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People with Autism seek allies in the workplace. Advocates say HR can help

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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Alvarez/Getty Images

· 5 min read

As Autism Acceptance Month comes to a close, various businesses and officials—including Foot Locker, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Biden administration—have celebrated the estimated 5.4 million adults living with the disability known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Despite the month-long spotlight on autism, advocates say that autistic people continue to face barriers to inclusion. The unemployment rate for autistic people in the US was as high as 85% pre-pandemic, according to data from Deloitte, a persistent problem for autistic workers that some researchers have attributed to employers’ concerns about perceived costs and accommodations.

Unconscious bias. Author and journalist Eric M. Garcia told HR Brew that there is still a lot of stigma associated with autism, in part because it’s only had a distinct diagnosis in the manual that clinicians and psychiatrists use as a guide for diagnosing mental disorders (DSM-III) since 1980.

Much about the disability remains unknown, but organizational psychologist Nancy Doyle argues that autism is not a mystery to be solved. Rather, “the most radical act you can perform as an ally to autistic people is to accept them exactly as they are,” Doyle wrote in an opinion piece for Forbes.

Garcia says this lack of understanding impacts how they are viewed at work. “Our culture is very ignorant and has a very narrow idea of what autism is,” Garcia said, emphasizing that what is known about autism is usually viewed in a negative light. “As a consequence, employers have not only a very limited idea of what autism is, but they have a very negative understanding of what that limited portrayal is.”

Together with Workday

Q for you: What makes your employees tick? Not sure? We’ve got just the thing: Workday’s latest employee expectations report found that employees place the most value on professional growth, flexible work, and belonging/diversity/inclusion. Learn what this means for your biz, as well as helpful actions you can take to boost employee engagement. It’s all here in Workday’s report.

Masking up. According to Accessibility.com, the term “masking,” in reference to autism, happens when autistic people present in social settings and may fake eye contact or engage in “mirroring, minimizing, and disguising behaviors and feelings.” In an excerpt from his new book, Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, psychologist Devon Price writes, “Maintaining that neurotypical mask feels deeply inauthentic and it’s extremely exhausting to maintain.”

Garcia says that having to hide one’s autism to fit in at work is not only unhealthy, but it’s detrimental to one’s work. “I don’t think a lot of employers recognize how much work is put into masking that otherwise could be spent being actually productive at doing the job.”

Inclusive workplaces. A number of organizations, including Ernst & Young, SAP, and IBM say they’re making an effort to include more neurodiverse people, including autistic people. To succeed in that endeavor, Deloitte recommends employers should “create a culture that offers, encourages, and accepts both flexibility and inflexibility.”

Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says that autistic people may have a fear of disclosing their diagnosis or asking for accommodations because they experience discrimination either way, especially in job interviews.

“For many autistic people, when you talk to us, it’s apparent that we’re different in some way,” explained Gross. “And maybe the first thing you think isn’t autism. But what kind of label are you gonna make up for that person to explain the difference? You might just be like, ‘that’s a weird person that I don’t like.’”

There’s traditionally been a notion that autistic people need to conform to fit into workplaces, but Gross thinks the script should be flipped. Instead, employers need to prepare the workplace for autistic people and then give them tools to help them succeed. More specifically, Gross says, “You should change the workplace so that it’s welcoming to people with all kinds of brains and bodies, whether or not they have a diagnosed disability.”

Gross says one way of doing this is for leaders to tell employees to participate in meetings in ways that allow them to process information, whether it’s with pacing, using a fidget object, or standing, or through something else. She explains, “That really normalizes the idea that everyone processes information differently and makes it a workplace where you don’t have to be the odd one out who’s breaking all the rules.”

Belonging. The potential impacts of representation in leadership positions have been widely analyzed, and autism isn’t any different, according to Gross. She says it makes a difference when employers are autistic themselves because “it really allows us to normalize things like accommodations and being out about your disability at work,” she said. “And being open about how it affects you. It allows us to normalize doing things differently.”

If someone wants to learn more about autism but doesn’t know where to begin, Gross recommends Autism Acceptance as a good place to start.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Together with Workday

Q for you: What makes your employees tick? Not sure? We’ve got just the thing: Workday’s latest employee expectations report found that employees place the most value on professional growth, flexible work, and belonging/diversity/inclusion. Learn what this means for your biz, as well as helpful actions you can take to boost employee engagement. It’s all here in Workday’s report.

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