Some would say I'm a fool. I've been successfully employed before. Heck, I held one job for twelve years! I also lost one job before the month was out. But I was a software engineer for twenty years, and good at it. Come on now: an Aspie software engineer? Of course you could find work! Yeah, I could go back to the IT world, but I'd be miserable. And if I were miserable at a job, it certainly wouldn't last. So, does that make my being unemployed a choice? Unfortunately, it's not that easy.
Most of my working life has been in publishing, even before I became a software engineer. And that was largely by design. The Dissemination of Information! You see, I need to be involved with that, with something that does something worthwhile. I could never work for an arms manufacturer, heck even the financial world is not for me. I've always sought to do meaningful work that would contribute something to society, bettering the lives of other people.
Discovering that I was an Aspie changed everything
Discovering, a couple of years ago, that I was an Aspie changed everything. My education about autism, catching up on who I had always been, seeing not just my past differently but taking in the whole world from a new, much clearer viewpoint — that put everything into perspective. The “meaningful work” and “contribute to society” now had a new direction and a new impetus. I am now committed to finding work that has a direct, positive impact on the autistic community. I'm also now part of the estimated 80% of autistic people who are unemployed.
Fool. You could be making six figures as a software engineer but choose not to? That's certainly one way to look at it, but you'd be missing the bigger picture. Two things: mental exhaustion and a feeling of fulfillment from having contributed to society, having made a difference. I think we can all agree that it's best to avoid the former and strive for the latter. And software engineering left me mentally exhausted almost every day. Not the “engineering” itself — the design of algorithms and similar, really geeky stuff — it was all the stuff surrounding the interesting bits: the purportedly extreme importance of using this framework or that; intense power struggles over choices that, given the nature of technology, will be obsolete by the time lunch is over. I can't do that any more. I was “successful” in the sense of writing solid, robust code, but it was draining me. The “meaningful work” that was supposed to underlie it all had lost its potency.
Yes, I'll have to deal with office politics and other such meta-work at any job, but that's where the second of the aforementioned two things comes into play: a feeling of fulfillment. I know this will come only from an even deeper involvement in the autistic community. And that's where I've been looking for work. Unfortunately, doing work that actually helps people doesn't pay as much as work that boosts the profits of a corporation. As well, there's not a great deal of work in the autistic community — unless you're a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker or (perhaps the subject of a future article) a certified applied behavior analyst. Self-advocating Aspies need not apply, they don't have the right experience. (Now let that irony sink in).
Staying the Course
Focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum
But I will not be deterred. I've been out of work for almost a year now, but I am resolute. That kind of focus and tenacity are pretty common traits for those of us on the spectrum. So, however, are anxiety, social issues, and less than ideal executive functioning. Oh, believe me, I am no stranger to anxiety. I get anxious if I think too much about how my meager retirement savings are dwindling. I get anxious about how long I've been out of work. I lose sleep sometimes, because of anxiety. But I won't let it stop me. The odd thing is that I'm actually fairly busy, although not with anything that generates an income … yet. I've met so many wonderful people during this past year; some have become good friends, many are really good connections. But that hasn't turned into a job … yet. I speak at conferences, write articles, am invited to sit in on panels, and am very involved in the autistic community here in Atlanta. But that hasn't turned into a job … yet. Sometimes I don't know if I'm approaching people frequently enough or from the right angle because of social anxiety. Sometimes, dealing with executive functioning, I can get stuck in a loop as I try to figure out where I should best spend my energy in a way that will lead to some sort of income.
But I will not be deterred. There are times when I have to remind myself that I will not be deterred, and so far my head is still above water. I do recognize the possibility that perhaps I might need a “day job” that would pay enough to allow me to continue to write articles and speak at conferences, but that's not the ideal. Compromise can wait (but not too long, please). I have lived my whole life on principle, with integrity, so it's unlikely I'll change now. There is so much need for work to be done in the autistic community, so many people that need help, so many aspects of society that need to change to recognize us and accept us. But the money isn't there. I've spoken to a number of people working diligently to educate companies about the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum, but they're running on shoestring budgets. There are too many similar stories.
But I will not be deterred.
But I will not be deterred. Something is out there, waiting for me. Yes, you can call me a fool if you want to. I prefer to think that I am finally aware of my true calling. But I guess change takes time. Nonetheless, one of my future articles will be about my new job. When it comes. Stay tuned.
When the likes of Forbes publishes an article entitled, “How To Practice Mindfulness At Work”, and the Harvard Business Review publishes “Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity”, you know that the concept of mindfulness has reached the corporate mainstream. Companies like Google, Apple, Target, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Deutsche Bank and others have all embraced the benefits of mindfulness.
Whether your company has a mindfulness program or not, you can still engage in mindfulness on your own, at home and at work. How, you may ask, is this significant for those of us on the spectrum? Mindfulness, or “being present”, is available to anyone and everyone. And everyone, with practice, can see the same benefits: a calmer approach to life, seeing the world around you more clearly, and having more self-control. The difference for autistics is how and where those benefits touch our day-to-day lives.
What is mindfulness?
What is “being present”?
But what is mindfulness? What is “being present”? Just imagine the driver of a car who is thinking about:
1) the project that's got to be done before the end of the week,
2) the upcoming parent-teacher conference,
3) what's going on in their favorite soap, and
4) did they leave the iron on?
Now think about a different driver who has put all that sort of thought baggage in the trunk of their car and is very much focused on the road, the other drivers, and how they are driving. Which driver would you rather have next to you on the road? The one who's paying attention, of course! The driver who is paying attention is said to be “present”, fully conscious the present moment, of what they are currently doing. They are not distracted from what's going on: they see clearly what is happening now and can better anticipate what will happen.
Being present is very much what it says: showing up for whatever you happen to be doing at the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by all the “stuff” going on in your life that doesn't really have any bearing on the now. If you're walking down the street with your head somewhere else, you may discover how much the lamppost hurts when you bump into it. When, instead, you are mindful of what's going on — if you are present — you are able to see not only what's coming, but you can also see yourself more clearly.
One of the natural aspects of life that presents a challenge to many of us autistics is change. Before we learned that I was an Aspie, I came home from work one day to see my wife and kids milling busily about the kitchen, all sorts of things out of the cupboards and on all the surfaces. My wife smiled and said, “I decided to rearrange the kitchen!”. Feeling as if the foundation of my entire life had been revealed as having been built on sand, I went beyond meltdown and completely shut down, quietly walking to the bedroom to try to deal with the anxiety. That may seem rather extreme to those of you new to the world of autism, but I assure you that it is not that uncommon. But the flip side of such a reaction to unanticipated change is that (as we now know), were my wife to have said, that morning, “Oh, by the way, I'll be rearranging the kitchen today”, everything would have been fine (we've tried it). I'd still have had to get used to the plates being here rather than there, as it were, but that's it.
If you spend your working day present, alert, aware of what's going on around you as well as to your own reactions, you'll have a much better chance of anticipating change.
This is one of the ways that mindfulness can be extraordinarily helpful to those of us on the spectrum. If you spend your working day present, alert, aware of what's going on around you as well as to your own reactions, you'll have a much better chance of anticipating change. You'll notice that Meg seems worried about the numbers, so you might have to revisit the marketing plan for that project. You'll notice that Alex looks tired and has been coughing, so you might have to pick up an extra shift. You'll notice that Keandra really likes the infographics you put together, so you might get to do more of that sort of thing. When you're paying attention, you have a much better chance of anticipating change, and thus not getting blindsided by it (like I was in the kitchen).
