According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 59 children is affected by autism spectrum disorder in the United States today. Over the next decade, an estimated 500,000 teens (50,000 each year) will enter the workforce.
In recent years, some organizations have recognized the competitive advantages of casting their diversity and inclusion net wider, reaching new levels of positive workplace transformation. In 2017, a group of blue-chip brands including JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, SAP, and Microsoft, among others, joined forces to create the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable, a collective of leaders who spearhead autism-focused hiring initiatives. Over the last three years, the roundtable has grown to include 24 companies nationwide.
Yes, the conversation around autism has changed, and perspectives have greatly shifted over the last century. However, the stigmas around these neurological differences are still very real and stymie the full potential of untapped talent.
I am a big believer of helping people find and work to their strengths. For example, it would be an absolute disservice to take someone who is a brilliant painter and stick them behind a computer. As leaders, we should always be looking to foster creativity and uniqueness, to help employees maximize their full potential and give their unique gifts—not train someone as a “worker.”
I can speak to some of my own strengths, or gifts, which have gradually and steadily prepared me and propelled me to my current role as CEO and “Science Guy” for EasyKale Labs. Not so long ago these abilities were misunderstood by the majority and were even seen as disabilities.
Challenges will always exist. But if I can help bring awareness to some of the existing social and structural hurdles people like myself face, and briefly unpack how we can overcome them, that is progress. Whether you function on a spectrum or not, here are six tips to help your company embrace neurodiverse hiring.
Do away with predefined boxes
Leadership requires a number of top-notch personality traits, which may vary for specific roles within particular industries. A person of integrity, a visionary, an individual who is focused, enthusiastic, curious and determined, are all desirable and highly sought-after characteristics.
In business, it’s common for those who exhibit attractive leadership qualities to ascend the corporate ladder to executive management or C-level positions. So, why are companies still overlooking a particular group of candidates?
If we can learn to do away with predefined boxes of what a CEO should look like/act like/etc., then we can remove a layer of socially constructed fog and see individuals for their distinctive talents. This is a win-win for all.
Drop the ego
My propensity to disregard my ego allows me to take full responsibility for the mistakes I make. It also means I waste no time getting upset. I’m able to address the issue(s) at hand and move forward without feeling personally attacked or intentionally (or even unintentionally) offended.
I’m also humble enough to understand that the world functions in a way we don’t always understand. While some people might view this as naivete or a lack of intelligence, this is simply related to my ability to take in all information and evaluate it at face value without relying on assumptions. For example, if we’re talking about the weather and someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” most people who are familiar with that idiom won’t go look out the window to see whether there are cats and dogs falling from the sky. However, I tend to take everything literally. So, I might actually go to the window to see for myself, to see if there is a black swan event, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, or a supernatural phenomenon happening.
Label less and accept more
People are perfectly imperfect. One size does not fit all. When we stop labeling everyone as “something,” we move away from sympathy and into empathy and understanding.
Instead of setting arbitrary benchmarks, create customized performance goals for each individual. Set goals relative to their strengths. It does not serve anyone to structure anything where you label a particular group of people as handicapped or disadvantaged just because they are different. If someone has a unique strength, use this to your company’s advantage rather than expecting him or her to fill a preconceived role.
My EasyKale team members are familiar with my behaviors and processes, but I’ve seen that the way I operate makes some people uncomfortable. For example, since we are so accustomed to instant replies and instant gratification, when I stop and take a few seconds to sit back and listen objectively or process something for what appears to be an awkward amount of time, others’ discomfort becomes palpable. But this is a small price to pay for someone who can do interpersonal calculus and project probabilities of behaviors and outcomes while others wonder why he or she created an awkward silence in the conversation. The more we can integrate people with beautifully different-minded processes, the more fluid and functional the workplace will be.
Balance pattern recognition and analysis
Most people tend to associate data with the word “pattern.” But there are patterns in every fiber of existence on this planet. There are patterns in people’s behaviors, and most are influenced by social norms. In its purest form, science is about being inquisitive and studying the world around us, looking for patterns, observing nature, and trying to make sense of things.
In my younger years, as I was still navigating how to best use my gifts, I’d delve deep into pattern detection and analysis with people to the point where it nearly became an obsession. I’d wonder why they changed their speech pattern. Why their chest revealed they were breathing an abnormal number of times per minute. Or why their tone of voice changed.
In recent years, I’ve found a better balance. Unless there is a direct impact on the work that affects other people’s lives, I won’t exhaust myself with overdoing interpersonal investigations. I’m never looking to transpose my emotional state on another or judge them for not reciprocating or matching my emotional state. So again, by looking at situations with an objective lens and removing the emotion from the equation (or not having a big emotional reaction), I can offer my team a notable competitive advantage.
Be quiet and listen
Sure, it sounds a bit cliché and oversimplified. But over the years I’ve found it commonplace to be talked at, talked over, and interrupted by C-suite executives. Many constantly repeat themselves and simply look to be agreed with rather than looking for answers others might have.
Given my neurological wiring, I’m quick to silence myself to observe and listen. I begin an effective internal process when I’m approached by someone. Within seconds I am assessing that person and looking for noticeable patterns. I pay attention to more than what they are saying—I listen also to their tone of voice, choice of words, sentence structure, and word choice patterns. I ask myself, “Is their tone of voice monotonic, inflective, erratic, etc.?”
I observe their body language, how quickly they are breathing, etc. I go inward (and am silent) to find an objective point of view and assign a probability. Based on this real-time data I’ve just collected, I can quickly and fairly accurately (~ 80%) account for the high and low probabilities of the next action this person will take.
Today phone calls are rare, especially one-on-one business calls. So I’ve honed this assessment tool via texts and emails now, which has become imperative in communication. I may start to notice that the style of a particular person’s text is changing. Maybe they start to become more formal over text messages. I may not know exactly what this means, but it does indicate that something has changed, something is off, something is different, and they’re putting distance between us. Why? This is usually a seamless, complex calculus about outcomes and probability that helps me figure out what is truly being communicated, as emotions don’t come as naturally to me.
At the same time, people may be observing my written communication, as I tend to include a lot of emoticons or exclamation points, as a function, to compensate (or sometimes overcompensate) for the lack of emotions I may pick up on or show outwardly otherwise. I continually work to find a balance there.
Remind yourself of your own humanity, of your colleagues’ and clients’ humanity. Of everyone’s. When you find yourself sinking into particularly strong emotions or judgments, remind yourself to be human.
It’s 2020, and we are ready for revolutionary diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and beyond. I challenge you all to accept yourself and embrace your differences and unique abilities. Be introspective. Take time to realize who you are, what you’re interested in, what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. This is why we have community structure in place, so our differences and imperfections can complement one another as we work toward common goals. As they say, “It takes a village.”
Bilal Qizilbash is the CEO and lead scientist for EasyKale Labs.