It’s a fallacy that hiring employees with autism will be a burden on an organisation. Sometimes, the simple act of changing a light bulb can make all the difference.
What’s happening around you right now as you read this sentence?
If you’re at work, you might be sitting under a fluorescent light. You might hear the rumblings of the office around you: colleagues chatting, a coffee machine gurgling, the low hum of the radio announcing the day’s weather. Perhaps the walls are branded with a bright, vibrant company logo.
If you’re a neurotypical employee, and most of us are, none of that would faze you. But if you were a person with autism, which is the case for one in 70 Australians, what I’ve just described could be defined as your own personal version of hell.
“My brain is unable to block out irrelevant stimuli. I can hear everything. I can see everything. I can hear the bright lights. It’s very distracting,” says Ashlea McKay who was diagnosed with autism at 29-years-old.
Pre-diagnosis McKay would expend a lot of energy trying to appear ‘normal’. When she was finally diagnosed, she was freed from a lot of her anxiety. Coming to terms with the news of her autism, she started thinking about all the cool things her brain could do. Three years on, she prefers to think of it as an asset.
“I think in pictures, patterns and pathways. I’m really good at lateral problem solving, and upside down and back-to-front problem solving. I can solve a Sudoku puzzle in under two minutes – and those are the really, really hard ones.
“I spent almost 30 years of my life thinking I was some kind of monster who shouldn’t be around other people because I couldn’t connect. But finding out I am autistic meant I could understand that I just have a different brain and that’s okay.”
McKay is currently freelancing and has been searching for a permanent role for two and a half years.
“I’ve had some people who’ve suggested I just go for entry-level jobs, or that I should hide my autism because I’d be giving recruiters the chance to discriminate against me. But if I hide it, I’m perpetuating this myth that something is wrong with me.
“I spent almost 30 years of my life thinking I was some kind of monster who shouldn’t be around other people because I couldn’t connect. But finding out I am autistic meant I could understand that I just have a different brain and that’s okay.”– Ashlea McKay
“My brain works in ways that other people’s don’t. You want diverse thinking types at work, that’s how I sell it to recruiters, hiring managers and employers… but I don’t get a lot of calls.”
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McKay stressed she was only able to speak to her own experiences; she’s not a voice for the entire autism community. For example, a lot of people on the autism spectrum find bright, clashing colours to be very distressing, with some saying it causes them to become physically nauseous. But McKay finds vibrant colours to be soothing.
The idea that no two autistic experiences are the same was a caveat expressed by all the people I spoke with for this article. In fact, two of them shared the exact same sentiment, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
This raises an important point. It might be unintentional, but those in the majority group often place additional stress and responsibility on minority groups to break down their misconceptions for them.
Understanding the unwritten rules
Olivia Green, employment coordinator of Aspect Capable, the employment support branch of Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), partners with large organisations such as the Commonwealth Bank and Infosys to support the hiring and fostering of autistic workers.
Everyone experiences different challenges at work, says Green, and that goes for employees with or without autism. But, speaking in generalities, she says the most common barriers for autistic employees can be social, communication or sensory differences.
“A person on the spectrum may socialise differently to others in the workplace, which could include limited social interaction, less eye contact or difficulty understanding unwritten social rules or expectations.”
A lot of workplace communication is not explicit. For neurotypical new hires, it’s quite easy to quickly pick up on the ‘office vibe’. They might notice that staff tend to wear casual attire on a Friday or that their direct manager’s workload is too heavy to answer smaller administrative queries. But when these unwritten rules aren’t documented or clearly communicated, they can be confusing for employees with autism.
“For some people with autism, they’re more than happy to do the job that’s required of them, but they might not really see a point of being exactly in at 9:00am. They might misinterpret some of the workplace rules and seem to be flagrantly ignoring them, when they’re not meaning to,” says Nicole Rogerson, CEO of Autism Australia.
Fixing these barriers doesn’t have to be laborious. Rogerson uses an example that works well for her son, who has autism and works as a chef. She told her son’s manager, “Just make sure you text him after a meeting. If you tell him something, he might not remember it. But if he sees a text message, he’ll never forget.”
Sometimes, the thing holding employers back from making a diverse hire is fear. Managers might be scared they’ll say the wrong thing or not understand how to best support an employee, deciding it’s easier not to hire neurodiverse or disabled staff at all. This isn’t a good enough reason to exclude this portion of the talent pool. In fact, there’s no such thing as a good enough reason.
To avoid things going pear shaped, Rogerson suggests employers look to others who’ve paved the way before taking on neurodiverse staff.
“Reach out to other companies and organisations like mine to talk about what’s gone into the cases where it’s worked really well. That way you can be set up for success.”
