Disclaimer: As the name suggests, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions that people can experience that may make it harder for them to adapt to and function within systems or structures that reinforce neurotypical normativity or neuronormativity, or the understandings that neurotypicality is predominant state of being and, moreover, that it is the only ‘normal,’ ‘natural’ or ‘valid’ way to be. But in truth, there is no right or normal way to be; instead, autism is just another part of the range of natural variation in human neurological development—and as such, even for those in the autistic community, there is no right or ‘normal’ way to exhibit autism. Thus, while this article aims to present the most helpful information to employers on how they can create a more autistic-friendly work environment, the author also would like to recognize that the needs of one’s specific neurodiverse workforce will vary and underscore that the best way to ensure that one’s environment adequately meets their needs would be to ask their workers directly.
“What a man can be, he must be.”
According to renowned American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, the highest level of human need that ultimately drives human behavior is the need to self-actualize, or the need to pursue and fulfill one’s true potential and realize one’s ‘ideal self.’ His Hierarchy of Needs Model places self-actualization as the final stage in the linear growth of an individual once key preceding needs are met—namely, physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem needs; attainable so long as people have the opportunity for personal and self-growth through the means of free will and determinism. It is through this ability to grow, explore and expound one’s innermost self, and self-actualize, he contends, that people are ultimately able to derive a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and thus a state of happiness and peace of mind. Without it, inevitably comes feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, and despair, and an array of negative consequences to the state of one’s health and overall wellbeing.
Unfortunately, the latter outcome is all-too-common among those in the autistic community, four in every five of whom are estimated to struggle with co-morbid mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and an estimated two-thirds of whom struggle with suicidal ideation—with a risk of suicide nine times greater than that among neurotypicals.1 New studies investigating those disparities posit that a greater likelihood of negative life experiences—chief among them unemployment and victimization—is largely to blame, contributing to autistic adults’ significantly lower levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem.2-3 In fact, the estimated unemployment rate for autistic individuals ranges anywhere from 70 to 90 percent, while over half of employers openly admit to their unwillingness to hire neurodivergent talent. As a direct consequence, upwards of 70 percent of autistic adults are believed to hide, camouflage, or “mask” their autism at work, in effect hiding who they are, and pretending to be someone they’re not—an experience that can no doubt have a damaging effect on a person’s psyche.
Such was the case for Katie Forbes, engagement producer, TEDx speaker, and founder of Autistic Flair, who ended up in the hospital after years of masking led her to contemplate suicide. “My only way to survive was to be like everybody else,” she said during her TEDx Talk. “I thought I’d learned to mask my autism to protect myself, but really, it was damaging my self-worth; teaching me the real me wasn’t good enough.”
Given the obvious consequences for doing so, why did Katie, like so many other members of the autistic community, feel the need to mask in the first place? Well, what Katie soon realized, just like many of her peers who have gone on to advocate for radical changes to the way we approach, understand, and accommodate autism, is that the cause of her difficulties wasn’t her autism, but her environment: “I didn’t hate that I was autistic. I didn’t hate that I was different. I hated the way others treated me because I was autistic and different. It took me 24 years to realize this; 24 years of hating myself. And why?”
Dr. Jac den Houting, autism researcher, psychologist, and activist, offers an explanation in their own TEDx Talk: the answer, in short, is how the medical world frames autism as a problem, subsequently shaping society’s understanding of autism to match that perspective.
“Most people understand autism through medical assumptions. They understand autism as a medical condition, a disorder, even as a tragedy. In the medical paradigm, we are taught to believe that there’s a correct way to develop neurologically; that there’s a right way for our brains to work—a normal way—and that any other way of developing is wrong and needs to be treated and fixed,” Houting explains, adding that the scope and focus of historical and ongoing research certainly doesn’t work to dispel such perceptions.
“The vast majority of research conceptualizes autism as a ‘problem,'” they contend. After conducting an extensive literature review of Australian studies on autism, they found that:
- 40 percent of funding in autism went to genetic and biological research: why are autistic people “the way they are? And is there a way to prevent it?”
