I’m not going to tell you that it’s the ‘right thing’ to do.
I’m also not going to tell you that you’ll be able to get us to do the jobs that your non-autistic employees don’t want to do.
And I am definitely not going to tell you it’s because we have a skillset that predisposes us to a particular role type or industry e.g., science, engineering, technology based roles etc.
You might think these are great reasons to hire autistic people and I can understand why — I’ve seen all three used by people who aren’t autistic to communicate where they feel our value in the workplace lies.
The first one is ableist. I don’t want a hand out. I expect to be hired based on merit because believe me, I’ve got plenty of it.
The second one is offensive. Swap ‘autistic’ out with any other marginalised group and no reputable company would dream of publicly stating that. Go on, try it out — I’ll wait.
The third one is frustrating. It’s not true for all cases and this kind of thinking is limiting and exclusionary because it fails to consider and enable the extensive diversity of the autistic community.
As an autistic person, I hold a different view about where my value in the workplace lies. Seven of them actually.
Full disclosure: I’ve been looking for a permanent (not contract) job for more than 2 years now with no luck just yet. I’ve detailed my experiences and observations in other articles I’ve written (here and here), but long story short: discrimination is rife, education is lacking and there appears to be an overall feeling of reluctance among employers to even consider hiring someone like me.
There’s not a lot I can do about employers who actively discriminate against autistic and disabled people in general, but I can shift my focus to those who are willing to learn and be open to a different perspective.
I’ve noticed that the potentially more open-minded employers that I’ve interacted with don’t always know or understand how autism might fit into the workplace. They’re not always aware of how valuable an autistic person might be to their organisation.
I’m hoping that by sharing my thoughts on where I think our value lies and why I think organisations should be more open to hiring autistic people, I might be able to help bridge that education, understanding and empathy gap that I’ve observed in my own job hunt. In writing this, I am also rather selfishly hoping that said job hunt may run a little smoother by publishing these thoughts, however I’m not the only person dealing with this particular problem. With every article I’ve written about my unsuccessful job hunt, there have been countless emails, DMs and tweets from other autistic people — and people who are not autistic but identify as disabled in other ways — sharing their similar if not worse experiences. I’m not alone in this and that’s not a good thing. If this article doesn’t help me, maybe it will help someone else.
Before we get started, I’d like to clarify some of the terms that I’ll be using in this piece for those who haven’t heard them before and as a reference point for those who have. The terms ‘neurodiverse’ and ‘neurodiversity’ refer to people with different brains. This term isn’t just for autistic people. It covers a wide variety of neurological differences that include: Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and many more. Neurotypical is the opposite of neurodiverse — it’s what some people might refer to as ‘normal’. Allistic simply refers to a person who is not autistic and they may still be neurodiverse in some other way e.g., ADHD.
I can only speak to my experiences as an autistic person, but overall, I’ve found that people who are neurodiverse in some way tend to naturally understand what I’ll be sharing with you in this piece, so I’ll mostly be using the broader term of ‘neurotypical’. From my perspective, this was just the best way I could think to carve up my observations.
I’d also like you to keep in mind that I’m just one voice in an enormous global community of autistic adults who exist in your workplace and beyond. I can only speak for myself, but here are seven reasons why I think you should be hiring autistic people.
1. We think and solve problems differently
As we’ve just learned, autistic people are neurodiverse which means our brains are different. In a nutshell, my brain processes and responds to information differently to someone who is allistic. People who are neurodiverse in other ways offer a different way of thinking on top of that, but again, I can only speak to my experiences as an autistic person. My different brain enables me to bring a unique perspective to my work and solve problems in ways that other people may not.
My thinking patterns don’t tend to follow convention or any of those unwritten social rules because I don’t instinctively understand them. While this may come across as annoying in conversation, these traits are actually pretty useful for problem solving tasks because I tend to consider a broader range of possibilities and am less likely to make assumptions. Provided my sensory differences aren’t being overwhelmed and I’m being supported and given space to think, I can process large amounts of information rapidly because I’m good at spotting patterns and making connections. I naturally think 20 moves ahead and have a knack for solving riddles and lateral thinking puzzles.
I’m also someone that enjoys solving sudoku puzzles. I’ve found that when I’m stressed or in an environment that is impacting upon my sensory differences (e.g., it’s loud or there are bright lights), I cannot solve an ‘easy’ level puzzle. Even after staring at it for more than 10 minutes, I can’t complete it. However, I’ve found that when my mind is calm, I can solve the hardest level of sudoku puzzles (labelled ‘evil’ on the version I use) in under 2 minutes. To solve a sudoku puzzle you have to simultaneously look sideways, lengthways, at individual rows, at groups of 9 and at the overall bigger picture while also taking into account what could and could not be possible — all of which changes as the puzzle progresses. Being able to do this quickly and efficiently is quite powerful when applied to problem solving tasks in the workplace.