Another highly beneficial aspect of mindfulness for us autistics is being able to pay closer attention to ourselves! Many of us can get bogged down by inflexible thinking. This is also true of our ADHD companions and colleagues. We love our routines and patterns, and this can sometimes constrain us. This is where mindfulness about yourself can help, being present in your own thinking. You've got a problem to solve, and the usual approach isn't working. Getting trapped by rigid thinking can have us beating our heads against the wall, continually trying the approach that “should work”. Being present in that moment would allow you to see that you're getting nowhere fast, allowing you the presence of mind (pun intended) to realize that a different approach is warranted. The person who sits next to you always takes longer than they should for lunch, and this gets your goat because you respect the rules and are always on time. Yes, you could waste a lot of mental energy, getting yourself all worked up about a colleague's tardiness. Simply being mindful of your reaction, though, and how important a colleague's tardiness really is in the scheme of things (i.e. not that important) can clear unnecessary emotional baggage, freeing yourself up for a much more pleasant and productive day.
There I am, thinking a mile a minute, not realizing that I'm making no progress whatsoever.
Decision-making is another area that improves with mindfulness. I know I can get turned around, stuck in a loop as I try to figure out, for example, which next move would be the most productive. There I am, thinking a mile a minute, not realizing that I'm making no progress whatsoever. If I were mindful of my thoughts, however, I would see that I'm running about in circles rather than actually getting anything done. Being present as I'm contemplating the factors involved in an important decision allows me to step back and more objectively assess the situation before me. I can see each factor more clearly and can focus on the problem itself rather than getting waylaid by anxiety.
Being a bit too honest at work is something that's gotten me into trouble more than once (see also: this article about honesty in the workplace). I tend to focus on the problem at hand rather than, say, the egos of the other people involved in the project. I once got under the skin of a superior because, as we were discussing various possible solutions to a problem, I stated that such-and-such an approach simply wouldn't work. It was his suggested solution. He may have been my superior, but his approach to the problem still wasn't going to work. While it's good to be able to see a particular problem space free of insignificant encumbrances, it's still important to remember that people are involved (hint: their feelings aren't insignificant). That's easy to forget (at least for us autistics) when a particular problem is interesting or complex — especially when the problem is interestingly complex! Had I been present, I would have been aware that the problem itself was not the only thing going on at that moment. People were in the room, talking about the problem, all of whom had a vested interest in the problem. While bluntly pointing out the defects of a given proposal was a Good Thing for the project, it was not a Good Thing from the people perspective (nor for my tenure at the job, as it turned out). Being mindful would have allowed me to point out the benefits and deficits of different proposals without so glaringly bruising the ego of a colleague. The project still benefits (my original goal) but without … complications.
Most anything that can be grouped under the “executive functioning” umbrella can be helped with mindfulness.
Most anything that can be grouped under the “executive functioning” umbrella can be helped with mindfulness, with being present. Be it planning, paying attention, flexibility of thinking, problem solving or any other aspect of executive functioning, being present can help. Most of the difficulties we encounter with executive functioning boil down to us having difficulty stepping back from the proverbial, distracting trees to see the whole forest. To continue the metaphor, being present enough to be able to see the forest for the trees is where the pattern recognition skills many of us have can shine: we can notice all of the trees, not just those closest to us, and we notice how the trees are arranged, as well as how they might be rearranged to get a better result.
Distraction is the key.
Earlier I described a driver, distracted from the road by all sorts of thoughts — important in their life, perhaps, but not related to driving at that moment. But how does that driver learn to push all that cognitive noise to the background so as to leave enough room to focus on driving? How can you learn to step back so that you can more clearly see the situation at hand, both what's going on around you at this very moment and what's going on inside you?
Distraction is the key. All sorts of thoughts, worries, and musings can distract us very effectively from the moment in which we actually find ourselves. So we fight fire with fire. Or, rather, distraction with distraction. Putting it very simply, mindfulness can be achieved by distracting ourselves from those thoughts so that they don't take over. Being fully aware of the present moment is the goal. When all the noise of thinking about things in the past, in the future, nowhere really but in our heads — when all that cognitive noise distracts us from the present moment, we have the ability to regain control of our awareness by distracting ourselves with the present moment, thus dissipating all those unnecessary thoughts.
Quieting the mind?
The autistic brain has been found to be more active than the neurotypical brain. The notion, “quieting the mind” — commonly associated with mediation — can seem a near impossibility to an autistic brain, which has to manage a flurry of activity in its resting state (if not a tempest). Fortunately, we have no intention of attempting anything of the sort. In fact, the notion of “quieting the mind” is quite simply preposterous.
Your mind is going to have thoughts. Guaranteed. At times my mind would easily win a “most chaotic and cacophonous” competition with either Grand Central Station or the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I have no doubt you are familiar with the feeling. But we Spectrumites also have a superpower: hyper focus. Our ability to focus with intent is very much to our advantage as we learn the art of mindfulness. For it is with our focus that we distract our minds with the present moment.
I may not know you, but I'll take a wild stab and guess that you have been breathing your entire life. Good. You can use that.
The easiest way I have found to bring the present moment into focus is by doing something that all of us, autistic or not, have had a lot of practice with. Breathing. I may not know you, but I'll take a wild stab and guess that you have been breathing your entire life. Good. You can use that. Breathing has been at the core of many meditation techniques for ages. You can use breathing — meditating — as a way to become familiar with being present.
Give it a try. This is something you can do almost anywhere, at practically any time. Especially with practice. Okay, let's talk about this for a minute. Practice. As with most things, you get better with practice. Mindfulness is no different. The more you practice mindfulness, being present, the better you will be able to apply it in everyday situations. The important thing is not to get discouraged. And the method I'm going to describe to you makes that really easy: by virtue of trying, you have achieved the first level of success.
I like to sit when I meditate, but it's entirely a personal choice. If you sit, as I do, then try to keep your back straight. It doesn't matter if you sit in a straight-backed chair (without touching the chair back, please), or on the floor, or on cushions. If you prefer to lie down, keep your legs uncrossed (and try not to fall asleep!). Now breathe. Don't force it, just breathe comfortably and naturally. Pay close attention as you breathe. Feel the air rushing through your nostrils or your throat. Does it feel cool? Is the flow of air gentle or forceful? How far through your body can you feel your breath flowing? Pay attention to your lungs and your diaphragm. Watch how they rise and fall with each intake of breath and each exhalation. Feel the muscles moving as your lungs fill with air. What other parts of the body are affected by your breathing?
That seems like a lot to keep track of, doesn't it? And that's the point: by paying close attention to all that's going on physically with your breathing, you don't leave your mind enough room to worry about what Mildred said this afternoon (Check this out: even while simply reading about breathing just now I'll bet you didn't think of Mildred once, did you?). When you focus on something as simple (yet fundamental) as your breath, you regain some control of your mind. And that “some” becomes “more” with practice.
There is no room for judgment.
Don't get me wrong: thoughts are going to crop up. That's what minds do, they think. There's no point in trying to stop yours. Rather than work against your mind's natural tendency, work with it. Thoughts will come. Let them; just don't get caught up in them. At first, you will almost invariably find yourself in the midst of a thought, having forgotten to focus on your breathing. But do you know what just happened? In becoming aware that you were lost in thought, you have once again brought yourself right to the present moment! Your desire to remain mindful, aware of the present moment, has won a small but significant victory over the litany of thought trying to distract you. And you will win that small victory again and again, each time a triumph. So, no possibility of getting discouraged because you succeed every time you practice. You'll notice I didn't say, “each time you try”, because you're not trying mindfulness, you're practicing mindfulness — you're doing the thing!