- Another 20 percent went into investigating treatments: “Finding out if they can be made to act ‘a bit less weird.'”
- Only 7 percent of funding went to research investigating services to help autistic people.
Thus, under medical model to understanding and “solving” autism, Houting avers, “disability is assumed to be an individual problem; [the model] places disability within the disabled person.” But what the neurotypical and able-bodied community needs to understand—including educators, employers; peers and coworkers—is that conditions like autism do not hold people back, discrimination does. Instead of considering disability as something that disabled people carry around with them like luggage (per the analogy used by Houting), people instead need to think of ‘disabled’ as a verb: “I’m not disabled by my autism…I’m disabled by my environment,” Houting testifies. “[Disability] is something being done to me. I am actively being dis-abled by the society around me.”
In fact, plenty of studies have shown that social “deficits” commonly associated with autism—specifically, difficulty communicating and interacting with others—are really misconceptions or mutual miscommunications, as autistic researcher, Dr. Damian Milton, puts forth in his theory known as “the double empathy problem.” According to his theory, when two groups with very different life experiences interact with each other, they are likely to struggle to empathize with each other, a problem that is only exacerbated when one of their key differences is the way in which they use and comprehend language. But unlike what the medical model of autism or neuronormativity philosophize, neither one of these groups—in this case, the neurodivergent or neurotypical group—is “wrong” or “disordered” in how they communicate: they just don’t know how to communicate with the opposite group in a way that makes sense to them.
To demonstrate this, a recent study led by Dr. Catherine Crompton at the University of Edinburgh had three sample groups—one with all neurotypicals, another with all autistic people, and a combined third group—play a game of telephone. What they found is that the first two groups were equally accurate and clear in their peer-to-peer information sharing, while only the third group struggled. What this means is that the communication problem that exists between neurotypicals and autistic people isn’t due to any deficit among the latter group, but rather, a mismatch in communication styles that both groups must work together to resolve.
What this Means for Employers
All of that to say, when it comes to creating an accommodating and autistic-friendly workplace, employers first and foremost need to understand that the goal is not to “fix” or “solve” their autistic employees, or help them behave “a bit more normal,” (what is ‘normal’ anyway?) nor is it to fix or solve problems “created by” autistic employees and their “deficits.” Instead, creating a more inclusive work environment is about alleviating deficits in the workplace itself in terms of its ability to adequately support all employees and enable them to work at their best and reach their full potential.
In fact, when enabled by their environment, autistic professionals can be up to 140 percent more productive than the average employee; one of many stats that unequivocally refute the idea that autism in itself is a disability, and just one of the many benefits that neurodivergence brings to the workplace, including no less than enhanced problem-solving, greater attention-to-detail and quality of goods and services, higher engagement and creativity, and an improved financial performance.
Even so, neurodivergent workers—like all employees—are not machines to be bought and used at will; and especially for autistic employees, it needs to be said that they are not unfeeling automatons who lack empathy, as the stereotype goes. Thus, while the benefits of neurodiversity to the workplace are added perks, they’re not to be the motivation behind crafting a more accessible and inclusive workplace. Instead, the intent should be placed in fulfilling an employer’s duty of care—ensuring that they are safeguarded from harm, including self-harm from masking at work, harmful remarks or treatment from others (I.e. bullying, harassment, or violence) loss of dignity or respect due to discriminatory hiring practices, wrongful terminations, lack of opportunity for professional growth, and the driving factor behind each of those examples: paternalism.
That said, while the sections below are meant to provide leaders with a better understanding of the difficulties autistic employees may face in the workplace, and a better idea of what can be done to accommodate them, as voices of the #ActuallyAutistic movement on social media can explain (and often do), autistic workers are acutely aware of what their needs are, and, if respectfully prompted, would be more than happy to share what specifically they need from their employers.
