The Neurodiverse Workplace

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a new report announcing a 15% increase in autism’s prevalence in the United States, to 1 in 59 children, from 1 in 68 two years previous.

Having someone on the Spectrum in your life is more and more common. You might have met them in the queue at the grocery shop or noticed high functioning autism in your best friend’s life partner.

So why is it that society still struggles to integrate autistic people into the workplace? Neurodiverse people frequently need accommodations, like headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation or they avoid making eye contact (I wrote more about this in a detailed blog post). Most of these challenges can be managed and the results can be great. Many on the Spectrum have a high IQ and research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.

In order for these people to showcase their talent, companies need to change the way they recruit and their career development policies to include a diverse pool of talent.

Not surprisingly, when autistic people get the support they need, companies are thriving overall. Hewlett Packard Enterprise launched a program which introduced over 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Preliminary results suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others. After the success of this program, the Australian Defense Department is developing a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity. You can read more about it in this article published in Harvard Business Review.

How can we start employing more autistic people?

Don’t rush the process; make sure you are hiring the people with the right CV for the job. Partnering with companies that already have experience in autistic behavior is a way to facilitate knowledge exchange. Expect a change in your company culture and your employees.


5 Replies to “The Neurodiverse Workplace”

  1. Accommodations for HFA autistic individuals? Am all for it.

    I am also concerned, though, that autistic individuals – at work or at home – be taught and required to mind the rights of others.

    An HFA autistic individual can be quite the bully. They should not be permitted to bully others.

    1. You are absolutely correct Ben. Without empathy, “Aspies” can easily misread feedback from NTs, and feel criticized and demeaned, when there is no such intention. Then based on how they feel, they can be vindictive. Of course this is true for all of us, but it is a particular problem for those on the Spectrum, who have not learned the Golden Rule. Integrating Spectrum people into the workplace is more complex than my blog may lead you to believe. Yes we need to be aware of the simple accommodations that “Aspies” need to insure their success, but I agree that the untrained “Aspie” boss or coworker can be very destructive. I wrote about this problem in my book “Out of Mind – Out of Sight” in a chapter on Bullying. I describe how children on the Spectrum can be the bully, not just the bullied. I also wrote about this phenomenon in my book “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you.” Having lived an entire lifetime with “Aspies” (Mother, spouse and child) I have endured a lot of bullying at their hands.

  2. Spot on Ben.

    I suffered with an Aspie colleague, whose tendency to make uninvited physical contact had also bothered another colleague. I and ended up approaching another area for a vacancy, which came through. But the entire process of insisting on my area releasing me was a stressful exercise of gas-lighting from them the whole way as I attempted to make sense of the bizarre behaviors I had been subjected to. So when a round of voluntary redundancies I asked my new boss to declare my position redundant and retired but was still bothered by it for a couple of years, not easing off unIi went back to work in a much better government agency.

    My wife was in tears from a much less extended exposure at work with one who was supposed to be assisting her but instead usurped her position. Being senior to him in the organization they supported her so once he was eased out then she was fine.

    My daughter was very distressed at her work from having to work on a project managed by one but luckily the organization seemed to have recognized he was a problem and made accommodating arrangements for him, and my daughter.

    My wife’s older sister is Aspergic and her son is too. I actually quite like him, as he tends to respect my ‘seniority’, unlike his mother who is considerably older than me and much older than my wife / her sister. That is another story but as to work my nephew somehow managed to be selected into the army and his Aspergers (plus ADHD and Dyslexia) seemed to not be detected. He even did two tours in Afghanistan. However he drove his sergeant to distraction and was discharged.

    All these cases indicated that Aspergic people are likely to be undiagnosed which means that any program put in place to support those, i.e. NTs, who have to work with Aspies is unavailable to them, and actually there tends not to be any such formal program.

    Aspergic people present extraordinarily well at interview and in the selection process, due to their lack of inhibition, which seems to come from not being able to recognize the boundaries of others but conversly having an expanded sense of their own psychological space containing their domain of control.

    As soon as the Aspie perceives that their team colleagues are in any formal relationship with them at level or below, then the bullying starts, via being overbearingly interfering or paternally patronizing all the while maintaining a deference to their own superiors.

    A special needs teacher put it to me that Aspergic people have an overwhelming need for predictability and sense of order and control and if they cannot detect it then they will supply the order themselves.

    So, he said, one must ensure they know that you are top dog. That works Ok when you are the teacher and they are the student, or you are an army top sergeant or officer and the Aspie is a corporal. But if you are in a team with an Aspie then doing so results in you running the risk of being seen by your common superior as the problem, and subject to counselling or worse for breaking code of conduct regulations pertaining to showing respect to colleagues.

    Quite apart from management not recognizing Aspergic behavior unless they have also experienced it the question of how to teach them to mind the rights of others and monitor their compliance is a good one but moot. They cannot be taught in general terms, each person who becomes subjected to their behavior has to push back to establish boundaries and continually enforce them. The Aspie will learn to oblige but each person has to do this as the Aspie cannot generalize or establish a pattern of objection to their interference, so will learn to leave a particular person alone but not the next person.

    Aspergic people are best suited to particular vocations/roles where they can work as individuals and be left alone to concentrate on the technical problems. Their dis-interest in any form of social interaction rather than being a liability becomes asset and they can appear to be more productive by a noticeable margin than the organization’s NT employees who must by necessity devote time to building and maintaining team relationships.

  3. Thinking of my nephew reminded me of another field of employment very suitable for Aspergic people although perhaps not for mainline autistic people (unless one goes with the ‘high functioning’ qualifier).

    That would be in direct sales in the field especially cold calling or maybe even being a company representative whose role might be to just keep in touch with customers.

    In my experience Aspergers people have very little inhibition in approaching people which, I believe is another aspect of their lack of intellectual capacity to recognise others as separate induviduals with their own thoughts and feelings about a matter in hand, and can only consider their own agendas. This even carries over to when they are in the physical space belonging to others be it the other’s home or office premises. So their sales script can run in said space unhindered by thoughts of how the potential or actual customer might be feeling or thinking about the hard sell from you, the sales rep with his foot in your door.

    To bring this back to my nephew bringing this to mind as a teenager he spent time in a local youth group for boys sponsored by the local law enforcement authorities in the city where he lived. The idea was to keep boys busy and learn responsibility to help the community. One task they did was to door knock to raise funds for charity and time what they were selling was bags of animal manure for use in the garden.

    No problem for my nephew: he topped the tally by selling 400 bags of manure!

    1. Hi John.
      Your comments about Aspergic people are eye opening and really have merit. How do we incorporate all people into our communities when they may have such differing abilities and perspectives? For my part, I want to educate people about the differing was that “Aspies” think from most non-Spectrum people. It seems to me if we can understand their thought processes better, we may be able to thwart some of the problem you have noted. For example, if all an “Aspie” learns to do is follow certain social rules in a work place, that’s a start, but gives them no real path to grow emotionally, or psychologically. We can do better to help them learn other more meaningful ways to interact. And we can teach non-Spectrum co-workers and supervisors how to slow down and make sense of “Aspie” behavior.

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