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April 04, 2022

Building a Workplace Where Autistic Employees Can Flourish

7 minute read

Workplace Wellbeing

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Jess Maynard avatar

Jess Maynard

8-minute read

As we collectively rethink the place of work in our lives, and begin to imagine new ways of being in the world, it’s essential for our workplaces to continue evolving as well. 

To make space for a wider range of human experience, it’s critical for these conversations to focus on creating work spaces that allow for a diversity of perspectives and ways of perceiving and moving through the world. 

This includes neurodiversity, which Harvard Medical School defines as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”

Understanding the perspective of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) falls under the wider umbrella of creating space for neurodiversity in the workplace.

Although many autistic adults are fully capable of working, and have unique skill sets that provide value to companies or organizations, recent data shows that only 22% of autistic adults are employed. Many experience autism discrimination at work, in addition to a wide range of other challenges. 

Employers need to know how to support autistic employees, accommodate their unique needs, and ultimately build a workplace where they too can thrive.

Understanding autism

According to the CDC, autism spectrum dysfunction is a neuro-behavioral condition that affects about 1% of the world’s population. It is understood by the medical community to be caused by a complex array of factors, including genetics and environment. 

The word “spectrum” in the diagnosis signifies that autism can manifest in people through a variety of behavioral and developmental traits. Autistic people often perceive both the sensory world and human interaction differently from those who are not on the spectrum—although all brains process information in unique ways. 

There are several baseline symptoms that exist in most autistic individuals on the spectrum. These are often labeled as challenges or barriers, but on a more fundamental level, they are ways of experiencing, interacting, and perceiving the world differently. 

Challenges around these symptoms often arise because we collectively have such narrow social norms for how humans should behave and communicate. This is doubly true within the workplace. 

3 workplace challenges autistic people face

Autistic people may need support at work in these three areas. 

Social interaction

  • Communication difficulties, both verbal and nonverbal
  • Understanding what the other person is conveying in conversation (hidden meanings, reading between the lines)
  • Bluntness and being unaware of how words will affect the other person
  • May not respond when spoken to, and may not make eye contact
  • May take figurative language literally

Oversensitivity or insensitivity to stimuli

  • Including sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch
  • Autistic people may hear a lot of “background noise” during conversation, and have difficulty focusing on one thing when a lot of stimuli is involved

Engaging in repetitive behavior

  • “Lower-order” behaviors may include stimming movements: hand-flapping, fidgeting, rocking back and forth, and repeated vocalizations
  • “Higher-order” repetitive behavior may involve adherence to rigid routines and rituals

In the following sections, we’ll talk about how to better support neurodiversity in general, and autistic people specifically, in the workplace. 

Barriers and benefits of neurodiversity 

There are a variety of reasons so many autistic adults are unemployed. 

Autistic people may assume there’s no point in applying for jobs, or become frustrated with typical interview processes that highlight nuanced verbal communication, eye contact, and broad, non-specific questions. 

Along with that initial barrier to entry, workplace environments are often not conducive to neurodiversity in general, or set up to allow autistic and other neurodivergent folks to thrive. 

Creating an environment that’s adaptive to different ways of experiencing and interacting with others is helpful to a range of people who aren’t good with social interaction and communication, yet bring an array of other skills and value to an organization. 

A unique skill set for your organization

Autistic people often have an aptitude for work that makes them a valuable addition to any organization. 

Many employers who have hired neurodivergent and autistic employees note how different ways of processing information allow for intense attention to detail, pattern detection, excellent coding and data driven processing skills, and the ability for inferential thinking.

When we begin to create spaces where diverse ways of thinking and diverse sets of abilities flourish, innovative thinking becomes the norm. Anytime two minds are in communication, there’s a wider range of possibilities for what they might create. 

When you build a workplace where a diversity of minds are networking together, there’s an even higher probability of outside-the-box thinking and innovation. 