But that's just the pep talk to get you started. As much as possible, don't think about what you're doing while you do it. When a thought shows itself, just give it a nod and return the focus to your breathing, not letting the thought take over. If the thought does manage to distract you from your breathing, don't kick yourself for having messed up — because you haven't. Remember: by simply noticing that you got lost in thought you've brought yourself back to your intended goal. You are again in the present moment.
Also, it's important to point out that while you observe yourself breathing you are only observing. The last thing you want is to allow judgment in. There is no room for judgment. You are not observing your breathing in order to change it in any way, you are simply watching yourself breathe. Your breath, as it is, is just a way to bring your attention to the present moment. If you were to start assessing how you are breathing then you start thinking about your breathing, which pulls you from the actual into the theoretical. Abut if that happens, don't sweat it: as soon as you realize that you've been caught in a thought, you've become present again and, kindly nodding to the thought that popped in to say hello, you can once again return attention to your breath.
Don't worry about achieving different states of Nirvana. That's not the point. The point is to practice mindfulness.
One of the ways in which I help myself stay focused on my breathing is by calling on my aspieness. I am a very visual thinker; concepts, for example, make sense when (quite literally, in my mind) all the bits fit together cohesively. So, for me, as I breathe in, my focus is bolstered by imagining the breath entering my body — my hollow body — as if the air were a billowing cloud, filling every part of me, from my head to my toes. As I exhale, I imagine any negativity (anxiety, worry, ire, etc.) leaving my body with my breath and dissipating into nothingness. As I exhale, I try to further relax each part of my body, feeling as if I am, in a sense, melting into the floor (while keeping my spine straight, mind).
As you practice you'll likely find a routine that feels right, that fits. Go with it. Don't worry in the initial stages about any of this, but instead focus on focusing on your breathing. Everything will fall into place, as long as you keep at it. Don't worry about achieving different states of Nirvana. That's not the point. The point is to practice mindfulness. That makes it easy: as long as you practice, as long as you take the time, even five minutes a day (I like to meditate for about twenty minutes each morning), then you are successful at it. Because you're doing it.
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to intentionally find yourself aware of the present moment, alert and ready. The more you practice focusing on your breathing, the longer you'll be able to meditate without a thought whisking you off to someplace that isn't here and now. The more you practice meditation, the more you'll be aware of what you're thinking while you're thinking it, rather than blindly reacting in the moment and mentally going over everything later.
The beauty is that this can easily be done without drawing attention to yourself.
Oh, I still find myself realizing, after the fact, that things would likely have gone better had I been more present. I'm far from perfect. But it happens less frequently than it used to. I am more aware of myself and what goes on around me. I routinely use breathing to help myself prepare for a meeting, deliver a presentation, or get ready to meet some new people. By turning my attention to my breathing I can make sure I bring myself into the present moment, shedding most of the cognitive noise that could easily distract me from the task at hand. The beauty is that this can easily be done without drawing attention to yourself — at your desk, in an elevator, or even in the middle of a meeting. All you're doing is turning your attention to your breath. You can still look at Chuck as he drones on before it's your turn to speak (but really, also listen to what Chuck's saying, as it might be relevant later), but take a minute to notice how you're breathing, pay attention to it and soon you'll find yourself more present and aware. Now you can really listen to Chuck and be better prepared mentally for when it's your turn to speak.
Whether you practice mindfulness in a meeting with Chuck, or sitting quietly in your bedroom (or both), the point is to practice. By simply paying attention to your breathing you are bringing yourself to the present moment. By practicing this you are getting used to being present, getting used to pushing distracting thoughts aside, thoughts that serve no purpose in the moment. You are getting used to bringing yourself to awareness.
Just keep at it. Distract your mind with your breathing. Nothing more natural. Or more powerful.
For those of you who wish to explore this further, there are abundant resources. Just search in whatever medium you most comfortably learn from — maybe it's YouTube, perhaps online forums or Googling websites — and explore away. For my old-school self, it's books, and I'll recommend two of them.
The first is Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Rodale, 2011). More recently I encountered Mindful Living with Asperger's Syndrome: Everyday Mindfulness Practices to Help You Tune in to the Present Moment, by Chris Mitchell (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013). Both take a similar, stepped approach, and it is clear that Mitchell has been influenced by Williams and Penman (which is interesting, as I discovered these two books entirely independently of one another).
Both books walk you through a progressive set of meditations in a way that's easy to follow. Mitchell talks to the Aspie directly about the benefits of mindfulness for those of us on the spectrum, whereas Williams and Penman speak to a general audience. Either of them is a good resource; just check them out and decide which is a better fit for you.
If you're on a budget, there are also companion recordings to Mindfulness: http://rodaledigitalbooks.com/mindfulness/. While of course the book offers greater richness and depth, but in a pinch, the recordings by themselves can help you on your journey. Just take your time, listen, and keep practicing.
Velázquez, José L. Pérez and Galán, Roberto F. “Information gain in the brain's resting state: A new perspective on autism.” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 24 December 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fninf.2013.00037.
Lee Keown, Christopher, et al. “Local Functional Overconnectivity in Posterior Brain Regions Is Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Cell Reports, 7 November 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2013.10.003.
Markram, Kamila and Markram, Henry. “The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 21 December 2010. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224.
About thirty years ago, a dear friend of mine from Portugal told me that you've not really visited a place until you've eaten at someone's home (I was at his home in Portugal. Eating). So I've not really visited Chattanooga. But I was there in July of this year for the Inaugural Tri-State Adult Autism Symposium, the only autism conference dedicated to adult issues east of the Mississippi. (I can't read that last phrase without a cowboy accent.)
The conference, organized by the indefatigable Scott Kramer, was a wonderful success. Attendance was at capacity with more than 200 people, coming not just from the tri states (Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama) but also from Kansas, Arizona, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Virginia!
Next year's conference, aptly renamed the Southeast Adult Autism Symposium, will take place Saturday, 21 July, 2018 at the Chattanoogan Hotel in Chattanooga, TN. For more information, contact Scott Kramer, the Symposium conference coordinator at Scott.Kramer@chattanoogaautismcenter.org.
I had the distinct pleasure of giving a talk at the conference. Its title ended up longer than I had initially foreseen, but I like it nonetheless: Being Aspie at Work: Shared Experiences from the Shop Floor: Finding Your Inner Self-Advocate. The purpose of the talk was to give my fellow autistics tools to enable them to find a level of workplace self-advocacy that works for them. I drew upon my own experiences — triumphs and failures — to illustrate some of the points.
To my delight, the talk was well received. Of the thirty-odd people who attended my session, fifteen — almost half — filled out a post-conference survey. All of them gave me 5 out of 5, which of course I hadn't expected. [ insert bow of appreciation ]. From an aspie perspective, there's something else that might seem odd: for some strange reason, even though I'll often shut down in social situations, having exhausted my social bucket, I am completely at ease in front of an audience. Yes, of course, the fact that I have more control when presenting, the crowd's reaction is not something that can either be predicted or controlled. Go figure.
