applying for, not how much they can pull out of a hat on demand.
Prepare your hiring process by becoming more autism-friendly
As part of your onboarding process, make sure your policies and your employee handbook if you have one (and you should) are clearly written, not vague, not informed by assumptions. It’s the same with job descriptions. Write them so that they truly are clear and cogent descriptions of the expected duties of the role. If appropriate, consider even having a visual list of a position’s duties, as many autistic people are highly visual thinkers. Ensure that your policies address bullying, for no amount of awareness training is going to reach all people equally. Ensure that you have a policy of continuous, open feedback, allowing whatever medium of communication an employee is most comfortable with. And this, of course, includes all employees. Also, the feedback should be bi-directional — as well as being constructive and free of judgment, irony, and sarcasm.
In order to make onboarding is as successful as possible, the culture at your place of work should already be open to neurodiversity. That starts with training for all employees, including for all new employees. To be perfectly honest, none of this is going to work without buy-in from at least one C-level executive, so awareness education starts with the inception and approval of a program for neurodiversity inclusion. Then bring in the top-level managers, hiring managers, and recruiters. Ideally, all your people will have had awareness education. Not only will new hires who are on the spectrum feel welcome (helping to lock in that loyalty and engagement) but for those neurodiverse employees who have, until now, remained hidden, you will have provided and environment that invites them to feel more relaxed and comfortable being at work (and thus more productive) — even if they chose to continue to keep their neurodiversity to themselves.
ERGs can offer constructive feedback on how to improve engagement company wide
Many companies these days have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that allow people who share a certain experience to get together and discuss the things that bring them together. Some examples of groups include women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, cultural or religious groups — as well as the neurodiverse. ERGs can be safe forums in which people with shared experiences can talk openly about those experiences. This can allow the groups to offer constructive feedback on how to improve engagement within the company. Remember that any ERG is made up of in-house experts on their own community, for they are the community. Don’t underestimate the value of that.
Be careful, however, not to cast all ERG get-togethers as social gatherings. A good many of us auties are not at our best in social situations. Sometimes it’s social anxiety, sometimes it’s that we think of work as work, and an added social element seems superfluous. Again, don’t judge, understand. If socializing isn’t our strong suit, don’t force it. Allow the neurodiversity ERG to be run first and foremost by those who are part of the neurodiverse community. And allow the ERG to be run in a staid, business-like manner if that’s what your neurodiverse employees want. Also remember that no ERG is going to be fruitful if the company’s culture doesn’t already show itself to be open to diversity — and a diversity of diversity at that.
Managers will get the best out of their autistic employees if they remember to respect our appreciation for consistency. Try not to change meeting times at the last minute, or switch around someone’s shift with too little notice. Don’t suddenly change someone’s duties. Instead, prepare your employee with a clear, complete list of new responsibilities and a date when the switch will happen. Ideally get their buy-in first. Last-minute changes, while perhaps convenient for you, can really throw an autistic employee off. Any employee is less productive if stressed or anxious, so be aware of what can make your autistic employees stressed and anxious.
As you should with all your people, have regular check-ins with your autistic employees, say fifteen minutes every other week. Give clear, constructive feedback that is aimed to have a positive impact on the employee’s performance rather than just to show them where they went wrong. That’s just good people management in the first place. And, again, allow for feedback to come to you, verbally, written, voicemail, anonymous — however the employee will feel most comfortable giving feedback. It’s the same with meetings. Don’t force meeting participation in real time. Allow feedback to come by email, IM, whatever, up to, say, an hour after the meeting ends. What a participant may have felt anxious about sharing with the group might just be the best suggestion offered. And don’t forget you’ll likely get some honest responses. Lower the ego and appreciate the honesty.
Autistic people can make highly dependable remote workers
Because noise, chaos, bright (and especially fluorescent) lights can be distracting and stressful for those of us on the spectrum, have another look at your workstation set-up to see if you can have a quiet area, or an area free of glare. Perhaps have a quiet room where employees — all employees — can go to recharge when then feel overloaded. Consider flex time and work-from-home arrangements. Don’t scoff. Remember the honesty and consistency stuff? I worked remotely for ten years straight for one single company. Autistic people can make highly dependable remote workers.
Often, those of us on the spectrum can get really absorbed in what we’re doing. That can be a real advantage when the software release is tomorrow or the report is due that night, but it can also make task switching more difficult. Encourage the employee to set reminders for themselves. Give a warning if you’re the one about to instigate the switch.
Consider having advocates and mentors, perhaps as a company-wide effort to improve engagement. Have a go-to person in HR for initiatives and issues relating to neurodiversity. Having someone on point — ideally (really: crucially) someone who is themselves neurodiverse — will allow your neurodiverse employees a clear and simple process for giving feedback. Keeping that line of communication open it essential. Also have non-HR, peer advocates or mentors. If they are also neurodiverse, wonderful, but if your organization isn’t big enough for that, someone with compassion (and awareness training) can really help someone who is, say, autistic, navigate an unfamiliar system.
Okay, I hinted at this in the above paragraph, but let’s be honest about this. If you’re really serious about being inclusive, make sure your inclusion is itself inclusive. Make sure, that in the development, implementation, and maintenance of your diversity initiative, you have people who are part of the diverse communities to whom you are opening your doors. If you have to start with a consultant, so be it. But as soon as you can get your neurodiverse employees involved. Not only will it show your integrity to your shareholders and customer base, it will prove your integrity to those who matter most. Your employees. All your employees.
If you’re really serious about being inclusive, make sure your inclusion is itself inclusive
Assistive technology can bring significant gains. It could be time-management software for people with ADHD or who are autistic, screen filters for those who have a sensitivity to an intensity or frequency of light, allowing or providing noise-canceling headphones for people sensitive to distracting or confusing noises. Each person is different. Find out, either as part of onboarding or through the dedicated HR neurodiversity advocate, what each employee reasonably feels they need to work more efficiently. All you’re doing is providing the tools that will make your workforce more productive. That’s good business.
And I’m not talking about accommodating only your neurodiverse employees. Now, of course you don’t want to start a free-for-all, but the best way to avoid that is by including a module on accommodations in your training, so that everyone understands the reasons for and the benefits of accommodations. You can thereby minimize any complaints about perceived special treatment: not only will everyone have access to appropriate accommodations, everyone will also understand that accommodations are only appropriate when they are required to enhance the quality of an employee’s working life. Accommodations for the disabled are there not as a special favor but in order to help their level of productivity and job satisfaction up to the level of a neurotypical with no accommodations.
Adopting accommodations that are appropriate for your employees benefits everyone. Not only will engagement be higher overall, an accommodated employee is going to be less stressed and anxious, which in turn improves performance and even reduces sick days. If there’s no space, physically or culturally, for employees to regenerate at while at work, absences that allow them to regenerate away from work are inevitable. Also, a stressed autistic employee may show cognitive inflexibility or anxiety, which means your not getting the best out of them, and nor are they feeling relaxed and fulfilled.
Every employee is an investment. And every one of your employees is investing in you. Give your employees the tools they need to reach their full potential and their investment in you will grow as well. It’s a win-win situation. Start with awareness, for that’s what leads to opportunity.
An autistic self-advocate and Neurodiversity Ambassador, Robert Watkins is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on http://autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. Robert, on the board of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, lives in Atlanta with his Aspie wife, two Aspie and two neurotypical teenagers, and their cat.