How To Build An Autism-Friendly Workplace

An author and mom of an autistic son shares her advice to companies affected by autism--and how these individuals are just as valuable as every other employee you meet.

Our son Trevor was diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism in kindergarten. From very early on, we noticed some things about Trevor that were not typical in other children his age.

His ability to focus on tasks was extraordinary. He was (and still is) very schedule-oriented. His reliability in doing household chores without being reminded was a thing most parents only dream of. Now a junior in college, Trevor continues to learn to leverage his strengths to help him build relationships, get good grades, and prepare himself as a functioning member of society.

The autism statistics are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 68 children in America is somewhere on the autism spectrum--five times more likely in boys than girls. Yet only 53% of young adults with autism are gainfully employed. Those with autism have some amazing gifts, talents, and ideas that can materially contribute to a more effective and successful workplace. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t know how to create an environment where an autistic employee can thrive and drive real bottom-line results. That’s why I wrote Six-Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces.

As leaders, it is imperative to create a work environment that not only fosters creativity and diversity but also delivers results. Key to achieving both of these goals is for employers to make their workplaces “friendly” to employees with autism so they can in turn deliver results. It’s not about giving them simple jobs because they feel sorry for them or to meet some diversity goal, it’s about hiring them because they truly meet a need in their business and possess the skills needed to excel in their job.

We’ve seen first-hand how an autism-friendly workplace contributes to a more effective and balanced workplace. It’s incumbent on today’s leaders to create an environment where employers and autistic employees not just survive, but thrive.

Here are a few ways in which people with autism can bring value to the workplace:

They work when nobody is watching.

When Trevor worked in maintenance, his coworkers commented that they always saw him doing heavy landscape work outside in the heat. Trevor didn’t know anyone saw him, but he nevertheless worked hard when alone, never slacking or resting. It was that focus and commitment to do whatever he was asked that made him a model employee.

Autistic individuals can bring enormous creativity.

Autistic people’s minds are wired differently, and their imaginations can be extreme. Managers should take advantage of this when looking for creative ideas or new ways to solve problems. If they give autistic team members opportunities to share their ideas, those ideas can lead to brilliant new concepts.

Not only should employers be aware of autistic employees’ strengths, they should also learn about some of their challenges, and what to expect and how to accommodate them for better productivity.

Let the applicant demonstrate his/her skills.

Offering a practice activity at the interview, such as proofing a sample document for an editing position, may be the best way for someone with autism to demonstrate his abilities, and can help employers make a more accurate hiring decision. It can be hard for autistic people to “sell themselves” and put their skills and attributes into words, even if they are excellent candidates.

Accommodations help employer and employee succeed.

In the ideal scenario, giving autistic employees accommodations would help the company run more effectively while enabling autistic employees to be productive, leading to better products and services and more profit. All parties should work together to allow autistic employees to be productive without sacrificing the work environment for others.

Options for accommodations make a difference.

Specifically, give all onboarding employees a survey or menu of options, asking their preferences for things like sound, light, physical work space, type of communication desired, methods for performance appraisals, and more. This allows autistic employees to simply state their preferences along with everyone else, without feeling different or singled out.

As leaders, creating an environment where high-functioning autistic employees can thrive is more than demonstrating social responsibility and diversity. It also yields the business results that leaders need to not just survive, but thrive.

--Patty Pacelli is an editor, author, entrepreneur, wife, and mother of two adult children, one with an autism spectrum disorder. She promotes autism awareness by serving on the board of directors of the Seattle Children’s Autism Guild. Patty is also the author of Six-Word Lessons to Look Your Best.

[Image: Flickr user Becky Wetherington]

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