The Benefit of Alternative Minds

When I was in college, I took a workshop on how to conduct myself during an interview. My instructor’s only note was that I ‘didn’t look her in the eye’, warning that this alone could cost me a job. What she didn’t know was that my lack of eye contact wasn’t caused by diminished interest or respect, but due to my Autism. This forewarning of trouble finding employment is common for people on the Autistic Spectrum, or for the sake of brevity, Autistics, because despite possessing talents, degrees, and accolades, we face an unemployment / underemployment rate as high as 80%.

Until recently, I kept my Autism to myself for professional reasons, as most Autistics do. But this inclination to remain hidden adversely impacts both Autistics and their employers. As Autistics focus our energy on appearing ‘normal’ to blend in, we become an untapped workforce who is drained mentally and emotionally. Our quality of life ends up suffering, and employers miss out on hiring talented individuals. 

To solve for this, there is a need for a conversation concerning what it’s like to work whilst being Autistic. By neglecting this discussion, we unknowingly end up harming ourselves as we maintain a baseline for what constitutes being ‘normal’. 

Why you’ve never worked with an Autistic

You most likely have worked with someone who’s Autistic, but would never know because it is common place for Autistics to keep our condition to ourselves. You might ask, ‘why don’t you just tell people you’re Autistic?’ The reason being, it’s a double edged sword. 

Sharing your Autism might get you the accommodations you need, but you could also torpedo your chances at employment. You risk your interviewer not understanding what Autism is, not willing to accommodate your needs, or walking away with the perception that you’re a strange person.

Even if you find a job, the fear doesn’t end. Many people with Autism are terrified that being open in the workplace will lead to being stigmatized and mistreated. When I’ve been open about being Autistic to co-workers, like at my current job at Isobar, I’ve sometimes had the benefit of finding supportive teammates. I’ve also received suggestions that maybe I’m ‘not good with people’ or that I keep my Autism to myself, out of concern of what clients might think if they found out. And unfortunately, my experiences aren’t isolated incidents…

“If I was ever to go into another job, the last thing I would ever do is tell them I was autistic . . . because they are just going to misinterpret it. I mean it’s a deal breaker for [any one whose non-autistic]; they are never going to look at you the same.”

“I graduated from college in 2011, during a recession… Eventually I got a job as an editorial assistant at a medical journal… After two weeks I was fired being a ‘bad cultural fit’. When I asked what that meant, I received no further explanation.”

“My boss called me greedy for wanting the same opportunities as my coworkers. I told him I just want equality. He didn’t answer… he just gave me a disgusted look like I should know better.”

To avoid being stigmatized, Autistics camouflage, suppressing Autistic symptoms so that we might appear as close to ‘normal’ as possible. This includes forcing yourself to look people in the eyes even if it’s uncomfortable, concentrating on not fidgeting even though it helps you manage stress, and despite having a sensitivity to light and sound, grit and bear your sensory overload. It’s a constant state of self management meant to make everyone around you feel comfortable, even if you suffer.

About 80 percent of Autistics camouflage to avoid workplace stigma, and since you spend a third of your life at work, you end up camouflaging for uncomfortably long periods of time. This results in Autistics (particularly women) facing increased depression, exhaustion and stress, which deteriorates both their performance at work and quality of life. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, where the expectation that Autistic candidates are subpar workers, in turn results in a drop in performance from Autistics. All caused by employers unwittingly encouraging a status quo for what is considered ‘normal’ in an employee.

At a prior job, I was getting worn out by trying to embody this status quo. Between the demanding job and the constant need to camouflage, I was suffering from exhaustion and tension headaches. Looking for some support, I told my manager about my Autism, and was met with ‘I think you should keep that to yourself’; so I went back to camouflaging. 

The benefits of working with an Autistic

All of this hiding makes Autism a blind spot for most people. In an age where diversity has become a top-line conversation that companies engage in, there is often little understanding of what is Autism and or how it benefits the workplace. To start, Autism is a development disorder which causes the brain to grow differently early in life, resulting in an alternative way of thinking. In other words, having Autism is similar to running a different operating system for the same hardware. If the typical mind runs Windows, an Autistic mind runs Linex.

This manifests into strengths that are unique to Autism, such as being adept at pattern recognition, having a superb memory and possessing a passionate work ethic. This alternative mind gives Autistics a propensity for creative thinking, as we tend to deviate from established practices to accomplish goals, birthing innovative ideas. In other words, Autistics are born to think out of the box because to us, the box never existed.

This lack of a box got me into college. I was tired of writing the same college letter over and over again (I learned X because of Y). Instead, I wrote a sarcastic submission form, poking fun at the absurdity of applying to college. I ended the form with a note asking the enrollment office to send me their banking details so I could wire them the customary bribe. I got into my top pick because of this innate ability to look at things through a different lens.

