It’s National Autism Awareness Month — or, as many autistic people prefer, Autism Acceptance Month — and the perfect time to talk about neurodiversity in our organizational hiring practices and culture-building efforts. This is especially critical right now, as we’re working to establish post-pandemic norms to accommodate a workforce that has transformed so much over the last year. There’s a call to action to pay more deliberate attention to the roles diversity and inclusion play in not only attracting and retaining talent, but driving employee engagement, productivity, and wellbeing.
I was surprised and more than a little dismayed to learn that 85% of college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to the national unemployment rate of 6.3%. Despite this statistic, I am still optimistic for the future. To be sure, adults on the spectrum face a number of barriers to attaining employment, but there are solutions we can begin exploring today — solutions that dismantle ineffective and exclusionary policies, expand our candidate pool, and serve our entire workforce.
To help me gain a better understanding of neurodiversity and its place in our companies, I spoke with Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D. SHRM-SCP, professor and director of Research with Graduate Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, about her work in the area of inclusive organizational design. In simple terms, Praslova helps companies remove the barriers to access and success that, at the end of the day, impact everyone — not just the underserved employees whose success relies on systemic change to the way HR operates. Throughout this piece, I’ll include her insights along with others I’ve collected during my journey from awareness to action. After all, as Praslova told me, “most autistic adults would really like society to move beyond autism awareness to acceptance and inclusion.” So let’s begin!
Understanding Sustainable Diversity and Why It Matters
Before exploring tactical advice to change our organizations’ approach to supporting and enabling neurodivergent employees (and neurotypical ones, for that matter), it’s important to get comfortable with the terminology and concepts covered in this work. Coined in 1998 by autistic Australian sociologist Judy Singer, neurodiversity is defined as the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of human biology. To this, journalist Harvey Bloom added, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.” People’s differences, when realized in the context of the workplace, enable employers to manage and motivate individual employees more effectively.
Praslova explains that after years of looking at workplace diversity and inclusion through a more traditional lens, she finally hit on neurodiversity as the missing link to truly understand and support individual workers. “We were missing the deeper psychological understanding of diversity and how individual differences play within the workplace.” She stresses that neurodiversity is nestled within the larger effort of sustainable diversity, defined by Gartner’s Lauren Romansky as an initiative that’s supported by the entire organization, measurable over time, and embedded into existing processes. “We all approach work in our own ways,” says Praslova, “and we bring our own experiences, mentally and physically. How do we create environments where everyone thrives, not just those who fit a certain mold?”
My take is that while the conventional tendency may be to focus on the perceived limitations or challenges of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) — atypical sensory processing, motor coordination, or communication skills, for instance — employers really need to consider the many gifts autistic people bring to their work, including innovative thinking, creativity, and a strong work ethic. Aren’t these among the qualities that matter most to employers, especially as we seek to diversify our talent base and build company cultures that celebrate people's differences?
According to Ernst & Young, the four largest autism hiring programs in the U.S. (SAP, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and Ernst & Young) boast retention rates of more than 90%. What’s more, the professionals in JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors and are 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees. Considering that 1 million individuals on the autism spectrum will age into adulthood over the next ten years, there’s a significant amount of untapped potential that companies can’t afford to overlook.
So what do we do?
It’s Time for Employers To Make Caring Accommodations That Serve Every Employee
I was very much struck by Praslova's admonishments to “stop making assumptions about people and what they need because you’ll unwittingly leave people out.” Autism, much like dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and social anxiety disorder, is usually invisible. “You can usually see someone’s gender, race, or age, but it’s easy to ignore hidden disabilities.” She argues that this helps support the case of exclusive “inclusion programs” based on one aspect of diversity. “Intersectionality is not considered in special programs for women or autistic people. A program for women,” she notes, "might exclude autistic women.” People have various identities that shouldn’t be stereotyped or pigeonholed. “Besides, many accommodations for autistic people,” she notes, “are what others want, too!”
This is what Praslova calls inclusion by design, for which she shared these “dos and don’ts” for a recent SHRM article:
- Don’t just design limited autism [or first-generation, or veteran, or any other group] - friendly hiring system. Design a valid one for all hires.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly workplace. Design a flexible and employee-friendly one.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly communication system. Design a transparent one.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly work culture. Design a psychologically safe one for everyone.