My subconscious problem solving skills are also quite strong. I’m very good at coming up with solutions when I’m not thinking about the problem. I can juggle multiple conundrums at once while I complete other tasks and I’m not just talking about my own. Other people in workplace contexts have trusted my brain to subconsciously solve their project’s problems while I do my own work. It’s a bit of a superpower and I love the way it allows me to help others.
2. We can do any job
There are a lot of myths and stereotypes about the types of roles that are and aren’t suitable for autistic people. A big one is the one I mentioned earlier — that we’re best suited to science and technology based roles. I do work in technology but not in a role typically associated with autistic high performers. Sure, my role is a technical role in a technology based field but it’s also a very human one. I’m a user researcher. I have almost a decade of experience and I spend my days working to understand what makes people tick. In a nutshell, a big part of my job is talking to people and asking a lot of questions to unearth how they feel, think, behave and what their needs, goals, motivations and expectations are. My role requires a lot of social interaction and I’ve met quite a few people who don’t understand how I as an autistic person am capable of not only doing this job, but doing it well.
There are so many autistic stereotypes that say I can’t do this job, but I’ve found that my differences are actually an asset for user research. I’m not afraid to ask questions that other people might view as ‘stupid’ or ‘obvious’. I naturally avoid making assumptions and I’m quite fluid and open in my thinking — I love the endless possibilities of user research! I am also potentially less biased in my work because I find it difficult to predict human behaviour and therefore don’t often have any preconceived notions about what my research will uncover. I’m good at making people feel comfortable and getting them to open up. I’m highly analytical, I can touch type my notes and as I mentioned before, I’m very good at spotting patterns.
Please don’t make assumptions about the type or level of role that an autistic person is capable of performing in. We come from all walks of life and all backgrounds — you’ll find us everywhere! It’s called a spectrum for a reason and there’s a significant amount of diversity across the autistic community. Look at us the same way you would any other candidate — as individuals bringing skills, experience and other merits to your organisation. Don’t instantly write us off because you don’t think we can do something. Instead, challenge your assumptions and engage in productive discussions with us about our differences. Consciously acknowledge and manage any prejudice you or your organisation may hold in regards to autistic, neurodiverse or disabled people in general. If you can do these things, you may just find yourself with a wider range of candidate options to choose from the next time you’ve got a role to fill.
3. Neurodiversity inclusion is good for business
Shouting from the rooftops about how diverse and inclusive you are means nothing if you don’t have a diverse workforce. How can you inclusively and effectively deliver value if your own people don’t reflect the diversity in the world you’re trying to reach? This applies to organisations across all sectors. If you’re delivering any product, service or experience that a human being comes in contact with any point in time, an autistic or neurodiverse person will interact with it. The numbers vary from source to source and country to country, but the prevalence of neurodiversity is anywhere from 3% to 11%. I live in Australia where almost 10% of the workforce has a disability. If you don’t understand these people you can’t reach them. And if you can’t reach them, neither can your products, services and experiences. That’s quite a lot of business to be missing out on. Sure, ‘reaching’ them includes effectively utilising user researchers like me, but it’s so much bigger than that. You additionally need diverse thinking and diverse perspectives sitting next you, brainstorming ideas with you and solving problems with you. You need both. Having autistic employees will also benefit your workforce capability overall. Your existing employees will not only develop empathy and understanding for a different type of brain, but they will also have their own thinking challenged in the process enabling them to grow further as professionals.
4. We’re inclusive
Speaking of inclusion. We might not instinctively say ‘good morning’ or acknowledge you in the hallway when you walk past us. Our unusual eye contact may make you feel like we’re not engaging with you in a way that you would like — it might even make you feel excluded — but by nature and where it counts, autistic people tend to be openly inclusive of differences in the workplace. While many of us have experienced more than a lifetime’s worth of discrimination and abuse for being different, we don’t tend to dish it out ourselves (even though our honesty and directness may be mistaken for it).
As an autistic person I have a very strong sense of social justice and an intrinsic drive for equality for all. In a previous job, I was an active participant in four diversity and inclusion based committees and I led two of them — one at the local level and one at the national level. You will never find yourself having to explain or sell the benefits of diversity in the workplace to autistic people. You may need to help us understand what that different point of view is and how best to support it but you’ll never need to explain why we should care in the first place. We’re just like anyone else, we don’t know what we don’t know in a practical sense, but we tend to naturally hold an inclusive mindset that some of our neurotypical peers may need time to learn through training and experience. We’re an asset because we can make a positive contribution to your diversity and inclusion culture in ways that go above and beyond us simply being there as another form of that diversity. The more people you have that embrace and practice an inclusive mindset, the better off an organisation as a whole will be.