Autism in the Workplace at a Glimpse
While every employee will come with his or her own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and preferences regarding what workplace or environmental conditions allow them to do their best work, there are some common work-related conditions or challenges that autistic employees are found to commonly struggle with, including:
Hypersensitivity or sensory overload to sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc. including:
- Fluorescent or LED overhead lighting
- Too much “background noise” from loud music, conversations, or movement
- Cold or hot temperatures; changes in temperature
Object permanence or constancy, including:
- Forgetting about a task if a physical marker of its existence is out of sight
- ‘Forgetting’ or not thinking about other people if they are not around or out of sight
- Struggling to believe that a relationship or their employment is still stable and intact in the face of conflict, setbacks, disagreements, or failures
Emotional dysregulation, including:
- Rejection sensitive dysphoria, in which an actual or perceived rejection causes an intense and painful emotional response.
- Alexithymia, in which a person struggles to experience, identify, and express emotions
Interpersonal or communication problems, including:
- Difficulty understanding office politics
- Difficulty understanding or mimicking behaviors
- Difficulty understanding tonality, or identifying intent of body language, or facial or linguistic expressions (sarcasm vs. sincerity; taking figurative language literally)
- Difficulty making or maintaining eye contact
- Difficulty listening or responding to people (especially if it is not made obvious that a person is speaking to them)
Structural challenges, including:
- Adherence or attachment to strict routines, rituals, schedules, or procedures
- Issues with time management or organization
- Intolerance toward change in routine, environment, or management
With these challenges in mind, it’s important to note that none of them are indicative of intellectual deficits; after all, autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition, not an intellectual, learning, or neurological disorder (In fact, an estimated two-thirds of autistic adults are said to have an average or above average IQ). That said, autistic employees’ need for accommodations is in no way a reflection of their ability to perform the essential functions of a job. On the contrary, when these workplace barriers are reduced, neurodivergent workers are shown to be just as skilled and effectual at their jobs as their neurotypical peers, boasting talents including:
- Extraordinary attention to detail
- Creative and innovative thinking
- Hyperfocus on niche or special interests
- A strong work ethic; as well as a strong moral compass
- Advanced technical abilities
Food for Thought: Reconsidering DEI
While a confident estimate may be harder to ascertain given the broad range of ways in which a person may exhibit signs of autism (with many showing no obvious signs whatsoever), current data suggests that more than one in 100 people around the world are somewhere on the spectrum; while upwards of 15 to 30 percent of the world’s population is said to be neurodiverse (with conditions like ADHD, OCD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, and others). With that said, this is not some small minority being “catered to,” but rather a sizeable portion of the workforce that deserves an accessible work environment.
A common shortcoming found across virtually every workplace it seems, is that most diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies, as they currently stand, are reactionary: “Last year was all about gender in leadership. This year the focus is on racial awareness,” or “I’ve been hiring a lot of Black talent, now I suppose I have to assess how well my workplace supports them.” Whether or not this thought process is intentional, it’s a real hindrance to true progress in the workplace. Thus, the question that employers really need to ask themselves is: “Do I really need to wait until a complaint is raised for me to act on a harmful or exclusive business practice? Do I really need to have a member of a marginalized community in my organization before I put in the effort to make my workplace more accessible to them?”
In fact, given that empirical research suggests that a considerable portion of the autistic population will go through life without a diagnosis, with many more deciding not to disclose for reasons not excluding fear of rejection or discrimination, it’s likely that many organizations have or currently employ autistic and neurodivergent talent without them knowing it—and will continue to do so in the future. So, for those who may be saying to themselves, “now is not the time,” or “this isn’t something I need to be concerned about,” the truth is: it is. And besides, given the exorbitant costs and added consequences that inaccessible or harmful workplaces could cause further down the road, doesn’t it make more sense to act now and save oneself the future headache?
Improving the Workplace: Getting Started
With that said, while the steps an organization will need to take to create a more inclusive and accommodating workplace will vary, there are some key (and simple) solutions that all organizations should adopt, starting with modifying the hiring and recruitment process.