There are a number of reasons to expand your company's diversity and inclusion initiative to work with the neurodiverse — those of us who are autistic, have ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or some other type of neurological wiring that sets us apart from the neurologically typical. There is, of course, the ethical argument, recognizing that everyone deserves the same access to opportunity and quality of life. But that argument, important as it may be, is rarely sufficient for stakeholders to agree to policy changes. They want to know that such changes will also be good for the bottom line.
So let's address that. First, by broadening your hiring policy to include those that have thus far been outside the scope of your recruitment efforts, you are going to increase your talent pool, often bringing in people who will add value and innovation. There are also government regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that can be costly if not followed. But there's also the neurodiversity market: the purchasing power of the neurodiverse, their families, their friends, and the many people, organizations, and companies who work with those who are neurodiverse.
In order to capture that market, in order to be a company or organization that appeals to the large — and largely untapped — neurodiversity market, you have to show a commitment to the people in that market. You already know the value of engagement inside your company's walls, and it's really the same argument for those who are outside those walls. If you just think in terms of numbers, not people, you're not going to reach as far into that market as you otherwise could.
So, exactly how big is the neurodiversity market? Extrapolating from a few sources12, the number is about $320 billion annually. And that's just the disposable income of the US neurodiverse population and their friends and family. Another $175 billion3 is spent annually in the US on services for the neurodiverse. My guess is that your business would do well to capture some of that market share.
A Double Embrace
The way to tap into this market most successfully is to embrace neurodiversity from two, entirely complimentary angles. First, hire people who are neurodiverse. Tap into an underrepresented talent pool. But you would be doing yourself — and those you've hired — a terrible disservice if you stopped there. You've also got to change the culture of your workplace so that it is much more aware and accommodating to your neurodiverse colleagues, both those you've now hired and (note carefully) those neurodiverse employees who were already on your payroll, but flying under the radar because of the stigma attached to autism, ADHD, etc. Second, show the marketplace that you are committed to neurodiversity. This is where PR and marketing come into play. But you must be committed to a true cultural shift.
As I was researching for this article, I happened to stumble upon a video on my personal Facebook timeline. It epitomizes the kind of cultural shift I'm talking about. In 2013, a Canadian auto parts retailer, Canadian Tire, entered into an eight-year sponsorship agreement with the Canadian Olympic Committee. One of the promotional spots that came out of this is the video, “Wheels”:
In this video, one kid, who is playing basketball with some friends, notices another kid watching them play. That other kid is in a wheelchair. The next scene shows the basketball lying on the porch of the kid in the wheelchair. Puzzled, he puts the ball on his lap and wheels himself to the court where he saw the other kids playing ball. What he finds is that the other kids have found ways to make him feel included: they are all using tricycles or wagons or anything they can sit on with wheels, and they're having a riot playing basketball. When the child in the wheelchair shows up, he is made to feel welcome.
Yes, of course, this video was designed to tug at your heart strings. I know it got me good! But it affects us emotionally because we know that what those kids did is critical: openly and fully embracing difference. Now, imagine the constituents of the neurodiversity market viewing your company with the same emotional weight. The way to best capture market share is to show the kind of adaptability and commitment shown by those kids.
when you show your commitment to diversity as part of your marketing message, the response can be powerful
As the video, “Wheels”, shows, when you show your commitment to diversity as part of your marketing message, the response can be powerful. But don't just say it. Mean it. Make sure that your casting is inclusive, your language is inclusive (don't use paternalistic language or outdated terms). The message will come across as genuine when it is genuine.
Employee resource groups are a transparent way to give voice to those who might otherwise be sidelined or silenced. The feedback from ERGs can be invaluable, not only as a litmus test to your diversity and inclusion initiative, but also as a source of fresh thinking and innovation. Learn to listen with an open mind.
There are nuances to successfully hiring and keeping those who have different neurological wiring. Think about partnering with an autism- or disability-focused recruiting firm. They know the ins and outs of the market and can be an invaluable guide. At least at first, until you've got a good handle on the process. Until it becomes infused in the way things get done.
When workplace accommodations are implemented properly, your entire workforce can benefit. Accommodations must be understood by all as necessary for some, to give them a similar level of ease in doing their work — a level that most take for granted. And accommodations are not, generally, expensive, averaging less than $500 per employee4. That's a small investment in unleashing your employee's true potential.
The thread that ties all these elements together — marketing, ERGs, hiring strategies and accommodations — must be woven into the tapestry of your workplace culture. It's not enough to revise the mission statement to say something about neurodiversity, then distribute it as an email from the CEO. It's not enough to have the Diversity & Inclusion team give a talk to the Executive team. Live the commitment. Sponsor neurodiversity- or disability-focused volunteer events; bring self-advocates in to speak to your employees on a regular basis; encourage mentoring and partnerships between and among your neurodiverse and neurotypical colleagues.
When your workplace culture is infused by an embrace of neurodiversity, that's when everything will come together. That's when you'll be attracting the best of the neurodiverse talent pool because they will know your company as a great place to work. That's when you'll be known publicly as a company that is indeed truly committed to neurodiversity and, hopefully, diversity in general. That's when you'll be getting the best of both ends of the neurodiversity market.
1 Understanding Neurocognitive Developmental Disorders Can Improve Education for All, Brian Butterworth and Yulia Kovas. Science 19 Apr 2013: Vol. 340, Issue 6130, pp. 300-305 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1231022]
I think it's why I lost that job. Because I was honest. It was about a year later that I lost the job, so there's no direct link, but things changed after that moment. And they didn't have to.
I was in the office, talking with a superior about the design of a particular application. The solution he was proposing had holes in it; I had found them earlier (which is why I had asked for the meeting). After he went over his approach again, I said:
“But it won't work, the security's rubbish.”
He stopped, tilted his head back. “Who do you think you're talking to?”
“[ his name ]”, I replied, confused as to why identity is being brought into the technical discussion.
You see, for me, and for many of my fellow autistics, when you're discussing a particular application design, or project, or idea — the point is the same. It's the concept being discussed that's the focus. Anything else is a distraction, unimportant.
The security was rubbish. Saying anything else would have been false (and we autistic people don't like inaccuracies). Wrapping the statement in some nicety would have been (or so I thought) a waste of time. All that sort of thing does, to my autistic mind, is introduce irrelevant distractions.
For the most part, neurotypicals (those of you who are not autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, etc.) have an easier time incorporating the sociopolitical nuances into their interactions. And because of that — because neurotypicals are in the majority — it is the norm to expect a certain level of sophistication with regard to those sociopolitical nuances.
If you are serious about your diversity and inclusion strategy, if you want to make neurodiversity work where you work, then you have to question that norm. You have to ask yourself what blending in the subtlety of social interaction adds to the immediate task at hand, to solving the problem.
Nothing. The software isn't going to respond faster because everyone holds hands during Scrum. The project isn't going to get done faster because Gantt chart was created with deference. The idea isn't a better idea because it was presented politely.
“But! Aha!”, you say. “What about a smoothly running team? Don't the social niceties, the soft skills, help to make that happen?” Yes, absolutely. But why limit yourself like that?
When faced with a brutally honest assessment from an autistic colleague, don't focus on the form. Focus on the content.
If someone gets offended because a criticism is presented in a bare-bones, no-frills manner, what's really going on? I'll tell you, and it's a short answer: Ego. Stop for a minute and think about it. Anything you can dress it up with — respect, seniority, hierarchy — at the end of the day it all boils down to the same thing. Ego.
