Thinking ‘autside’ the box – why more companies need to hire people on the spectrum

Cat in a box
Autism can be an asset at work

Innovative companies are constantly looking to diversify and expand their workforce with people who think differently. And yet, autistic people are disproportionately affected by under- and unemployment and often struggle with finding and keeping a job. While the often-cited unemployment rate of over 80% in Ireland and the UK is most likely set too high, given that a lot of working autistics fly under the radar of diagnosis, employers are still missing out on the opportunity to hire highly educated, qualified, and dedicated individuals. A few minor adjustments can help you tap into this talent pool while boosting the productivity and wellbeing of your entire staff. Although some large tech companies have taken first steps towards establishing autism hiring programmes, they still have a long way to go to become more inclusive – and tech is by far not the only industry which would benefit from a broader spectrum of people.

“Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”

Susan Cain, Quiet

Why should we hire you?

Autistic people can be an invaluable addition to your team. Of course, every person is different, but here are 7 common features which help autistics excel at work:

  • We are autonomous. We can be entrusted to work on tasks independently. Teamwork is important. But sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth. Studies have shown that brainstorming and tackling every task in a team setting is not the most efficient way. Giving people time and space to ponder difficult problems, come up with ideas, and then bring them together will often lead to more creative and elegant solutions. 
  • We are super focused. Are your employees constantly distracted by social media and office chatter? An autistic person will focus on their task until it’s done. Autistic people aren’t usually great at multitasking. But then again, nobody really is – juggle too many balls and it’s only a matter of time until you drop one. 
  • We are great at finding ‘Wally’. Or spelling mistakes. Or coding errors. Ask an autistic person to proofread a text or cross-check facts and we will do so with meticulous care.
  • We think outside the box. It’s true that many autistic people prefer following a routine and some even enjoy repetitive tasks. We love a good pattern. However, within our given routine, we tend to come up with creative solutions because we see the world in a different light. We have x-ray vision, seeing through porous top-down structures and crusty procedures. And we aren’t afraid to speak up and put forward unconventional ideas. 
  • We get hooked on our special interests. Give us a task that sparks our interest and we will be so invested in it that you will have to remind us to take our lunch break. Autistics are known to become experts in their fields.
  • We contribute to a positive work environment. Employers are often hesitant to hire autistic people because they fear their lack of social skills. But our social skills are just different. We value honesty, directness and kindness. Which means no toxic gossiping, bullying, triangulation and backstabbing from our side, and more time to focus on the task at hand. 
  • We are perseverant. While it is true that a lot of autistic people are sensitive to sensory stimuli, we are also some of the most resilient people you will ever meet; growing up in a world that wasn’t made for us means that we’ve always played life on ‘hard mode’ and overcome more hurdles than you can imagine.

So how do I make my workplace autism-friendly?

“Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory.”

Quiet

Employers are often reluctant to hire autistic people because they fear that they will have to go out of their way to accommodate our needs. But simple changes can go a long way and benefit the whole team.

  • Let our work do the talking for us. What do you value more, skills or showmanship? We might not talk the talk, but we do walk the walk. Autistics aren’t always the best at selling themselves in a formalised and artificially uncomfortable situation such as a job interview. Give us the chance to explain our motivations in writing. Or just let our results speak for themselves. 
  • Create a sensory-friendly environment. Many autistic people get overwhelmed by noise, strong smells, too much heat/cold, flickering fluorescent lights, screen glare, and crowded, cluttered places. Create a more accommodating environment by including some sensory-friendly, quiet areas with dimmable/warm light or even stimulating mood lights to boost focus and creativity. Replace germ-spreading hand dryers with reusable towels. Encourage the rest of your staff not to spray or wear aggressive perfumes and aftershaves. Creating distraction-free spaces can boost your staff’s creativity.
  • Be straightforward. Autistic people are literal thinkers and often can’t “read between the lines”. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t rely on body language or subtle cues to communicate. Be open, clear and direct. Simplifying instructions and streamlining processes will not only benefit your autistic staff but also boost your business. 
  • Provide training and build your team. Rope courses and cocktail classes in noisy bars might not be the best choice, but there are plenty of sensory-friendly team building activities to choose from. Any opportunity for genuine interaction and direct communication will do. If employees can explore their communication styles and experiment with their different roles in a team, it’s a great opportunity for your staff to work together more harmoniously and communicate more efficiently. 
  • Be flexible. Many autistic people are eager to work and are dedicated to their job. However, we are the ‘twice as bright, but half as long’ burning type of candles. Constant sensory input and the ‘empty carb’ type of social interaction often leave us drained – we dedicate all our energy to our work and have none left for our private lives. Flexible working hours to avoid rush hour or accommodate for our sleep patterns, the ability to work from home, or reduced hours can be a solution. There is no need for unproductive presenteeism with autistic people. Our ability to work independently and to focus means that we often get more work done in less time.

Not only autistic people, but also many neurotypical colleagues, especially introverts, will benefit from diversifying your team and making some small, but effective changes to boost creativity, increase productivity and reduce stress, ensuring well-being in the workplace, a better work-life balance and increased staff loyalty.

So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.

Quiet

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