- Don’t just design an autism-friendly organization. Design a human-friendly and a talent-friendly organization instead.
- Don’t try to make people “fit” by assimilating and suppressing their individuality. Hire for values-fit and celebrate culture-add.
- Don’t just design an autism hiring program because you’ve read the “amazing autistic productivity” reports. Design for inclusive thriving.
Very good advice, indeed. And this logic can also be applied to day-to-day management techniques. Vanderbilt University’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation’s tips for managing an autistic employee include managing stress to safeguard creativity and innovation, explaining the big picture to provide context, and specifying clearly defined targets to set expectations — excellent guidelines, they note, for the neurotypical employee!
Here are some of the steps employers should take to provide caring accommodations to all of their employees:
Develop hiring practices that bring out everyone’s best.
“People who are extremely capable of doing work can’t get jobs. What’s going on here?” asks Praslova. Those of us doing diversity and inclusion work know that the ubiquitous employee referral results in the hiring of people who fit a particular mold. Our tendency to connect with people who are “like us” does little to attract a more diverse slate of candidates — and nothing to attract neurodivergent professionals outside of our networks.
Praslova adds the important point that the traditional job interview is structured to measure a candidate on their ability to small-talk and put on a friendly face, which typically is not the work they’re going to do. The same tends to hold true for promotions. “There’s an assumption that to be promotable or high-potential, a person needs some degree of charisma — whether it’s relevant or not.” With more valid systems for hiring and career development, she explains, “selection would be structured to reflect a candidate’s ability to do the job.” Asking applicants to solve problems and demonstrate creativity in a more hands-on way — relying less on personality nuances and social skills — would go far to “get rid of biases that disproportionately impact those with autism or are from a lower socioeconomic class.”
Create cultures that provide psychological safety.
“The one non-negotiable for any diversity strategy,” asserts Praslova, “is zero-tolerance for treating people like ‘the other.’” Organizations have to create an environment that allows for flexibility, protects people, and eliminates and roots out bad behavior. “Autistic people are more susceptible to bullying. They respond strongly to stress and are more likely to suffer from PTSD,” she says, asking, “Why do we tolerate bullying, anyway?! It can turn anyone into a traumatized person.”
At Grokker, we’ve always taken psychological safety seriously and actively encourage our teammates to bring their authentic, true selves to work. But our ability to live our corporate “It’s Personal” value has required leadership to practice and promote psychological literacy — demonstrate an awareness of different types of people, experiences, and perspectives. Praslova’s perspective is that feeling safe to be oneself “is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.” While some people are not comfortable bringing personal sides of themselves into the office — nor should they be expected to — the idea is that they feel supported, regardless.
Devise benefits programs that prioritize personalized employee wellbeing.
When it comes to nurturing a workforce culture with shared values, we can’t ignore the role that wellbeing plays in enabling people to bring their best selves to the workplace. In her book, It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring, Grokker’s founder and CEO, Lorna Borenstein, speaks to the importance of supporting our employees with tools that can be customized for each individual’s preferences, abilities, and goals: “As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse and dispersed, it’s only going to become more critical to offer benefits that are truly inclusive, are easy to implement, and lead to desired outcomes — that employees genuinely enjoy.”
Neurodivergent and neurotypical employees alike want and need to prioritize self-care in ways that work for them as individuals. It’s only when a person feels their best, body and mind, that they can fully engage at work — perform optimally and contribute wholeheartedly to the success of their team. I believe this is what all employers should consider their north star as we strive to take care of our workforces, one and all.
Accepting the Challenge, Embracing the Opportunity
At this unique, transformative time, we’re faced with the wonderful opportunity to expand our definition of the “ideal” job candidate. When we think about bringing in teammates who add value to our culture — and not simply “fit in” — it’s easier to understand why it’s important to welcome people with a wider variety of life experiences, competencies, and perspectives. This most certainly includes adults on the autism spectrum, and it is my sincere hope that together, we can learn how to enable their success and turn the unemployment trends around.
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