I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 41. Like many other women on the spectrum, I’d become an expert at masking my differences—even from myself—and mimicking others to fit in. It wasn’t until I got a high score on an informal autistic masking quiz that I realized just how differently I experienced the world compared to those around me.
We all carry a bias that other people think the same way we do, but this can be harmful to ourselves and others. In the workplace, in particular, this bias can prevent companies from supporting neurodiverse employees and recognizing their unique challenges. Fortunately, I work at a company where I felt comfortable “coming out” as autistic. As awareness of neurodiversity has grown, this is a conversation that more people are choosing to have with their managers and HR teams.
When handled with empathy and preparation, managers can use these conversations to learn about an employee’s unique needs and better support them. But when mishandled, it can be extremely damaging and further stigmatize those with disabilities.
The experience I had coming out as a queer woman was much different than coming out as autistic, which shows how far we still have to go before neurodiversity is embraced and normalized. Many people know what to say when a friend or colleague comes out as LGBTQ. But when I came out about my autism diagnosis, I heard responses like “Are you sure?” or “Oh, don’t put that label on yourself,” that were far from helpful.
Companies must be ready to handle these conversations with grace and have processes in place to support neurodiverse employees regardless of whether they choose to disclose.
Prepare for a neurodiversity conversation
Let’s be clear: Employers have a responsibility to create a work environment that empowers all of its people to succeed. The burden should not always fall on employees to disclose disabilities or walk employers through how to best support them. Ideally, managers and HR professionals will take the time to get to know each employee and their needs on a personal level.
If a neurodiverse employee does choose to “come out,” managers should know ahead of time how to respond in such a crucial moment. The right response can be as simple as saying “I’m really glad you told me,” or, most important, “What can I do as a leader to support you?”
Keep in mind that it’s not always easy for someone on the spectrum to say, “Here’s how my autism affects me, and here’s how it doesn’t.” Autism can often intersect with other factors like anxiety or ADHD. The important thing is to establish trust and open a line of communication so an employee feels comfortable going to their manager with feedback or suggestions around what they need.
Make adjustments while maintaining privacy
The most important thing to do after an employee comes out as neurodiverse is to maintain their privacy. While it’s okay to talk openly about workplace accommodations, it is never okay to tie it back to a specific person. Don’t assume that because they had a conversation with you, they are “out” with other colleagues.
Some neurodiverse employees will be able to clearly express what they need. Managers and HR teams should listen to feedback and make adjustments—often, what is best for someone with autism can also benefit other employees.
For example, I’ve asked my managers to deliver feedback in straightforward language. Like others with autism, I have trouble with nuance. Common managerial tactics like sugarcoating feedback or using a “compliment sandwich” can cause confusion or send me into a complete tailspin. Instead, I ask my managers to set clear expectations and deliver written feedback, but I’ve found this can be extremely helpful to neurotypical employees as well.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Resources like The Neurodiverse Workplace provide different options for supporting employees that managers can use based on individual needs.
Make neurodiversity a company-wide conversation
One of the most impactful ways to support neurodiverse employees is to create a shared language among all employees that brings everyone into the conversation. Every single one of us has a unique thinking process. Recognizing this difference can reduce the stigma for those with disabilities and create space for honest feedback.
For example, every person we hire at Ultimate Software (recently merged with Kronos, Inc.) completes the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) that groups different ways of thinking into various colors. We don’t label this a diversity and inclusion initiative or tie it to disabled status. Rather, having this shared frame of reference around how each person thinks differently weaves neurodiversity conversations into day-to-day work processes among all employees. I can speak up in a meeting and say “Hey, as a yellow-brained person, I’d prefer to run the meeting like this.” It’s allowed people to speak honestly about how the way they think impacts their work habits and preferences in a way that’s made neurodiversity a core part of our culture.
Empower through trust
Being honest about neurodiversity at work is still fraught with stigmatization. There is still a lot of justifiable fear. Before companies can build spaces that are truly welcoming, they must normalize conversations around disabilities and make it safe for employees to disclose them.
The end goal of these steps is to empower employees to do their best work—but that can’t happen unless managers trust them to do it. My biggest fear is that people will think that autism holds me back. Just because I approach a project in different ways does not mean I can’t do it as well or better than someone who is neurotypical. Above all else, companies need to give all employees the opportunity to advocate for their needs, work in their own way, and take on new opportunities.
Cara Pelletier is the senior director of Diversity Equity & Belonging at UKG.