Why you should care about neurodiversity in the workplace
Globally recognised companies are benefiting from the unique contributions of autistic employees.
Neurodiversity within the workforce is well on its way to being recognised as a legitimate advantage, not only for employers, but also their employees. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is just one facet of human neurodiversity, and autistic people bring with them a variety of skills, values, and interests that add unique value to the workplace.
Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are recognised and respected as any other human variation. When talking about neurodiversity, we split into two streams:
- Neurotypical means having a style of neurocognitive functioning that society considers “normal.”
- Neurodivergent, on the other hand, means a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from this “normal”.
The neurodiverse advantage
Autistic people uphold an abundance of incredible traits and skills which have been recognised by tech giants such as SAP, HP, New Relic, Microsoft, DXC Technology, Australian banks such as ANZ, NAB, Westpac, BankWest, and other high-profile companies including Ford Motor, EY, and JPMorgan Chase.
“Our autistic employees achieve, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues, depending on the roles,” says James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism at Work at Chase. “They are highly focused and less distracted by social interactions. There’s talent here that nobody’s going after.”
For example, the DXC Technology Dandelion Program is an initiative designed to build skills and careers for people on the autism spectrum in disciplines such as cyber security, data analytics and software testing. This program has placed autistic people in roles for the Australian Government in Department of Defence, Department of Human Services, and Department of Home Affairs.
Experience has shown (DXC Technology, 2017) that autistic employees have sustained levels of attention to detail, productivity, outside-the-box thinking, enthusiasm, and morale. They can identify defects and issues that other people may not, and also exhibit impressive managerial and leadership qualities. Additional strengths include honesty, loyalty, high levels of technical ability, increased concentration levels, and logical approaches to tasks at hand.
Lets talk about autism
When speaking about autism or to an autistic person, it pays to be mindful of language. Identity-first language versus person-first language is a common debate. The difference between the two perspectives essentially boils down to their personhood and identity. Does that person consider autism to be something that they have, or something that they are?
To say that somebody is a “person with autism” is to use “person-first” language. This puts their personhood first, and makes their autistic identity just one element of what makes up their individuality. Saying that somebody is an “autistic person”, on the other hand, is to use “identity-first” language. This puts their autistic identity at the core of their individuality.
I use and prefer identity-first language, because I feel that being autistic is not something I am afflicted with, it is something I am, and in my opinion the person-first language takes away from my identity. Having said that, if you have met one autistic person, you have only ever met one autistic person. I encourage you to check with the person at hand what they’re most comfortable with — my opinion does not represent the entire autistic community.
Autistic people make up an estimated 1 percent of the worldwide population, with ASD being widely recognised within all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Autism is four times more likely to occur with males than females, and parents with one autistic child have a 2% to 18% chance of having a second child who is also autistic (CDC, 2018). Research suggests that the average person knows at least one autistic person (Ehlers & Gillberg, 1993).
While ASD is typically identified before the age of three, adult identification is becoming more and more common. This happens frequently after a child has been identified as autistic, and their parent recognises the same characteristics in themselves. I was 31 years old when I discovered that I am autistic.
Self-identified autistic adults typically pursue their own research and exploration after noticing personal traits and characteristics consistent with ASD. For some, this realisation can be frustrating, leading to feelings of guilt, confusion, denial, and anger. For others, it’s a sigh of relief. They have finally identified the source of all the experiences and feelings they’ve lived through, that just seemed out of step with the rest of the world. For myself, it was the latter.
Autism is a part of who we are, that influences the way we relate to our environment, surroundings and our social interactions. While no two cases of autism are exactly the same, common characteristics can be identified, and typically fall into three categories: behavioural, emotional, and social.
Our behavioural traits may include ritualistic patterns or abnormally intense interests in particular objects, hobbies, or activities. We may appear to be perfectionists in some areas, and have remarkable difficulty transitioning from one activity to another. We’re also seen to exhibit self-stimulating behaviour known as ‘stimming’; stimming usually refers to specific behaviours that include hand- flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases. While these traits are mostly harmless day to day, it’s our social and emotional traits that form our biggest hurdles in life.