Let your ego go. (Wow. Did I really just write that? I can't be the first, but I really should be the last.) No, I mean it. Put your ego aside for a moment. Tell it to sit in the corner and be quiet for a bit. Be patient. Make sure it's sitting obediently, then think again, carefully, about the application design, the project, or the idea. Does it not seem clearer now? Can you not see all of the bits and bobs in finer resolution? Isn't it easier to see the different ways everything can (and can't) fit together? (Side note: I see the “fitting together” as shapes.)
That's often how it is for those of us on the spectrum. Clear away anything that doesn't have to do with the problem in front of you and you can find a better, more efficient solution, and faster. Neurotypicals take note: if you work at it, you too can achieve these wonders of focus and concentration. (And I'm only partly kidding.)
The honest comment doesn't indicate a lack of respect for any individual but in fact a great deal of respect for the project.
When faced with a brutally honest assessment from an autistic colleague, don't focus on the form. Focus on the content. The content is more than likely an honest (very honest) attempt to add value to the project, or possibly save it from disaster. There's nothing personal about it; the focus is on the project. If you let the style of delivery dominate your thoughts — if you let your ego do the listening, rather than your reason — then you might well miss the best suggestion offered.
Let's put this together. You can see the value in minimizing the input from your ego when you're brainstorming, exchanging ideas. Good. You understand that there's nothing personal about an unadorned criticism from your colleague on the spectrum. Great. So, remind me: how does the stripping away of sociopolitical politeness necessarily hamper team building?
When you look at it from this perspective, it doesn't. The honest comment doesn't indicate a lack of respect for any individual but in fact a great deal of respect for the project. Nevertheless, if your ego tries to get up from its chair in the corner, you might feel a lack of respect. Give your ego the side-eye and move on. If your team is built right, then contributing solid ideas — regardless of politeness — should rank pretty high in what commands respect in the team.
The jaw-droppingly honest comment respects the project. Respect the honest comment. Any program that embraces neurodiversity inclusion — and this is true for any disability inclusion — will truly succeed only with awareness, understanding, and accommodation. Once you're aware of what is and isn't behind that honest comment, then the way the comment is or isn't wrapped becomes irrelevant. And the application runs faster, the project gets finished sooner, and the idea improves.
Neurodiversity inclusion can be a win-win proposition. Don't you want to win?
Embracing any kind of diversity starts with one fundamental first step: awareness
Your place of work is diverse. You've got C-level executives, VPs, and top-level managers who are women, who are of diverse racial and religious backgrounds, who are from the LGBTQ+ community, who are in wheelchairs or otherwise physically disabled. If this is indeed the case, I applaud you. Fortunately, there are more and more companies embracing diversity. Unfortunately, there are still too few. That your company is more inclusive than most is laudable. So, let me ask you this question: how many people do you have at your company who are neurodiverse: who are autistic, have ADHD, are dyslexic? Chances are, you don't really know. And that's cool, that's really what I expected. That's also why I'm writing this article. Neurodiversity is often less visible than other disabilities. Also, it is often more stigmatized.
Embracing any kind of diversity, neurodiversity included, starts with one fundamental first step. Awareness. The logic is simple: if you don't know there's an opportunity, you can't take advantage of it, right? Being aware of neurodiversity — of the broad range of cognitive styles, different ways in which our brains are wired — opens the door to opportunities you didn't even know were there.
Awareness Leads to Opportunity
First, what about your existing employees who may have differently wired brains? With the CDC estimating one child in 68 being diagnosed with some form of autism in the US, and dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia showing even higher rates of prevalence, even a medium-sized business is statistically likely to currently employ people who are not neurotypical. There's your first opportunity: to get more out of people already working for you, to help them lead more fulfilling lives.
Then there is the talent pool of autistic people out there, a talent pool that is waiting to be tapped. If you're not aware of what people on the spectrum can bring to your organization, you're missing out, allowing a competitor to get a jump on you. Note that I will focus on autism in this article because that's where my experience lies. Know, however, that the same principles apply to all facets of neurodiversity.
There is a talent pool of autistic people out there
The first step in the awareness that will allow you to take advantage of these opportunities is to switch the focus from disability to ability. Yeah, you've probably heard that before, but it's critical. It's really the same as any opportunity: you have a choice of either focusing on what could go wrong or you could focus on what could go right. When riding a motorcycle, you tend to turn in the direction you're looking. It's no different with opportunity: know the hazards of the road, but focus on where you want to go. That's how you get there.
It must be remembered that the neurodiverse, just like the rest of the population, are ourselves a diverse bunch. Not all are going to have the same combination of characteristics nor are they likely to have the same degree of any particular characteristic. What I offer are guidelines that can help define a strategy for accommodation. A key point to remember is that you are not trying to shoehorn anyone into a prefabricated notion of “the appropriate autistic role”. Each individual brings their own strengths to the equation, so to have them at their best it's important to keep in mind that we are making modifications to the workplace, not trying to modify the worker.
As many technology companies are starting to recognize, autistic people can be very good at recognizing patterns — and, often more importantly, deviations from a given pattern. This makes many autistic people good candidates for software testing and QA. During my twenty years as a software engineer I have worked with some extremely talented developers who are autistic. Similarly, many autistic people have very good memories. More subtly, but often more importantly, increasing neurodiversity also increases the diversity of creativity and innovation: the “box”, outside which most people struggle to think, has a different shape, a different placement, for those of us who aren't neurotypical.
We neurodiverse are ourselves a diverse bunch
Another advantage of many autistic people is a deep appreciation for consistency. This certainly ties into the software testing domain, but also extends to many other areas where tasks are repetitive. Some examples are data entry, filing and such; warehouse work like stocking, packing, and sorting; set-up and tear-down; maintenance work. Those of us on the spectrum tend to be at ease with following precise instructions, being punctual (coming and going), sticking to the rules. Largely because of this sort of approach, autistic people also tend to be at least as safe in a work environment as neurotypical workers.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not, by any means, advocating the hiring of autistic people to do low-paying grunt work. Each individual should be assessed on their own, particular merits. This is why the phrase bears repeating: think in terms of ability (individual talents) not disability (e.g. autistic).
What about market penetration? The disabled community constitutes a sizable market — one that you can better penetrate if you are seen as part of that community. What's more, there's positive PR in diversity and inclusion. Again: exploitation is not the goal here. The goal is to recognize the strengths of autistic employees and the value that they can bring to your enterprise. But first value the employee.
And what better to value about an employee than loyalty and honesty? Again, no generalization is going to be true in every case, but, by and large, those of us on the spectrum tend to be a straight-up bunch. We've usually got a pretty strong sense of fairness, of right and wrong. So right there, by considering autistic candidates, you are building in a higher probability for dependability, dedication, and — if the culture is one of inclusion and compassion — engagement. And what better way to build company-wide morale and engagement than by starting with better engagement? Now, remember: I did say honesty. Don't be surprised if one of us tells you exactly what we think of the proposal. And don't get upset, either: you might actually learn something that would improve the proposal.
Again, the important thing is awareness. If you and your staff are aware that people on the spectrum tend to be honest and have lower filters than others, then there's no reason to be surprised or to take offense when the honesty comes. And, as suggested above, you can appreciate it for what it is: an attempt to improve the idea being discussed. The frank and forthright manner in which we auties (autistic people) sometimes share our honest perspective can — and has many times (as I know well) — been taken for rudeness. But it's not, not in an intentional way. Our focus is usually laser-targeted on what we perceive to be the reason for the meeting. We are much more concerned, for example, with the quality of the product or the efficacy of the marketing campaign than we are in putting glitter on what we honestly intend as constructive criticism.