The job application and interview process are major barriers for autistic individuals when it comes to securing employment. For one thing, empirical research has evidenced that for those who struggle with linguistic challenges like understanding figurative language, many will opt out of the application process if they do not meet every single requirement listed on a job posting. For those who do proceed with the application process, the next hurdle they have to overcome are unrealistic—and oftentimes irrelevant—expectations of the job interview, like being able to maintain eye contact or engage in small talk—both of which can be incredibly stressful for autistic individuals, and neither of which speak to how qualified a candidate is for the job. This can be incredibly frustrating for a pool of candidates who tend to be more in touch with their strengths (and weaknesses) compared to neurotypicals and are oftentimes ready and willing to demonstrate such strengths, if ever prompted, in order to land the job.
That said, many are now calling for employers to move away from the standard interview format when it comes to recruiting new talent. After all, as Dr. Ludmila Praslova, Director of Research and Professor with Graduate Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University—who is autistic herself—asks: “Why use an instrument that is a barrier to fair hiring, if replacing it with more valid selection mechanisms…will remove the unfair barrier for all applicants and help ensure you’re hiring the most qualified talent?” Some of the alternatives that she, along with other #ActuallyAutistic advocates, researchers, and colleagues offer include prioritizing work samples (which can be collected anonymously to prevent bias), job knowledge tests, and structured, job-relevant interviews. For those who wish to keep the interview, some alterations that can be made to it include having off-camera interviews or conducting in-person interviews in quiet spaces to reduce the disturbance of visible or audible distractions, sending interview questions in advance, and sticking to questions related to the job, and allowing candidates to show rather than tell when applicable.
Another fruitful way for employers to attract and retain new talent would be to demonstrate their willingness and commitment to offering accommodations during the recruitment process. Plenty of employers nowadays include a blurb about their commitment to hiring diverse talent somewhere on their application forms; but why should those with disabilities be willing to disclose if they cannot be sure that they won’t be wrongfully dismissed or discriminated against if hired for being disabled? By offering multiple opportunities for candidates to let the hiring manager know if an accommodation is needed ahead of the interview, and by engaging in conversations with candidates during the interview itself about what accommodations they may need in the workplace, employers can signal to prospective employees that theirs is a safe and inclusive environment.
Another shortcoming of too many employers’ DEI strategies is that ‘DEI’ seems to serve as a three-letter acronym for one single word: “diversity.” To some, just touting a diverse workforce makes them champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But the truth is, this diversity is not sustainable without policies, practices, and procedures in place that work to create a safe, inclusive, and equitable space for them. Employers may tend to shy away from the terms ‘inclusion’ and ‘equity’ because they’re scared it means they’ll have to turn their organization upside-down in the process of creating a workspace that works for everyone; but in reality, DEI strategies are no different than any other action an employer would take in order to retain talent.
That said, once autistic and neurodivergent employees have a fair and equitable way of getting their foot in the door, the focus then becomes: “What about the workplace needs to change to motivate them to stay?” As Praslova pointed out in a powerful article she penned to the Harvard Business Review: “when [autistic people] assimilate into systems that discriminate against us, [they] may unwittingly perpetuate discrimination.” This happens as a result of the misconception among too many employers that providing accommodations in the workplace is rooted in helping the recipient “fit in” at work, rather than helping the workplace better fit the needs of its employees.
This problem is only exacerbated when employers provide accommodations without explanations or modifications. This includes failing to explain to employees why a coworker may need accommodations or failing to disillusion them from the idea that accommodations are an unfair advantage. And then, of course, it includes providing an accommodation without looking into whether something about the workplace needs to be changed instead; for instance, if an employee claimed to be disturbed or distracted by noise in the office like loud music or conversations, is that employee alone in feeling disturbed, or perhaps is the loud music and conversation disrupting the entire workplace by undermining everyone’s attention, productivity, and performance?
