One of the many challenges facing autistic people in the workplace is the very fact that the condition they have is referred to as a spectrum, and each individual falls somewhere along with it. This is a problem for two main reasons: firstly, it means that each person will have their own autistic traits that need to be accommodated to create successful employment, and secondly, it means that they are constantly fighting against built-in prejudices and stereotypes from the rest of the workforce. To truly get the most out of hiring an autistic employee, businesses need to address both the accommodations and the stereotypes.
Unlike other mental health conditions, autism covers a wide range of mental capacities (hence the term spectrum). There is an old adage that says once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. What this means is that each autistic person is unique, and just because they have a diagnosis of autism doesn’t mean that employers can skip the getting to know the piece.
The autism spectrum covers a wide range of traits and behaviors and the common parlance for the range talks about an individual’s functioning ability ranging from low to high. Many low-functioning autistic people are able to perform simpler jobs, often with one on one support to help them navigate the workplace and to do meaningful work. Higher functioning autistic workers may not even have an official diagnosis and have simply learned a multitude of coping strategies to be at work. They are the group who get most offended when their neurotypical peers refer to themselves as “a little bit autistic” as they don’t recognize the work and effort that they go through to cope with each day.
Workers with high-functioning autism are unlikely to wear a big badge laying out their diagnosis, and many have learned to keep their diagnosis a secret due to the negative reactions they sometimes get. They also bring a lot of positive traits to the workforce:
A new way of seeing things - it’s a universally recognized truth that autistic people view the world in a different lens than their neurotypical peers. In the workplace, this often helps them see solutions to existing problems, or come up with creative ways of streamlining systems and processes. They may need help communicating these new insights to their peers, but this is a small burden to bear to help the overall company improve.
Excellent ability to concentrate - another hallmark of high-functioning autistic employees is that they are able to control their incredible levels of concentration and focus. In their spare time, this effort may be spent on researching and investigating their current fascination, but they are able to turn it towards whatever task they are being asked to perform.
Avoidance of gossip - even though they may be classified as high-functioning, most autistic employees still find it hard to understand the nuances of social interactions. Higher functioning autistic people will have learned coping strategies over the years, but it still makes them wary of non-work-related conversations. This means that they are much less likely to get involved in office gossip and politics which will move everyone towards a healthier working environment.
Employers of high-functioning autistic workers will need to make some accommodations to help them be as successful as possible. For the employee, this includes truly taking the time to get to know the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and having honest conversations about what they need to be successful. This might be finding ways to reduce sensory stimulation throughout the day, covet checklists for non-routine tasks or help to prepare for group meetings.
Employers will also need to work alongside existing staff to help them become more inclusive and accepting of their autistic colleagues. This may look like staff