April is Autism Awareness Month, and as the growing interest in workplace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) expands to include neurodiverse employees, HR leaders want to help their businesses include employees with autism.
About 85% of adults with autism are unemployed.
That’s too bad. According to Deloitte, “Organizations that make an extra effort to recruit, retain and nurture neurodivergent workers can gain a competitive edge from increased diversity in skills, ways of thinking and approaches to problem-solving.”
Neurodiversity & employees with autism
Journalist Harvey Bloom popularized the term neurodiversity in The Atlantic in 1998. The term refers to a wide range of “mental orientations,” including autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dysgraphia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome and Down Syndrome.
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?” Bloom wrote.
In 2017, Harvard Business Review agreed in an article titled, “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage: Why you should embrace it in your workforce.” They cited research that found neurodiverse teams can be 30% more productive than neurotypical teams.
Hiring is just the beginning
But for companies that want to create a neuro-inclusive workforce, the real question is how do you make it work for everyone? How do you set up employees and teams for success? Hiring diverse candidates is great. But it’s not enough.
“While mandates are one way to bring about real change, organizations need to remember that simply meeting diversity criteria and representation goals are not enough to make sustainable change for a diverse workforce,” said Robin Strup, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Dataminr. “Organizations and hiring managers must provide recruiters adequate time and resources to reach, discover and earn the trust of diverse talent for open positions, then invest in sustainable, equitable initiatives that weave inclusivity into the culture.
Getting neurodiverse teams to work well takes rethinking some workplace practices. Here are eight things you can do to make your organization autism friendly.
1. Rethink biases
Most professionals are conditioned to recruit and promote soft skills like eye contact, a firm handshake, making small talk and speaking up in meetings. Are those job requirements?
One way to get beyond biases is to use data to assess candidates instead of subjective criteria. Use tests and assessment tools that measure skills and performance in recruiting and management processes.
2. Encourage disclosure
A UK study found that just 23.5% of employees with autism disclose their diagnosis in their job applications. Why? Fear that they will not get the job. If they get the job, they feel they must mask their autism, which can erode morale, performance and productivity.
Make it clear on job descriptions and postings that people with autism are encouraged to apply, and that disclosure is a plus, not a minus. You may have heard that companies like Apple, HP and Dell Technologies have created outreach programs specifically for job candidates who are neurodivergent.
3. Focus on abilities
Everyone has abilities. And while euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “special” are condescending, the point is that people with autism have abilities.
“For too long, autism has tended to be defined only in negative terms, with a focus solely on the challenges people face,” said the human resources professional association CIPD. “While neurodivergent people may face their own specific challenges in the workplace environment, or with particular tasks, they can bring unique and valuable strengths to their work.”
You can adapt objective assessment tools like Clifton Strengths — remove timers, for instance — to find out what people can do best.
4. Document processes
Document all processes employees will perform in Plain Writing. Putting expectations in writing removes ambiguity for performance. Use Plain Writing to make this information accessible to all. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language as “clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”
The language that is clear to one set of readers may not be accessible to others. For example, avoid colloquialisms and metaphors like “brainstorming” or “out of the box” thinking.
5. Create sensory retreat spaces
Certain sensory stimuli may interfere with a neurodivergent employee’s ability to focus. Fluorescent lighting, bright sunlight, buzzing sounds and strong smells such as colognes, breath and permanent markers can be distracting. Overstimulation can reduce productivity and even cause migraines. Create a quiet, calming space with controllable light and sound.
6. Ask questions
If an employee’s performance changes, especially for the worse, ask how you can help. If an employee seems unfocused, ask them what they need and be willing to adjust the work environment. They may need a change of location or noise-canceling headphones.
They might need to take more breaks to regain focus — but are afraid to ask. While you are legally required to provide reasonable accommodation for any employee with a disability, many employees will not ask. But asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions will go a long way to improving performance and earning employees’ trust and loyalty.
7. Train the whole team
The Neu Project, launched by Google in 2022, is a global community working to make the work world more welcoming and productive for neurodivergent communities.
“DE&I is an essential practice,” the project’s website states. “However, neuro inclusion remains a gap in the industry. Neurodiverse employees are often overlooked in the workplace by well-intentioned coworkers and managers.”
To ensure your company retains talented employees, train everyone working with neurodivergent employees on the best ways to work together.
8. Form ERGs
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are critical for all DEI efforts. Support among similar employees fosters understanding and belonging that drive retention and productivity.
“ERGs build high-trust relationships that help companies flourish,” according to Great Places to Work. “The groups foster a sense of belonging and inspire conversation, bring new ways to look at issues, and drive innovation.”
In 2018, Accenture released “The Disability Advantage” study, noting that “in large part, companies haven’t leveraged the talents of persons with disabilities.” The firm studied 45 Disability Champion Companies that actively include people with disabilities. “Champions are, compared with other companies in the sample, performing above-average financially,” Accenture said. “Champions achieved – on average — 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins over the four-year period we analyzed.”
Like all inclusion initiatives, hiring diverse employees is just the beginning of creating a workforce that works for everyone. Creating an autism-friendly workplace may seem daunting, but realistically, the tips shared here apply to every employee and can accelerate inclusion and belonging for all. The effort can form a rising tide that elevates everyone’s performance and morale–one reason inclusive workplaces outperform non-inclusive workplaces.