How do you make a way for Autistic children to find work as Autistic adults?
In honor of “Autism Awareness Month,” or what is also euphemistically known as “Celebrate NeuroDiversity,” I think we should take a hard look at how impossible it is to make the world a better place for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Honestly, it is admirable for employers and educators to investigate ways to create an “Autism-Friendly Workplace.” It is the right thing to do too. However, no matter how many adaptions are made in the classroom or the workplace, there is one element in the system that is not being addressed by these compassionate educators and employers.
What’s that One Element?
The NeuroDiverse person themselves, and their Empathy Triad Blindness will keep getting in the way1. The Autism-Friendly agenda doesn’t account for the fact that most NeuroTypicals rarely accept the oddities of those on the Spectrum. NTs avoid the NeuroDiverse, mock them, or at best pity them (and try to rescue them). So even if you provide sensory sensitive environments, and Special Ed. Teacher’s Aides, and remote work schedules, etc., the NeuroDiverse still have to interact with their NeuroTypical classmates, and coworkers, and supervisors, and customers. And it rarely turns out well.
- All children on the Autism Spectrum grow up to be adults on the Autism Spectrum.
- Most adults on the Autism Spectrum are under-employed and struggle in the adult NeuroTypical world.
- No amount of compassion for the NeuroDiverse will changes how the bulk of NeuroTypical people relate to the Autistic population.
- Empathy Triad Blindness means that the NeuroDiverse will never understand what they are missing, nor can they truly understand the world of the NeuroTypical. This is a terrible disability.
Think about Neil, an ASD kid with a fascination for studying every war in the 20th century. The local Army Guard Reserve took an interest in Neil when he was in high school. They created an honorary rank for him within their unit as a historian. They bestowed on him a set of Army fatigues and even a helmet. He proudly and frequently wore his gear to school. While Neil had a community to belong to for a while, what was he supposed to do upon high school graduation? How can he use these “skills” in the world of work? How does an employer make an “Autism-Friendly Workplace” for a young adult who wants to wear an Army helmet to the office?
Or consider my daughter Bianca. Bianca taught herself to read when she was four. At the time I thought she was gifted. Her sensitivity was sweet. Her lack of social skills was not. She refused to bathe, even as a teenage girl. She couldn’t seem to turn in her homework or even finish it. She was mocked for dressing oddly. Sometimes the other children would scream at her, even hit her, for being so very different from the rest of them.
I protected Bianca the best I could, but what is a mother to do when even the school psychologist is afraid of Bianca? One day I got a call from the psychologist when Bianca was having a meltdown. The specialist, who is supposed to know how to handle these “special needs” students was so overwhelmed that she demanded I pick up Bianca immediately, or that she would call the police to have my daughter arrested.
I encouraged Bianca’s love of reading because there was nothing else, she liked. I got her a library card when she was six. Books were always among her presents for birthdays and holidays. To this day, in her mid-thirties, Bianca lists her skill-set on LinkedIn as “Book Lover.” If she had a degree in library science this might make sense, but instead she looks for jobs where she can sit all day eating snacks and reading books.
There is no Autism-Friendly Workplace for Most Autistic Adults
Let’s take a look at some typical Autistic adults. Think about these questions as you read the brief summaries, I have written about each.
- What do they have in common?
- How would you relate to them in the workplace?
- What kind of workplace “accommodations” would help them adapt to their NeuroTypical coworkers?
In the days before COVID Marleese was lucky enough to find work as an independent contractor working remotely. In fact, the only way Marleese could keep a job, was to work remotely, doing hourly contract work. She managed her job as a medical transcriptionist by working between the hours of 11:00 pm and 5:00 am. All she had to do was call in and listen to the doctors’ recordings, type the notes, and file them electronically. The neighborhood was quiet at this time of night, so she could work undisturbed, with her cat Tulip purring on her lap.
Dennis is a quiet, unassuming guy, who worked from the IT department in a municipal agency. He liked helping employees who had computer problems, especially those not terribly computer literate. These employees loved him too. They knew that whenever they got stuck, they could call Dennis and he would be at their desk with a smile. The problem is that Dennis’ supervisor thought he was too slow. Instead of quickly resolving the technical problem, Dennis seemed to be oblivious of the time. As a result, Dennis was placed on a corrective work plan — which he failed — and then had his hours cut to part time — before he was eventually laid off.