Ultimately, however, when employers fail to examine why it is they’re providing accommodation or being asked for one, and fail to examine or correct their workforce’s attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions related to autism, neurodiversity, DEI, or accommodations, they inevitably fail to support their autistic employees. So long as stigma or stereotypes about autism prevail—namely, that they’re ‘weird’ or ‘different’ or need accommodations in order to ‘fit in’ and ‘be normal’ —autistic employees will continue to face discrimination (I.e. bullying or harassment, infantilization, missed opportunities for growth or promotion), will thus continue to mask at the expense of their wellbeing, will thus continue to face disproportionate rates of unemployment, and the vicious cycle will go on without end.
Improving the Workplace: How to Create Change that Lasts
In order to ensure that workplace accommodations are effective and that the overall work environment promotes neurodiversity, employers need to pay considerable attention to the culture of their workplace. This includes organizing and implementing mandatory disability or autism awareness training for all employees—and especially managers—to educate neurotypical staff on what neurodivergence is, what it isn’t, and promote their understanding and appreciation for their neurodivergent peers. This might also include sending regular emails with links to blogs or additional resources that highlight the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace or that spotlight and dispel some of the harmful stereotypes that persist about the community.
And like the #ActuallyAutistic movement calls for, equally important to organizing educational campaigns is to always include and amplify autistic voices when applicable. Especially as some in the community call for employers to get more explicit when calling out discrimination, harassment, or victimization—which includes de-validating people’s lived experiences, gaslighting, or infantilizing them—allowing autistic employees to share their own experiences (when comfortable) is a great way to restore and reinforce their own autonomy in the workplace.
To that point, another really important measure that employers can take to establish and maintain a benevolent workplace culture is to lead with empathy and compassion by asking questions and routinely engaging with employees to ensure that they all feel supported, safe, and validated. For instance, if a manager notices that an employee looks agitated or stressed, or perhaps is not getting as much work done as they normally would, rather than waiting for that employee to speak up, the manager should approach the employee and ask them what’s wrong and see if there is something that can be done. Likewise, if a manager knows ahead of time that an employee is at risk of being disturbed—such as if there is an upcoming fire or emergency drill with loud sirens, or a large presentation or conference—they should approach the employee ahead of time to see about arranging an accommodation.
Improving the Workplace: Ideas for Accommodations
While having those conversations with employees and establishing a work environment that gives autistic employees the confidence to speak up and ask for accommodations (or advocate for changes) as needed, there are still some simple and easy alterations that employers can adopt into their workplace. Some of the most common accommodations offered to autistic employees include:
- Creating quiet zones or quiet office spaces to accommodate employees who are hypersensitive or easily over-stimulated
- Allowing employees with noise sensitivities to wear noise-canceling headphones or earplugs
- Turning off overhead lighting or allowing employees who may be sensitive to bright lights to move or change seats with someone
- Establishing a structured daily routine, including fixed breaks and lunch times
- Outlining the day’s priorities ahead of time to help employees who struggle with time management
- Offering meeting agendas, topics, or questions in advance to help employees who struggle with social or formal interactions
- Providing clear, helpful, and thoughtful performance reviews that will not disturb employees with rejection hypersensitivity, but rather help employees discern how they can improve their performance and grow within the organization or profession
- Using digital tools like Slack or Teams that allow employees with such preferences to better collaborate with teams whether in-person or in a remote work setting
- Organizing affinity groups and mentorship programs to foster peer-to-peer connections and appreciation of each other’s similarities and differences
Ultimately, however, the best accommodations will include the adaptations or transformations that leaders undergo to better understand, empathize with, and support neurodivergent workers, such as respecting their self-determination and listening to and adhering to their preferences, playing to their strengths in a non-paternalistic way, acknowledging and celebrating the value of diversity in the workplace, and making the effort to think proactively about how the workplace can be more inclusive.
When employers embrace neurodiversity and work to change the status quo, they not only pave the way for better treatment and acceptance of autistic employees in the workplace, but also strengthen autistic employees’ treatment and acceptance of their own selves as well; helping them to see themselves as Katie does: “finally I could see that my routines aren’t weird: they helped me to be extremely organized and reliable. I’m not slow: I pay greater attention to detail. And I’m not obsessive: I’m determined, compassionate.”