Autistic people may find it difficult to interpret and understand other people’s feelings. Emotions are frequently communicated through body language. Such behaviour includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space, which we can find extremely difficult to interpret. Because we miss these nonverbal cues, we are often mistakenly perceived as being rude or unwelcoming. Worse, we are unaware how others may be perceiving our behaviour. It’s for this reason that we may have more difficulty establishing, maintaining, and understanding relationships and give off the appearance of disinterest or disdain.
When we have trouble identifying, expressing, or processing our own feelings, it’s not uncommon for us to shut down emotionally. Triggers to these shutdowns can be sensory (loud noises, odd textures, bright lights), emotional (intense fear, embarrassment, or excitement), or social (unexpected guests, changes in routine).
Everyone has different triggers and coping mechanisms to deal with their results. While our coping strategies can differ from the “norm”, remember to be respectful and accepting of our ways. We are simply doing what is necessary to find a sense of calm.
The benefits of a neurodiverse workplace
Globally recognised companies are willing to stand with autistic employees to support their skills, and the rest of the working world should take note. We are being granted the opportunity to challenge existing beliefs and stereotypes through Autism at Work programs, enabling us not only to educate others, but also encourage abstract thought. We will always start at the beginning and get to the end, but the journey in between can be a learning experience for onlookers.
At an Autism@Work Summit, Andrew Baird, a Technology Manager with ANZ’s Spectrum Program, spoke about the benefits ANZ enjoyed as a result of leveraging the skills of their autistic employees. He talked about how their Spectrum QA teams had been finding bugs in tech that had previously been tested; finding more defects than ANZ’s traditional teams, despite less experience. Similarly, Spectrum security teams have also provided 12+ months worth of value to the Security Domain in 5 months, while also detecting security threats at a rate equal to or greater than other teams.
Autistic employees not only bring to the table a strong work ethic and attention to detail, but also alternate solutions to problems which are frequently more efficient. Nobody breaks down the what into the how, quite like an autistic person. We make unachievable goals into bite sized pieces, separate key pieces of work from the details, and showing a consummate awareness of what needs to be done.
From a personal perspective, I have been able to realise the valuable contributions I bring to my workplace as an autistic person. My excellent pattern recognition allows me to identify problems before they develop. A fondness for repetition makes me ideally suited for process and policy documentation. A fondness for repetition makes me ideally suited for process and policy documentation. I have a laser-like focus, although a loud noisy office can make that focus difficult to maintain. My manager values my “almost pathological honesty” because he implicitly trusts the motivations for my behaviours, which makes me easy to work with.
Embracing neurodiversity at work
To reap the benefits that autistic individuals and teams bring to the workplace, we need to encourage the growth and acceptance of neurodiversity in the workplace. It’s important for neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike to take a step back and re-evaluate the ways in which it is viewed.
Organisations can begin their journey of inclusivity with small steps, and I find that it’s always easiest to start from the beginning. Groups such as the Autism Co-Operative Research Centre (AutismCRC), Autism Speaks, and the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC) provide free resources on how to hire and retain neurodiverse talent, tool kits to empower autistic employees, and guides on how to create autistic-friendly workspaces.
More importantly, you need to start asking the right questions. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) in the UK provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. They provide a fantastic list of questions that you can ask yourself about your workplace that could improve the lives of autistic employees. E.g. Can I do more to make sure my workplace understands neurodiversity? Can I reduce distractions in my workplace? Do I know where to go for further information and support?
Autistic people are passionate, strong-willed, and devoted to their interests. We provide our own unique perspective, skills, and ways of working that all come together to add value to an organisation. While our numbers may be small, we are your friends, family, co-workers, and partners. We are different, not disabled, and what sets us apart also makes us stand out. We need to work together to encourage increasingly neurodiverse workplaces. As long as you promise not to make too much eye contact.
Ben Jackson is the Head of Services at Assembly Payments, and you can reach out to him here. He was born and raised in Brisbane, Australia, spends most of his time in the Philippines, but calls Melbourne home. Ben was classified Asperger’s Syndrome (now under Autism Spectrum Disorder) in late 2018, and has been re-evaluating his life ever since.