Said is a well-educated mechanical engineer who can’t seem to find a job in his field. He was ecstatic when he got hired by an international truck manufacturer, even though the job he was offered was not as an engineer, but as an assistant to a project manager. He hoped he could eventually transfer into an engineering position. The problem for Said is that he was very awkward socially, so he kept to himself even when coworkers went to lunch together. He also seemed unable to understand his assignments, simple as they were. He asked numerous questions of his supervisor and coworkers because he feared he would make a mistake. He was viewed as inept because of his “pestering” questions and lack of social graces. Eventually Said quit the job as his depression grew to intolerable levels and he missed many days of work.
Cheryl is a paleontologist. She is well respected in her field because of her research and publications on paleobotany. She has a prestigious job as a professor at a North American university. The problem for Cheryl is that while her students love her quirkiness , and her administrator admires her brilliant research, and even her colleagues enjoy picking her brain for tips on their own papers — Cheryl goes home alone night after night and drinks too much to cope with a lonely life.
For a truly Autism-Friendly Workplace Hire a Coach
I have written my share of recommendations in support of workplace accommodations for my NeuroDiverse clients. Often my reports saved my client’s job. Sometimes, the employer was able to set up some simple accommodations to make the workplace more comfortable for the Autistic employee. For example, we moved one man’s desk away from a busy hallway, where the interruptions were intense. In many cases, the employer was willing to allow the autistic person to work remotely, to avoid the hustle bustle of the office. In another case we reduced the number of meetings the employee had to attend, since gathering with others is stressful.
However, none of these accommodations made much of a difference in the interpersonal world of the workplace. The NeuroDiverse worker was still considered an outsider. They were still devalued because they couldn’t empathically communicate with others. They were rarely considered for promotion since they couldn’t manage team members. Worse, the rest of the staff had to endure the quirky behaviors of the NeuroDiverse employee such as talking too loudly, or interrupting with an inappropriate question, or hygiene problems, etc.
As far as I am concerned there is no way to make the workplace “Autism-Friendly,” as long as there is no real understanding about this pervasive developmental disability. And to expect the entire world of NeuroTypicals to jump in and learn about the minds of the NeuroDiverse — is just unrealistic.
However, there is a partial solution. Autistic children do better in school when they are protected by a caring adult, usually an Aide who hangs out with them throughout the day. In fact, I had my Nanny attend preschool with my daughter Bianca so that she would have a guide regarding the social world of preschoolers. It could be the same for the NeuroDiverse employee.
Marleese, Dennis, Said and even Cheryl would have done better had they had an office coach. Here are just a few ways the coach can work on behalf of the Autistic worker in the workplace.
- The coach could be responsible for explaining to the NeuroDiverse employee what is going on in the workplace. For example, NeuroDiverse employees often fail to grasp the inuendo at meetings.
- The coach could also help the employee draft emails and reports so that they are “friendlier.”
- The coach can act as a guide in meetings with the employee’s supervisor or manager.
- The coach can help the NeuroDiverse employee debrief their day and resolve their stress.
- The coach can act as a mediator with coworkers and supervisors. This is tough because the NeuroDiverse employee may offend others unintentionally.
- The coach could work with a group of NeuroDiverse employees, teaching them skills for navigating the workplace together.
This last point is particularly important. Knowing that you are not alone, that others have similar problems, and that there is someone who cares to help, can make a huge difference in making the workplace more “Autism-Friendly.”
Build a bridge between NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical
While it is compassionate to create a day, a week or even a month to “Celebrate NeuroDiversity,” this is no answer to the real problem that Autistic adults have fitting into the NeuroTypical world. It is also unrealistic to announce that a company has an “Autism-Friendly” workplace when the few accommodations that are offered only keep the NeuroDiverse more isolated.
Keep the accommodations. The NeuroDiverse need protection for their sensory sensitivities and Empathy Triad Blindness. However, they also need the protection of a job coach who can provide the psychological structure the NeuroDiverse lack. Navigating the dominant culture of NeuroTypicals is daunting enough for NeuroTypicals, let alone the NeuroDiverse. A coach can help build a bridge between the worlds of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical to truly create an “Autism-Friendly” workplace.
1 Empathy Triad Blindness is defined in my book, “Empathy is More Than Words: Groundbreaking Tools for NeuroDivergent Relationships.” It is defined as a disconnect among the three parts of Empathy (Empathy, Context and Conversation). https://www.amazon.com/Empathy-More-Than-Words-Groundbreaking/dp/B0BQ5DRV3R/ref=sr_1_1?crid=BGLGID8C70D&keywords=Empathy+is+More+Than+Words+Marshack&qid=1672973470&sprefix=empathy+is+more+than+words+marshack%2Caps%2C178&sr=8-1