Creating an Autism-Friendly Workplace: Transitions Talks with Priya
Neurodiverse people – anyone diagnosed with a brain-related developmental condition – are constantly trying to operate in a world that wasn’t designed for them. People with autism, ADHD, learning differences and other neurodiverse conditions live in a world with social norms and expectations that they do not always fit into. It is almost as if they got thrown into a game where everyone else got the instructions and rules except for them. This is especially true in the workforce, where challenging long-held assumptions and norms and asking why the game has to be played a certain way has not always been encouraged. But the current job market has provided a huge opportunity right now for employers to assess how inclusive they are to neurodiverse people and how improving in that area could benefit them.
The workforce has drastically changed over the past two years. Job candidates, particularly young people, expect more from employers than in the past. Some of these expectations include working from home, hybrid options, meaningful and purposeful work, flexible or limited hours, fair and equitable pay, inclusivity and diversity. When Deloitte surveyed Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) employees, 40% of them cited flexibility and adaptability as most important to them.
While work norms are beginning to shift in favor of conditions that could benefit neurodiverse workers, there is still a long way to go. Many neurodiverse people lost job opportunities in 2020. The employment rate for that population was already significantly lower than the general population before that. As of 2022, according the CDC, it is estimated that 85% of autistic individuals are currently unemployed.
With all this in mind, how can employers be more inclusive and supportive of neurodiverse employees?
- Listen to the neurodiverse community and ask questions.
It is important to know what neurodiverse people are saying about their experiences with employment. You cannot assume that your workplace is inclusive or supportive if you are not having conversations with neurodiverse people. Two extremely helpful resources are the Autism Society and the Learning Disabilities Association of America. If you research your nearest chapter of these organizations online, you may find events where you can meet neurodiverse people. If you have the opportunity, it is a great idea to attend their conferences as well. You can also reach out to organizations and agencies in your area that support neurodiverse people. Ask questions about things you are unsure of. For example, person-first language has always been pushed in industries that support neurodiverse people. However, there has been recent conversation in the community that many people prefer to use identifying language. For example, instead of saying “a person with autism,” someone might prefer to be referred to as “an autistic person.” The only way to know someone’s preference is to ask.
- Educate employees on what accommodations are available to them.
Neurodiverse people are often left to their own devices when they enter the workforce. There is usually little to no discussion about what support might be available to them until they bring it up. They have to guess whether or not their employer will be understanding and supportive about it. This brings about fear and anxiety. All employees should be presented with information about what support they can receive if they have a neurodivergent diagnosis or if they simply operate a little bit differently. This may also help those who are not neurodiverse understand more about working with a neurodiverse person and what support they may need. Employers should make reasonable accommodations – adjustments to one’s work or tools an employee can use to make them more successful at their job – available to all employees who need them. Some examples of accommodations include listening to music with headphones while working individually, recording meetings and providing extra time when possible for projects.
- Consider multiple methods of presenting information and communicating.
When communicating with neurodiverse people, presenting information in a way that blends the three learning styles is ideal. The three learning styles are verbal (speaking directly), visual (providing charts, diagrams or other images someone can see) and kinesthetic (hands-on activities). When teaching an employee to perform a task, it is helpful to explain each step, demonstrate for them to see after each step is explained, and then have them try it for themselves while you observe. Writing down instructions is helpful as well. Be aware that you may have to present information more than once. Don’t assume what is unspoken. If you haven’t communicated something very clearly to a neurodiverse employee, it is very possible they might not know it. Include very clear details in your instructions for all tasks. Communicating deadlines and providing honest feedback are especially critical to the growth and success of neurodiverse people.
- Avoid hustle/grind culture and urgency.
It is often hard to avoid emergencies and urgency in certain industries, such as healthcare and law enforcement. But any steps to reduce this as much as possible is a step in the right direction to creating a supportive environment to all employees. The more employees are able to pre-plan their day, prioritize which tasks are most important to complete and build time in their lives to rest, the more effective they will be. This is especially helpful in reducing anxiety for neurodiverse people, who can be particularly sensitive to unexpected changes or elevated levels of pressure.
- Implement structure and routines.
Some unpredictability in life is inevitable, but the more structure and routine that can be created for someone, the more efficient they will be. If a neurodiverse person knows what to expect throughout their day and which tasks they need to complete, they have a far better chance of being successful in their role.
- Offer schedule flexibility.
Neurodiverse people tend to greatly appreciate schedule flexibility. The more control someone has over their hours and their life, the freer they will feel to produce the outcomes their boss is looking for. This can be very helpful in reducing the anxiety that many neurodiverse people experience.
- Make your work site more sensory-friendly.
What does your office space look like? Certain environmental factors can contribute to distraction and sensory overload for neurodiverse people. Common culprits include bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, jarring colors and clutter. The more that these factors can be eliminated, the more effective neurodiverse people can be at their jobs.
- Focus on strengths.
Neurodiverse people offer a multitude of strengths to focus on, including skills, personality traits and knowledge. Neurodiverse people often have different insights and ways of doing things. Be open to learning from them. People often assume that neurodiverse people are not as capable of certain jobs, but the truth is they are often more skilled and well-suited than others.
These are just some of the ways that employers can be more inclusive for neurodiverse employees. We have seen many examples of success with these strategies and more at Transitions. In 2021, a local business reached out to The Arc Lexington’s Human Resources department to ask about prospective job candidates. As a result of their outreach, one Transitions student and two other people supported by Lexington were hired and have been successfully employed there ever since. Three more Transitions students have been hired at the same local grocery store in the past two years. They support and offer advice to each other, and the store encourages their success through various accommodations.
Every Transitions student receives an internship, which often leads to competitive employment. One student recently completed an internship related to videography and information technology. He demonstrated so much skill and professionalism that he was offered a paid position after the internship concluded.
These are just a few recent examples of success in the workforce made possible by a dedication to inclusivity, diversity and accommodation on the part of employers. I am excited to see how the workforce will continue to change for Transitions students and other neurodiverse people.