For Michael Chapman, workplace diversity isn’t a new business trend. The Director of Employment Services for the UNC TEACCH Autism Program has been working toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in workplaces for more than 30 years.
His top tip for employers? Don’t be afraid of change.
“Change is not going to be hard. It’s not going to be difficult. It’s just going to be a change, and in many ways, is going to be better for you” he says. “As a company changes, recognize that everybody’s different.”
Chapman and the team at TEACCH coordinate programs like TEACCH School Transition to Employment and Postsecondary Education (T-STEP), an intervention developed to support 16- to 21-year-olds with autism as they transition from school to the workplace. The acronym TEACCH stands for teaching, expanding, appreciating, collaborating, cooperating and being holistic – the core values of the program’s approach to autism treatment and support. At present, The Diversity Movement employs two interns from the T-STEP program.
“Making the world a better place for everybody has been what we’re all about, recognizing that there is diversity,” he says, describing the TEACCH Autism Program.
Chapman is also involved with LiNC-it, a state-run collaborative created to provide employment experience and paid internships for young people with autism. The program matches neurodiverse job candidates with companies like Credit Suisse, Lenovo, Wells Fargo, and many others.
Programs to increase autism acceptance in the workplace are necessary
According to the CDC, nearly 5.5 million adults in America have ASD, yet nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job. And, according to the nonprofit Autism Speaks, the unemployment rate is roughly 85% for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is also common for people with autism to be highly intelligent yet still struggle to find meaningful work.
In the U.S., that means hundreds of thousands of skilled, educated people on the autism spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed, and it’s in the best interest of organizations to revamp hiring practices to include them. Here’s why.
In addition to their hard skills, people with neurodiversity think differently than the average neurotypical person. An employee with autism might be better able to pinpoint unseen problems, for example, or come up with innovative solutions.
Neurodiversity increases innovation and leads to stronger decision-making
“Some people have these logical, ordered, organized brains, and sometimes they see things that we don’t see,” Chapman says.
“For teams that are looking to correct their own internal mistakes, it’s great to have someone who will tell you the honest truth about the problems with your software, or the problems with your process for loading trucks. Whatever the case may be, they’ll come up with a way to help make it a little bit better.”
Additionally, a study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that 86% of employers rated employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities as very good in four out of four areas critical to business success. Study after study shows that people with neurodiversity – whether it is autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, or more – make exceptional employees.
Plus, creating a diverse, welcoming workplace helps the entire team be more compassionate, more accepting, and more flexible.
Inclusion increases productivity by eliminating distractions
“As you learn how to support the individual who’s working with you, as a team member, you also start to recognize struggles in your colleagues, you may start to recognize struggles in your customers,” Chapman says. “I think it helps you, as an individual, be better at recognizing the support needs of the other people around you.”
He adds that people with hidden or invisible disabilities are often reluctant to reveal their diagnosis, which makes support, awareness, and acceptance all the more necessary. People with autism are already in the workplace but could be hiding their differences or “masking.”
“There are lots of hidden disabilities in our community. And we don’t always recognize them, we don’t always see them,” Chapman says.
“Masking takes energy and effort away from them being able to do the job you need them to do. So if you make it a safe place, and they don’t have to mask anymore, then they’re going to be able to put that energy back into doing the work you need them to do.” he says.
A few common characteristics you may notice in employees with autism
While autism is a spectrum disorder and there is no single description of how a person with autism behaves, there are a few common characteristics. Difficulty with communication and social interactions is a hallmark of ASD and is included in the diagnosis of the condition. Nonverbal exchanges or group dynamics might be misunderstood or completely overlooked, and communication tends to be more direct.
“[Many people with autism] see the world a little differently and don’t pick up on the same cues that you and I do,” Chapman says. “Where you and I would hint at something you need to fix or correct, the person on the autism spectrum might come out and say, ‘You need to stop doing that,’ just very blunt and straight to the point.”
Individuals on the autism spectrum often have different learning styles as well.
“Most of them are what we call visual learners, and so what we tend to see is that talking doesn’t work as well,” Chapman says. “But if you show them, or you write it down, it’s a lot better. The funny thing is, if you show the general population, and you write things down for the general population, they tend to do better, too.”
It is not uncommon for employers to discover that the accommodations they make for their employees with autism actually make the workplace better and improve outcomes for all of their employees. In fact, creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities can make everyone feel welcome, respected, and encouraged to contribute.
Improving your interview process to tap a bigger pool
There are other simple accommodations that can be incredibly helpful for a person with autism, beginning with the interviewing process. These small changes can often be life-changing and make the difference between employment and unemployment.
“An interview is a social communication contest, where you have to put your best foot forward,” Chapman says. “Many of our people struggle. They may have all the skills, all the talent, but their ability to sell themselves is not going to be as good as someone who doesn’t have a social communication challenge.”
When meeting with prospective employers, Chapman and his fellow mentors explain that a person with autism might not look you in the eye during an interview, or they might appear to be thinking for longer periods of time. Employers are asked to judge applicants on whether they have the functional skills for the job – not on their social skills – as consistent eye contact is rarely necessary for job success. Another common request is for interview questions to be given to candidates in advance, so they can prepare and have their notes in front of them.
“Sometimes, we’ve actually had people give their answers in writing. So instead of answering verbally, they would say, ‘Here are my answers to your questions,’” Chapman says. “Because the person may have a problem or anxiety around being able to give the information back verbally.”