Do what you always do when faced with an opportunity: prepare
We autistics have other quirks that you should be aware of. We tend to take things literally, at face value. How literally depends on the individual and their life experience. When our middle son (also on the spectrum) was four years old, he thought that people in black and white photographs could only see in black and white. For him, because photography directly reproduces reality, the advent of color photography merely revealed the beginning of humans being able to see in color. What could be more logical? For me and many others, it's more a case of sometimes being thrown off by vagaries or imprecision.
So how do you make all of this work? You're now aware you may already have neurodiverse employees. You now know that you know hiring people on the spectrum can be beneficial to your business. You also know that we work differently than most people. Now what do you do? You do what you always do when faced with an opportunity. You prepare.
Preparing to Make the Most Out of Neurodiverse Opportunities
Prepare your hiring process by becoming more autism-friendly. Consider virtual interviews. Don't negatively judge a lack of eye contact. Don't ask vague, open-ended questions like, “What can you bring to the table?”, but instead ask the candidate something more concrete, such as to describe how they have added value to projects they've worked on in the past. If you set tests for your candidates, consider allowing them to sit the test at home. Tests are common with software engineering jobs and they scare me to death. The pressure of performing on the spot like that drives my anxiety through the roof and limits my cognitive flexibility (read: I don't do well in those situations). Knowing this about myself and not wanting to subject anyone else to the same pressure, I wrote a test for candidate developers that was more involved than most tests but I also let them take it home and I gave no time limit. In fact, the amount of time a candidate told me they spent on the test was itself information. And how often — and how well — do our employees do their work with us standing (even virtually) over their shoulders? I think it's more useful to test the candidate's ability to get the work done using the same resources they'd have available if in the position they're applying for, not how much they can pull out of a hat on demand.
Prepare your hiring process by becoming more autism-friendly
As part of your onboarding process, make sure your policies and your employee handbook if you have one (and you should) are clearly written, not vague, not informed by assumptions. It's the same with job descriptions. Write them so that they truly are clear and cogent descriptions of the expected duties of the role. If appropriate, consider even having a visual list of a position's duties, as many autistic people are highly visual thinkers. Ensure that your policies address bullying, for no amount of awareness training is going to reach all people equally. Ensure that you have a policy of continuous, open feedback, allowing whatever medium of communication an employee is most comfortable with. And this, of course, includes all employees. Also, the feedback should be bi-directional — as well as being constructive and free of judgment, irony, and sarcasm.
In order to make onboarding is as successful as possible, the culture at your place of work should already be open to neurodiversity. That starts with training for all employees, including for all new employees. To be perfectly honest, none of this is going to work without buy-in from at least one C-level executive, so awareness education starts with the inception and approval of a program for neurodiversity inclusion. Then bring in the top-level managers, hiring managers, and recruiters. Ideally, all your people will have had awareness education. Not only will new hires who are on the spectrum feel welcome (helping to lock in that loyalty and engagement) but for those neurodiverse employees who have, until now, remained hidden, you will have provided and environment that invites them to feel more relaxed and comfortable being at work (and thus more productive) — even if they chose to continue to keep their neurodiversity to themselves.
ERGs can offer constructive feedback on how to improve engagement company wide
Many companies these days have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that allow people who share a certain experience to get together and discuss the things that bring them together. Some examples of groups include women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, cultural or religious groups — as well as the neurodiverse. ERGs can be safe forums in which people with shared experiences can talk openly about those experiences. This can allow the groups to offer constructive feedback on how to improve engagement within the company. Remember that any ERG is made up of in-house experts on their own community, for they are the community. Don't underestimate the value of that.
Be careful, however, not to cast all ERG get-togethers as social gatherings. A good many of us auties are not at our best in social situations. Sometimes it's social anxiety, sometimes it's that we think of work as work, and an added social element seems superfluous. Again, don't judge, understand. If socializing isn't our strong suit, don't force it. Allow the neurodiversity ERG to be run first and foremost by those who are part of the neurodiverse community. And allow the ERG to be run in a staid, business-like manner if that's what your neurodiverse employees want. Also remember that no ERG is going to be fruitful if the company's culture doesn't already show itself to be open to diversity — and a diversity of diversity at that.
Managers will get the best out of their autistic employees if they remember to respect our appreciation for consistency. Try not to change meeting times at the last minute, or switch around someone's shift with too little notice. Don't suddenly change someone's duties. Instead, prepare your employee with a clear, complete list of new responsibilities and a date when the switch will happen. Ideally get their buy-in first. Last-minute changes, while perhaps convenient for you, can really throw an autistic employee off. Any employee is less productive if stressed or anxious, so be aware of what can make your autistic employees stressed and anxious.
As you should with all your people, have regular check-ins with your autistic employees, say fifteen minutes every other week. Give clear, constructive feedback that is aimed to have a positive impact on the employee's performance rather than just to show them where they went wrong. That's just good people management in the first place. And, again, allow for feedback to come to you, verbally, written, voicemail, anonymous — in whatever way the employee will feel most comfortable giving feedback. It's the same with meetings. Don't force meeting participation in real time. Allow feedback to come by email, IM, whatever, up to, say, an hour after the meeting ends. What a participant may have felt anxious about sharing with the group might just be the best suggestion offered. And don't forget you'll likely get some honest responses. Lower the ego and appreciate the honesty.
Autistic people can make highly dependable remote workers
Because noise, chaos, bright (and especially fluorescent) lights can be distracting and stressful for those of us on the spectrum, have another look at your workstation set-up to see if you can have a quiet area, or an area free of glare. Perhaps have a quiet room where employees — all employees — can go to recharge when then feel overloaded. Consider flex time and work-from-home arrangements. Don't scoff. Remember the honesty and consistency stuff? I worked remotely for ten years straight for one single company. Autistic people can make highly dependable remote workers.
Often, those of us on the spectrum can get really absorbed in what we're doing. That can be a real advantage when the software release is tomorrow or the report is due that night, but it can also make task switching more difficult. Encourage the employee to set reminders for themselves. Give a warning if you're the one about to instigate the switch.
Consider having advocates and mentors, perhaps as a company-wide effort to improve engagement. Have a go-to person in HR for initiatives and issues relating to neurodiversity. Having someone on point — ideally (really: crucially) someone who is themselves neurodiverse — will allow your neurodiverse employees a clear and simple process for giving feedback. Keeping that line of communication open it essential. Also have non-HR, peer advocates or mentors. If they are also neurodiverse, wonderful, but if your organization isn't big enough for that, someone with compassion (and awareness training) can really help someone who is, say, autistic, navigate an unfamiliar system.
Okay, I hinted at this in the above paragraph, but let's be honest about this. If you're really serious about being inclusive, make sure your inclusion is itself inclusive. Make sure, that in the development, implementation, and maintenance of your diversity initiative, you have people who are part of the diverse communities to whom you are opening your doors. If you have to start with a consultant, so be it. But as soon as you can get your neurodiverse employees involved. Not only will it show your integrity to your shareholders and customer base, it will prove your integrity to those who matter most. Your employees. All your employees.