But for every strength, there is a quirk to balance it, and there are definitely quirks with Autism. This includes finding direct eye contact physically uncomfortable, having difficulty socializing, and expressing ourselves in unusual ways. But when supported, Autistics can wrangle these quirks and create a domino effect that positively benefits the whole workplace. A discomfort with eye contact results in a higher use of programs like Slack, which can increase overall office productivity. A difficulty to socialize adds an emphasis on cutting down on miscommunication, which in turn cuts down on stress in the workplace and loss of business. And expressing the self unusually leads to someone having a knack for presenting information in novel ways.  

This same knack for novel presentation would land me my first job. The interview didn’t go great, but my interviewers interest in me did a 180 when I shared a presentation I had made on advertising and video games. The presentation hadn’t been built in powerpoint, but built as an interactive adventure within the game Minecraft. I got hired, and eventually one of my ideas would get an approving nod from then President of Nintendo, Reggie Fil-Aime during a pitch, a huge moment for someone who grew up being a Pokemon fan, a game made by an Autistic.

Building an Autistic Friendly Workplace

There’s a great irony in writing an article on how Autism introduces alternative minds in the workplace. Recently there has been an uptick in the cries for diversified mindsets inside leadership groups so that innovation can be spurred. This is limited in practice, as finding mentally diverse talent focuses on background, with an unspoken understanding that everyone is running the same mental software. But if you want to drive innovative thought inside your company, making small accommodations for Autistic workers can lead to breakout ideas. 

Here is a rough framework to get started.

  • Create Alternative Candidate Assessments

Be prepared to provide alternative hiring criteria that assesses someone’s professional abilities, without getting a false reading from their social skills. Interviews that focus on showing technical know-how will help interviewers see how an Autistic person breaks down problems, and solves them, getting a snapshot into their thought process. If you need in depth guidance, HireAutism.org has a great high level guide for constructing an interview for autistic candidates.

  • Develop Support Systems

Supporting Autism doesn’t benefit from a ‘one and done’ solution. Rather, each case of Autism can be shockingly distinct in how it impacts a person’s life, best expressed by the idiom ‘If you know one person with Autism, you know one person with Autism.’ Because of this, employers should be prepared to set up flexible support systems, based on what the individual needs are of Autistic workers. These flexible support systems in turn create a cascade of benefits for the whole company. SAP’s Autism At Work program found that as managers began to take a deeper interest in how they might help their Autistic employees, they in turn began to accommodate the unique situation of typical workers.

“We don’t ask for ‘special’ treatment. We ask for certain conditions to allow us to function at the same level as the rest of the workforce. Once these conditions are met, you will find you have the hardest working, most loyal employees around.”

Audiologist on working with Autism

  • Let Us Speak

Imagine if all your education on race, gender and sexual orientation was given by people not belonging to those groups? This is unfortunately very common in Autism, where non-Autistics lead the conversation on what it’s like to be Autistic. To help Autistics have a voice, be inviting of Autistic co-workers to speak their minds and provide feedback. If you have no one who is comfortable being open, you can reach out to companies like Autonomy Works or research groups like the Organization for Autistic Research to help steer you the right way.

  • Meet Us Halfway

The most important way to help your Autistic co-workers, friends and family, is to be prepared to meet us halfway. We’ve worked most of our entire lives to ensure those around us feel comfortable, so simply asking ‘what’s it like’ means the world to us. Read literature on Autism, the writings of Temple Grandin or Neurotribe by Steve Silberman are a good start. Read published materials by Autistics, explore SpectrumNews, and delve into Autistic forums like Reddit’s r/Aspergers to get a peek into what the Autistic community discusses.

And always remember, Autistics are not looking for help, but understanding. We don’t need privileges or a helping hand, we simply want people to be willing to learn what we go through and what we need to give you our best work.

Conclusion

If you knew me as a kid, you never would have expected I’d be where I am today. I wasn’t able to talk until I was four, I had to repeat kindergarten, and my teacher kept me sequestered from class by sitting me in the hallway throughout first grade because she deemed me ‘unteachable’. A sentiment continued by most of my teachers until high school.

But when you meet me today, you are witnessing the result of 27 years of hard work, not just from myself but from those around me. It is because I’ve had family, colleagues, organizations and friends accommodate my needs and be supportive that I was able to get to where I am today. Someone who is often considered one of the hardest workers on his team, and has been called fearless with a willingness to take on new problems. And I am just one example of Autism.

I’m hoping this article helps start a conversation. Without it, Autistics like myself become more concerned with appearing ‘normal’ than leveraging our innate talents. We become stressed, anxious and depressed while employers miss out on a talented workforce. By accepting that there exists no baseline for what is ‘normal’, and supporting Autistics to leverage our natural strengths, we collectively benefit from the inclusion of alternative minds.

So let’s start talking.

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