He also encourages employers to conduct hands-on technical skill assessments. For example, instead of asking a candidate about the computer languages they know, they are asked to demonstrate their coding skills.
“Our people are much, much better and much more comfortable with that. Because then you’re getting into what we call the hard skills — the real technical aspects of the job — and that they’re able to do,” Chapman says. “The problem is they just can’t tell you that they’re able to do it in a way that’s going to beat out someone else in a verbal interview contest.”
Often these changes are beneficial to all candidates, not just those who are neurodiverse.
“Some of the companies we’re working with, once they started doing it for the adults on the autism spectrum, they’ve said, ‘You know what, this is just so great. We’re gonna do it for every interviewee, period,’” he says.
Begin with understanding and ally training
Ideally, managers and colleagues should receive autism awareness training long before a person with autism is hired on their team, and managers should also learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively. But, training at any time will make a positive difference
Chapman is currently in the final stages of developing an online training course for managers, focusing on awareness and helping them to be better autism allies. “With autism ally training, we sort of teach the company how to support individuals and be aware and supportive,” he says.
The TEACCH training includes modules on the advantages of hiring someone with autism and how diverse employees make companies more flexible and innovative. It also includes an overview of the different learning styles, some tips for interviewing, time management, and making the onboarding process easier.
Effectively managing and supervising employees with autism (hint: be direct)
Awareness training opens the door for honest, open conversations about individual learning styles, work habits, and feedback preferences. In fact, direct feedback is the top accommodation request from the adults with autism whom Chapman works with.
“They will say, ‘When I get feedback, I really want someone to just tell me – not to sort of allude to it or hint at it. Just tell me what you want me to do or what I’m doing wrong, and I’ll fix it. Because, obviously, I’m not figuring it out on my own,’” he says.
Miscommunication is common because managers and colleagues aren’t direct and explicit, Chapman says.
For example, a team leader might ask for volunteers to work overtime to finish a project. A person who is not neurodiverse might think, ‘I don’t want to work extra, but I need to because it’s important to the team that we complete this work on time.’ Whereas a person with autism might think, ‘The boss said the overtime is optional, so I won’t come in.’
“What you should have said is, ‘I need you to work overtime until this project is finished. It has to be finished by Friday,’ Chapman says. “Those same kinds of communications happen, and they happen in every corporate world or any place.”
Managers are asked to be straightforward, and at the same time, employees are encouraged to advocate for themselves and what they need to be successful. Often a workplace mentor or job coach like Chapman can help the employee navigate any workplace challenges that may arise.
“We have meetings where we ask the employer and employee to meet and come to some sort of agreement,” he says. “I have one person who says, ‘Never give me anything verbally, if you expect me to remember, especially when I’m walking down the hall. When I’m walking down the hall, I’m going to do something else, and I won’t remember that you asked me to do something later. So please send an email, or put it on a piece of paper.’”
10 practical tips for hiring managers, supervisors, and coworkers
Thinking about changing workplace attitudes and procedures might be daunting, but in practice, awareness and compassion make the process go a lot easier. These ten simple tips from Chapman and other autism advocates are a great place to begin.
- Before launching the job search, hiring managers should learn about and be aware of unconscious bias. Assumptions about people with different social skills or spotty employment histories could prevent the best candidate from being hired.
- Autism awareness training should also be provided for managers, team members, mentors, and others key to the recruitment and retention of individuals with autism.
- Consider alternative interviewing techniques. For example, many people with autism find phone conversations difficult to process, so video interviews might be a better screening tool.
- Use job-specific metrics to judge candidates, and use skills-based screening to determine the candidate’s ability to do the job.
- Provide questions ahead of time, so candidates can prepare and have notes.
- Once a person with autism is hired, help them acclimate to the workplace by matching them with a mentor, sponsor, or job coach.
- During the onboarding process, ask how the employee works best and discuss how any accommodations would align with the needs of the entire team. This conversation also gives the employee a chance to ask for any necessary or preferred adjustments.
- In the office, provide a mix of quiet spaces to work as well as open environments to collaborate.
- When giving feedback, be exact and direct when speaking to workers with ASD. Avoid using metaphors and tell the employee exactly what they need to do differently.
- Managers should focus on job performance and deliverables. It’s more important that a task gets done, rather than how it is done.
Remember that many of the adjustments and accommodations made for employees on the autism spectrum can make the workplace better for everyone. In fact, when employees feel welcome, respected, and encouraged to contribute, business outcomes soar.
Recognizing and respecting the culture of autism
It’s also important to remember that not every person with autism is the same, so managers shouldn’t make assumptions. Before making any accommodations, managers should ask employees what they need to be successful and productive.
“Recognize that everybody’s different. There are different cultures, and we have to respect those cultures. There’s corporate culture. There’s Eastern culture, there’s Western culture, there’s even the culture of autism,” Chapman says.
“I’m asking companies to be aware of all these cultures and how to support people, so they’ll be good, happy employees. Because when they’re happy, those people stay longer. There’s less turnover. And that’s a return on investment just for respecting culture that is almost incalculable.”
People with neurodiversity have highly sought-after skills, and research shows that neurodiversity is a significant business advantage. It makes sense to ensure that the workplace is a welcoming, supportive, and accepting environment. All it takes is a bit of courage and a willingness to change.