April is World Autism Awareness Month. As part of this important initiative, we discuss how we can best support, retain and celebrate people in the workplace with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Autism manifests differently in each person, which is why we now refer to a spectrum – Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – that incorporates traditionally separate diagnoses such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome. ASD is a congenital developmental disorder impacting approximately one in 54 people around the world. It’s important to recognise that no two people with ASD will be affected in the same way and consequently there is no such thing as a ‘blanket’ level of support. Autism is not always easily detectable from the outside, and a growing body of research points to women being better at ‘camouflaging’ autism, particularly in social interactions. Chances are, there are people you in your life with ASD, whether you know it or not. It is therefore crucial to apply sensitivity and open-mindedness when interacting with anyone – whether you believe them to be neurodivergent or neurotypical.
Benefits of ASD in the workplace
It is an unfortunate reality that people with ASD often struggle to find and retain employment due to a general lack of awareness in our society about how to support, appreciate, and work with neurodiverse candidates. Uninformed hiring managers and organisations as a whole tend to focus on the disadvantages of autism and miss the brilliant kaleidoscope of advantages that ASD candidates can bring to the table. People with ASD process information differently, which lends itself to certain characteristics such as sustained concentration, strong attention to detail and oftentimes a superior memory. Employees with ASD are also often faster at solving problems: according to JP Morgan Chase, autistic employees are 92 per cent more productive and 48 per cent faster than non-autistic employees. Studies show that employees with ASD also tend to possess high levels of integrity, with above average levels of honesty and loyalty. An increasing number of organisations – such as SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, and Ford – have adapted their human resources models to access and retain neurodiverse talent – and they are reaping the benefits through productivity gains, quality improvement, higher levels of innovation and enhanced employee engagement as a result.
Supporting ASD in the workplace
While enjoying the benefits of working with ASD candidates, it is crucial that organisations also understand and support the needs of ASD employees with kindness, consideration, and flexibility. People on the spectrum process sensory stimuli in the brain in a different way to neurotypical people, which means many may experience under-sensitivity or over-sensitivity to their environment. For example, sounds may appear too loud, so ASD employees may benefit from being allowed to wear noise-cancelling headphones at work in order to focus. When communicating, people with ASD often interpret things literally, so speaking clearly, providing concise instructions and avoiding metaphors will go a long way to enhancing conversations.
Celebrating our differences
It’s important that all employees are taught to celebrate their differences, show compassion towards others and appreciate the fresh perspectives that neurodiverse colleagues contribute. Attempting to force everyone into the same ‘mould’ is an outdated work model that either excludes neurodiverse candidates altogether or creates a toxic environment where they experience high levels of stress and cannot function at their best. Studies have shown repeatedly that when we allow people the freedom to be themselves at work, they are more likely to thrive – displaying greater levels of productivity, innovation, and job satisfaction. In support of World Autism Awareness Month, ask yourself how you can better understand and celebrate the differences of those you work with. In what ways can your organisation thrive from the fresh perspectives offered by neurodiverse candidates? What can you do to attract and retain candidates with ASD?