There’s more than one way to exist in the world, and fostering environments where neurodiversity is supported and championed generates mutual benefits to both employees and employers. 

How can HR leaders support autistic employees? 

Now that we’ve explored the challenges and benefits of encouraging and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, let’s take a look at three main areas of change required to create an environment where employees on the spectrum can thrive. 

These include pre-hiring initiatives to attract more autistic employees, changes to interview processes that pose barriers to neurodivergent candidates, and creating more supportive work environments for post-hiring retention.

Hiring initiatives

The first step in this process involves recruiting autistic candidates to apply. Businesses and organizations that form partnerships with nonprofits, disability-focused advocacy groups, and government organizations will likely see more successful hiring initiatives and recruitment. 

Forming relational networks with groups who are led by and advocate for neurodivergent people in the workplace is a key step to hiring neurodivergent employees. 

A related issue is job posting verbiage, which is an easy fix. HR leaders can help craft job description language that is specific, skill focused, and makes it clear that neurodiversity is both welcome and encouraged within the organization.

The interview

The next step in the hiring process is one of the main barriers for neurodivergent people seeking to join the workforce: the interview. 

Interviews generally feature a verbal conversation between two people, replete with rigid, acceptable social cues, unspoken nuance, and broad, open-ended questions. If the interviewer is not educated on neurodiversity or ASD, they may read a lack of eye contact or difficulty responding to social cues as disqualifying behavior. 

The first step of inclusive interviewing is educating interviewers. For example, an educated interviewer steers away from open ended questions like, “Why should we hire you?” and instead might ask, “Describe your role in a project you’ve worked on.” 

The focus should be on the applicant’s specific professional skills and experience relevant to the job. 

The advantages of inclusive interviewing

Inclusive interviewing can build greater diversity in all areas. Interviews that follow the typical script narrow possibilities around who gets hired, making the workplace less innovative, less diverse, and less interesting.

Allowing employees to engage with a wider variety of communication methods will also likely be helpful to more than just autistic employees. 

Written communication is often more straightforward than verbal communication, while lacking the nuance and hidden meaning of conversation. Writing down specific objectives and outcomes takes away the confusion that can be paired with verbal assignments.

Training and education

Finally, in order for autistic employees to feel comfortable in the workplace, both managers and staff need to be educated and made aware of expectations around their colleagues’ neurodiversity. 

DEIB training should involve education around differences in thinking, communication styles, and for supervisors, how to assess employees’ individual needs, without assuming that one policy is going to suit all autistic employees. 

Creating Supportive Workplace Environments

Now that we’ve discussed higher level policy changes, let’s dig into how HR leaders can help construct workplace environments that are supportive on the individual level. 

Several of the policy proposals from the previous section are applicable here. Using written rather than verbal instructions that are clear and specific, providing workplace training and education for supervisors and other staff, and recognizing a wider array of communication styles as valid and useful are all things that help create a more supportive environment for people on the spectrum. 

There are several other areas where support may be needed:

  • Mitigating sensory overload: headphones and quiet spaces to work without interruption.
  • Maintenance of stable routines and schedules.
  • Supervisors can break down tasks into smaller, process oriented chunks and assign one task at a time without requiring multi-tasking
  • Allowing autistic employees to work from home where their environment and routine is comfortable and controlled, less prone to disruption from dynamic workplace factors
  • A support system that includes a mentor or buddy system
  • Hiring a communication specialist knowledgeable about ASD who could help implement ways of conveying information that work for both individuals and the organization at large

HR leaders should always remember that people on the spectrum are first and foremost, individuals. While there may be commonalities within the experiences of autistic people and similarities in the way they perceive the world, keep in mind that each individual is shaped by a unique set of circumstances, experiences, and a mind that is one of a kind, just like the wider population.

Read this blog next to learn how to reimagine—or create—ERGs at your organization in a way that builds a renewed sense of community and celebrates intersectionalities.  

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About the Author

Jess Maynard avatar

Jess Maynard

Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.