If you're really serious about being inclusive, make sure your inclusion is itself inclusive
Assistive technology can bring significant gains. It could be time-management software for people with ADHD or who are autistic, screen filters for those who have a sensitivity to an intensity or frequency of light, allowing or providing noise-canceling headphones for people sensitive to distracting or confusing noises. Each person is different. Find out, either as part of onboarding or through the dedicated HR neurodiversity advocate, what each employee reasonably feels they need to work more efficiently. All you're doing is providing the tools that will make your workforce more productive. That's good business.
And I'm not talking about accommodating only your neurodiverse employees. Now, of course you don't want to start a free-for-all, but the best way to avoid that is by including a module on accommodations in your training, so that everyone understands the reasons for and the benefits of accommodations. You can thereby minimize any complaints about perceived special treatment: not only will everyone have access to appropriate accommodations, everyone will also understand that accommodations are only appropriate when they are required to enhance the quality of an employee's working life. Accommodations for the disabled are there not as a special favor but in order to help their level of productivity and job satisfaction up to the level of a neurotypical with no accommodations.
Adopting accommodations that are appropriate for your employees benefits everyone. Not only will engagement be higher overall, an accommodated employee is going to be less stressed and anxious, which in turn improves performance and even reduces sick days. If there's no space, physically or culturally, for employees to regenerate at while at work, absences that allow them to regenerate away from work are inevitable. Also, a stressed autistic employee may show cognitive inflexibility or anxiety, which means your not getting the best out of them, and nor are they feeling relaxed and fulfilled.
Every employee is an investment. And every one of your employees is investing in you. Give your employees the tools they need to reach their full potential and their investment in you will grow as well. It's a win-win situation. Start with awareness, for that's what leads to opportunity.
Campaign for Disability Employment https://whatcanyoudocampaign.org/
Funded and led by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, the CDE is a collaborative effort among several disability and business organizations. It works to change attitudes about the employment of people with disabilities, and to foster dialogue around these important issues.
Autism Employment Resource Center http://autism.jobs/
Discover the advantages of hiring individuals with autism. Job seekers, parents and caregivers, job coaches, and employers can access practical information that helps candidates become "job ready" and helps employers create autism-friendly workplaces.
The Spectrum Careers https://www.thespectrumcareers.com/
A collaboration between Rangam Consulting and Autism Speaks, The Spectrum Careers, is a staffing firm dedicated to promoting employment in the autism community.
Integrate: Autism Employment Advisors https://www.integrateadvisors.org/
Integrate aims to help employers create a more inclusive workplace environment for existing employees with Asperger's Syndrome and similar autism spectrum profiles and to bring together employers and vocational support professionals to successfully recruit and integrate these individuals. Integrate does this by educating employers and building relationships.
James Emmett & Co. http://jamesemmett.com/
At JEC we use the leading Corporate Development models to increase your businesses bottom line, while creating a stronger workforce for your company, a workforce that is comprised of qualified workers who are safe, productive, loyal, and have a lower turnover rate.
Global Disability Inclusion, LLC http://www.globaldisabilityinclusion.com/
Global Disability Inclusion provides comprehensive strategy, design, and implementation of disability inclusion programs for global companies and US federal contractors. Disability inclusion strategies focus on three key areas: the workplace, the workforce, and the marketplace.
Specialisterne harnesses the special characteristics and talents of people with autism and uses those characteristics and talent as a competitive advantage — and as a means to help people with autism secure meaningful employment. Specialisterne has operations in numerous locations around the world.
Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion http://www.askearn.org/
The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) is a free resource that helps employers tap the benefits of disability diversity. EARN educates public and private sector organizations on ways to build inclusive workplace cultures, and we empower them to become leaders in the employment and advancement of people with disabilities.
The Return On Disability Group http://www.rod-group.com/
The Return on Disability Group unlocks the economic potential of disability globally and creates catalysts and processes for businesses to act on this market. The RoD Group provides data, strategy, process, and new offers that allow companies, governments and investors to act on disability in ways that add value to many types of shareholders. Also see: 2016 Annual Report - The Global Economics of Disability
Meticulon is a software testing consultancy that hires autistic people to deliver better communication, higher-quality results, more efficient work cycles, and on time, on budget projects.
Canadian Business SenseAbility https://www.senseability.ca/
SenseAbility helps companies access the real, tangible benefits of employing talented people with disabilities: lower turnover, training and safety costs, greater innovation, and access to untapped markets.
Focus Professional Services http://focusps.ca/
Focus Professional Services' mandate is to protect or enhance their client’s market share, brand reputation, and employee loyalty by providing IT services that result in reliable, robust software and trusted data. They provide our services through the exceptional strengths and talents of their employees, most of whom are individuals on the autism spectrum. Their vision is to support and influence the social agenda in BC of normalizing neurodiversity in the workplace.
Business Disability Forum http://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/
Business Disability Forum builds disability-smart organizations to improve business performance by increasing confidence, accessibility, productivity, and profitability.
If T.S. Eliot was right, and the world will end not with a bang but a whimper, at least we can safely say that the end of 2016 is not, fortunately, the end of the world — for not many would suggest that the transition from 2016 to 2017 will be anything like a whimper. Those of us for whom diversity and inclusion are important might be feeling a bit grim about the change in political climate as we enter the new year. But that's giving up too easily. Instead, now is the time to work even harder toward our goals. One of my goals is to increase awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace. Let's start simply: with a bit of clarification.
Neurodiversity is, first and foremost, about people. And potential.
You may already be familiar with what neurodiversity means. If so, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. If, on the other hand, you are relatively new to the concept of neurodiversity, here are a few useful definitions. First, neurodiversity itself. Neurodiversity is simply the biological fact that human brains are not all wired the same. Neurodiversity represents “the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species”, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. Someone whose brain functions in what society would consider a “normal” manner is called neurotypical, and someone whose brain diverges significantly from this “norm” is called neurodivergent. Okay, school's out, back to why neurodiversity matters at your place of work.
We are excluding an entire class of people who deserve the same rights as everyone else.
Hands up if you think it's a waste of money to ensure that your workplace is wheelchair accessible. [ pause ] No one? Good. (If, on the other hand, you did raise your hand, read this.) Yes, of course a workplace without wheelchair accessibility would be fined, but that's not the reason they're accessible, surely. Our workplaces are accessible because otherwise we would be excluding an entire class of people who deserve the same rights as everyone else. Well, not surprisingly, the same applies to neurodiversity: unless our workplaces are accessible to the varieties of human cognitive functioning, we are excluding an entire class of people who deserve the same rights as everyone else; who deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.
Neurodiversity is, first and foremost, about people. And potential. To get the best from your employees, you have to recognize their potential and know how to provide them with an environment that will best allow them to realize that potential. Let me run through some real-world examples, starting with my Aspie family. My wife, Ninah, is very smart and has emotional intelligence to rival that of any empath, neurotypical or neurodivergent. Can you just imagine the value that could bring to any human-centric enterprise? Our middle son is constantly creating: building armor and swords from empty Amazon boxes, constructing complex worlds with a minimum of toys. He already has the creativity of an engineer and explores all sorts of ways to engineer all sorts of things. (He's the one, by the way, we're counting on to keep us comfortable in our twilight years.) Our youngest son is enormously caring and would happily give you the shirt off his back (literally) if he thought you needed it more. He may grow up to be an incredibly intuitive counselor or simply the guy that raises everyone else's morale in the office.