In other instances, it’s the perceived costs associated with hiring diverse talent that can cause employer reluctance. A 2017 study by Curtin University’s Curtin Autism Research Group (CARG), surveyed 59 employers who had hired employees with autism across a variety of industries (the authors recognised this didn’t represent the whole autism spectrum).
The paper identified that employees with autism receive a marginally lower hourly rate (-$1.65) than their neurotypical colleagues, yet it costs the exact same amount of money to hire employees with and without autism.
In fact, sometimes it can be as simple as changing a single light bulb to soften the lighting or closing an open window in order to make an autistic employee’s workplace experience easier.
For McKay, hot-desking was something that hindered her productivity. “I found it really difficult to get settled every day. I couldn’t have any direct sunlight on my face. It took me about an hour to adjust to a new environment, new people, new sounds, new light, and then I’d have to work an extra hour each day.”
To overcome this, McKay spoke with her facilities manager and asked to return to the same desk each day. The organisation agreed, and it helped significantly, she was able to settle into her day in a matter of minutes.
“Very small things can make a world of difference to the person with autism, and it benefits the company; you’re going to have somebody whose dedication to their work is significant,” says Rogerson.
“My brain works in ways that other people’s don’t. You want diverse thinking types at work, that’s how I sell it to recruiters, hiring managers and employers.” – Ashlea McKay
The term neurodiversity – which encapsulates the autism spectrum, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, Down syndrome and more – was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, and popularised by journalist Harvey Blume. In a 1998 issue of The Atlantic Blume wrote, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”
Rogerson says that neurodiversity in the workplace is important, but says there are many people who sit on the more severe end of the autism spectrum who will have great difficulty ever gaining employment. And retention can be an issue for those who are able to enter the workforce, but with the right support they can be great contributors.
“If you see people with severe autism, it’s quite obvious. But for people with milder forms of autism, it’s much harder to notice. Slightly different behaviour and a different way of doing things can be misunderstood. It puts people in HR in a very difficult situation, because somebody being reported for behaving a little bit oddly or not quite doing what they’re supposed to could be considered somebody that has to be spoken to.”
In 2015, the United Nations estimated that the global unemployment rate of autistic employees was around 80 per cent. The Australian labour force participation rate for employees with autism is significantly higher (42 per cent) than the UK (15 per cent) and the US (11 per cent), but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, starting with recruitment.
Most interview processes aren’t designed to bring the best out in a candidate with autism.
Green says, “Traditional recruitment strategies rely heavily on anxiety provoking assessments where there’s a time limit, unexpected questions or scenarios and first impressions that are based on social interactions. These can be really overwhelming and difficult for many people on the spectrum.
“Something as simple as sharing the interview questions beforehand via email can reduce this anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed.”
It’s still important to keep in mind the best person for the job. While minority groups sometimes need extra assistance in breaking through certain barriers, they shouldn’t be hired just for the sake of it.
“Just wanting a more inclusive work environment isn’t enough,” says Rogerson. “Make sure you’ve got somebody who can do the job and that they want to do that particular job. One instance I can think of is an autistic woman who was placed in a daycare centre, but she’s really distressed by children crying. It was such a terrible placement. Everyone was too busy looking for a job for her that they forgot to think about what would interest her.”
An organisational approach
A lot of organisations already understand the benefit of hiring staff who are wired differently. Microsoft, for example, initiated an organisation-wide Autism Hiring Program to engage the unique skills that employees with autism have to offer. The Department of Human Services utilised the DXC Technology Dandelion Program – an initiative that places neurodiverse staff into organisations – to welcome 34 neurodiverse staff into their offices. Retention rates for those placed through the program are at 92 per cent.
“I found it really difficult to get settled every day. I couldn’t have any direct sunlight on my face. It took me about an hour to adjust to a new environment, new people, new sounds, new light, and then I’d have to work an extra hour each day.” – Ashlea McKay
In 2015 JPMorgan Chase implemented a hiring program, with a four-person pilot that quickly grew to 85 staff working in 10 different business lines across six different countries.
Six months into the pilot program, the employees on the spectrum were compared against their neurotypical colleagues and found to be 48 per cent faster and 92 per cent more productive.
While she respects the work of autism hiring programs, McKay says they’re usually designed for securing work for first time employees, not people like her who find out about their diagnosis 10 years into their career.
“They’re often looking to get autistic people into tech roles, or cyber security, which is great if that’s what you want to do, but if you don’t it can be really hard.
“Our skills, experience and talents are just as valuable as anyone else’s. We exist in all professions and all walks of life. Autism is just having a different brain. It’s not a child throwing tantrums and reciting prime numbers. Just see autism as an accepted form of difference and everything else will fall into place.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of HRM Magazine.