5. We’re authentic and naturally have integrity
As an autistic person, I don’t engage in office politics. I’m open, honest and transparent at all times. I don’t hide information, I don’t build corporate fiefdoms, I don’t plot the demise of my fellow workers and I don’t lie because that requires a complex thought process that just doesn’t happen naturally for me. I know people who enter new roles with the mindset of ‘What do I have to do to get my boss’s job?’ — not just get promoted to the next level, but to actually shaft said boss out of their position and replace them. These people disgust me. I also remember feeling sick to my stomach a few years ago when a fairly senior level coworker smugly told me of a director who would never get promoted again because they refused to ‘play the game’. I honestly couldn’t wait to meet this director person.
I am who I am. What you see is what you get and everything I say and do is real. I’ve noticed that things do sometimes get a little lost in translation when neurotypical people try to relate to my actions and behaviours by viewing them through a lens where office politics are the norm, but it always makes sense when they reframe their thinking to an autistic perspective. For example, when I say that autistic people are authentic and have integrity, you may think that I’m implying that people who are not autistic aren’t authentic and don’t have integrity when really that’s not true. My meaning is completely literal and absolutely nothing is being implied here — I’m saying exactly what I’m saying. You want real people with integrity working for you because we’ll hold you accountable and have your back at the same time. We’ll uphold your high ethical standards and help you fix potential issues before they become expensive and embarrassing problems further down the track.
6. We’re not afraid to speak up
If you’re into yes-people and people who don’t ask questions, you’re probably going to want to avoid talking to autistic people when hiring for your next role. But if you want people who will constructively challenge both you and your thinking and in turn propelling you and your organisation to new heights, you should broaden your candidate pool to include autistic people. People who constantly agree with popular opinion and do things in a certain way, because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’, will never change the world. Real change requires free-thinking fearlessness. As much as I hate the word and the way it’s been used to describe me for my talks and articles in the past, the world needs people who are brave. And that’s not to say we’re rude people who intentionally bulldoze over others or are generally disagreeable and just do whatever we want. No. Our actions and behaviours may at times be accidentally misinterpreted in some of those ways, but it’s just not who we are. If we see something, we say something. That’s a good thing. We speak up because we care. We want a good outcome for the team and the business. Besides, any misunderstandings can easily be resolved through building mutual trust and communicating openly and clearly — essentially meeting each other halfway and getting on with the job of delivering awesome work!
7. Our value outweighs the cost or effort of implementing any reasonable adjustment needs
As autistic person, I’ve found that my reasonable adjustment needs in the workplace are mostly cultural and social based. The only reasonable adjustment need I have with a cost associated with it is my four day working week. I work Monday to Thursday and while that cost I mentioned is mostly resource availability related, I’ve never missed a deadline and have on occasion worked a Friday in urgent circumstances and simply shifted my day off to the following Monday for example. In regards to my remaining reasonable adjustment needs, the only thing they will cost you is your mindset. The mindset that autistic differences are acceptable in your workplace.
I am well aware that autism stigma and stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society as a whole. In this world, autism is seen as a problem and/or a tragedy. This world tells me every day that it’s not OK to be OK with being autistic. I get it — you can’t see it and it’s all too easy to mistake autistic differences for rudeness, a personality clash, disrespect, immaturity, aggression or a multitude of other ‘behavioural issues’. But if you consciously stop yourself from falling into these traps and be open to the possibility that what you think you know about autism may not be accurate or complete, you might just be able to see how valuable we are in the workplace.
Reasonable adjustment needs are a very personal and individual thing, but to give you an idea of what they can look like for an autistic person, here are some of mine:
Being able to change my working environment as needed to support my sensory differences e.g., working from home or from a quiet meeting room or wearing my noise cancelling headphones in a noisy office space
Being afforded a little bit of extra mental space to think, calm my mind and gather up my thoughts
Being given complex and detailed instructions clearly and in writing rather than verbally and then after I’ve reviewed said information, also being given a chance to have a verbal conversation and ask questions about it
Regular contact and check in meetings with team members from HR or equivalent
A fixed workstation in hot desking environments
An understanding that autistic differences are not performance issues or skill deficits to be ‘worked on’ and more of a focus on people meeting each other halfway and figuring out to work best together
When you consider these needs against all the benefits and value outlined in this article, the good far outweighs the annoying and inconvenient.
I hope this has been useful and look, as I mentioned earlier, I’m only one voice in a massive global community of autistic adults. This article outlines seven reasons why I think you should hire autistic people and should be viewed as a starting point. There’s no way I’ve captured every possible reason and that’s OK because this is an ongoing conversation. I encourage you to keep reading, keep listening and keep learning. You may just find something amazing.