Then there are the neurodiverse people I've worked with during my twenty years as a software engineer. I can remember two guys in particular. Both I know to be fellow Aspies, but of course I couldn't talk to them about it because of the stigma still sadly attached to autism, especially at a place of work. One of them won't look you in the eye, but he's the first one to respond to “Any questions?” at a meeting or presentation, always with a very insightful question or comment. He's terribly bright and always on point. The other fellow is a classic nerd or geek (to the linguistic purists reading this: yes, yes, I know the terms have different meanings, I'm just using them in their popular sense) who was quite comfortable wearing fandom gear to work. He's also one of the most brilliant programmers I've ever met. Both of these guys were laughed at behind their backs, made fun of and, I have no doubt, bullied when younger. And this simply because they're different.
Everyone deserves to reach their full potential.
No, let me change that: they were made fun of because their differences were neither understood nor accommodated. And that's a significant difference. It's nothing new. Humans have shunned difference for our entire history, but a sign of true civilization is celebrating and enjoying difference. We're doing much better these days with differences arising from race, gender, sexuality and physical disability. Yes, no doubt, we've still got ground to cover — and the incoming administration may make the work harder — but at least there's momentum there. With neurodiversity, however, the work has barely begun. We haven't yet built a wheelchair ramp for neurological difference. And this brings us back to what we agreed upon earlier: that every class of people deserves to be treated with the same respect as everyone else. Looking at the same ethical principle from a different angle, everyone deserves to reach their full potential. And this isn't going to happen if CEOs, hiring managers and co-workers are unaware of neurodiversity or, even worse, if neurodiversity is ignored.
But wheelchair ramps cost money, affecting the bottom line. True. (For those of you who raised your hands earlier, feeling that wheelchair accessibility is a waste of money, consider for a moment the bottom line of your soul.) But think about it: if you're going to hire somebody it's because of the potential they will bring to your company, right? Would it be fiscally responsible to buy furniture for the boardroom but leave half the chairs in storage? Would it make sense to buy a site license for an office productivity suite yet only use the spreadsheet application? Of course not! So why take that attitude with respect to your people?
You more than likely have neurodiverse co-workers.
The CDC estimated, in 2012, that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States annually, giving us some indication of the incidence of autism in adults. That's actually a higher percentage than the number of people using wheelchairs. Because of its degree of prevalence in our society and because neurodiversity is usually invisible to most people, you can bet that, if your workplace employs even a hundred people, you more than likely have neurodiverse co-workers. Are you really prepared to accommodate wheelchair accessibility but not neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity in the workplace is a fact, and one that we're going to have to get used to. Haven't you said or heard that “people are [your] company's greatest asset”? If that's not just some HR line that's bandied about to fool people into feeling better about working at your company, if that's something you really believe, then do what you can to accommodate neurodiverse people at your place of work, and do what is necessary to change your hiring practices so that they take the neurodivergent into consideration. Accommodation is too big a topic to deal with in this article, so I'll make it the topic of my next. In the meantime, remember: Neurodiversity matters because people matter. And it's people that make your company successful.
Note that autism is only one aspect of neurodiversity, and wheelchair use is only one aspect of physical disability: neither statistic is meant to be all encompassing.
Recently, I finished reading Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 2016): what an inspiration! The content is clearly laid out, with a survey of the barriers to successful inclusion of autistic people in the workplace, and solid recommendations to remove those barriers. Throughout the book, Booth has included the perspectives and experiences of numerous autistic people she has interviewed. These things alone make the book a compelling and invaluable resource.
What impressed me most of all, however, were two insightful distinctions that inform much of Booth's approach. First is the revealing contrast between the medical and social models of disability. The medical model, which has been (and unfortunately still remains) the default approach, is to focus on the individual's “problems”, suggesting that the solution lies entirely with (in our case) the autistic person. More recently, the social model of disability has started to gain ground. The social model recognizes that social constructs are the barriers to inclusion of those with disabilities. A simple example: Is the deterrent to employing someone in a wheelchair the fact that they cannot walk or that your workplace isn't wheelchair accessible? We all recognize that to be inclusive, it is the workplace's responsibility to accommodate employees in wheelchairs. To think otherwise would be considered heartless, inconsiderate. The social model simply suggests that we take the same perspective to all disabilities.
And then there's that pesky word, “disability”. Since discovering that I, myself, am autistic, I have struggled with that word. Indeed, it holds some degree of controversy in the autistic community at large. The other distinction Booth makes resolved that controversy for me very simply, differentiating between “impairment” and “disability”. Continuing with the example of a person in a wheelchair, the impairment is that they cannot walk and must use a wheelchair. The disability, however, is merely the lack of accommodation, e.g. a ramp and/or an elevator. Once the accommodation is in place, while the impairment remains – for it is a part of that individual – the disability disappears. Extending this distinction to an autistic employee is equally simple: if the autistic person, for example, is hyper-sensitive to bright lighting, that's the impairment; the disability is caused by overly bright lights. Allow them to turn out the lights above their workspace and use a desk lamp and “poof!”, the disability is gone.
Booth, herself autistic, is from the UK, but Autism Equality in the Workplace includes information from not just the UK but also Australia, Canada and the US. I highly recommend the book for anyone dealing with diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Hungry for more, I was delighted to stumble upon a copy of Michael Bernick and Richard Holden's The Autism Job Club (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2015), which focuses on a job club in San Francisco started by the Autism Aspergers Syndrome Coalition for Education Networking and Development (AASCEND) to help autistic people, including Bernick's son William, find jobs. Bernick and Holden take a different approach from Booth, focusing on educating autistic people about the workplace, job coaching to give them skills to help them succeed, and helping them with placement. There is a short chapter, near the end of the book, that does mention work being done to change workplace culture, but the bulk of the book is concerned with how the autistic individual must adapt in order to find work.
There is no doubt that the two approaches are both necessary: working directly with autistic people to give them tools for success, and changing workplace culture to increase awareness, understanding and accommodation for those on the spectrum. To date, there has been a far greater focus on getting the autistic candidate to adapt to the workplace and not nearly enough emphasis on getting the workplace to understand the benefits to accommodation.
As I was reading The Autism Job Club, however, something started to bother me. Then all of a sudden it hit me: the voices of the autistic people mentioned in Bernick's book are all but silent. Yes, there are a few passages quoting autistic people, but these are almost invariably quoted from written sources (a flyer, a blog, etc.). There are many more quotes from neurotypicals (those who are not autistic or otherwise neurologically different, such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.) who are either parents of an autistic person, job coaches or otherwise involved in helping autistic people find work.
Reading Bernick's book felt like being the topic of conversation but not being part of the conversation. It felt like a doctor talking about you to her or his nurse, referring to you as “the patient”, all while you are in the room. The diagnostic rate of autism here in the US is 1 in 68 – a rate of prevalence that will only increase with time, especially as we get better at diagnosing girls and women on the spectrum. With a prevalence like that please understand that we are in the room and that we do have a voice. If a guest speaker were invited to a school to give a talk about Black History in America, it would be (certainly should be) a reasonable expectation that the speaker is Black. Similarly, if you are seeking a greater understanding of autism in the workplace, please have the same expectation: that you want to learn from someone who has direct, personal experience of what it's like to be autistic in the workplace.
As you are working toward inclusion, be inclusive. Such inclusivity is becoming more frequently second nature when it comes to race, gender and sexuality, but we're nowhere near that when it comes to disability. We're going to change that.
Should you wish to purchase a copy of Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace, you may do so at a discount! Use the code Y16 when ordering from the publisher.