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Autism - Diversity and Accommodation

Ensuring Your Workplace is Diverse and Accommodating


Imagine everyone you hired came from the same background. They all had the same life experiences; they all thought the same way. How often would a problem at work get solved?

Or perhaps imagine a picture, and every employee is trying to color it, but they are all using the same color. No one thinks to use a different color. In the end, you have a massive sheet of only one single color.

Now imagine one person comes in and adds their unique perspective. It’s different. It’s from an angle no one has considered before. It’s a different color added to the picture. Isn’t this so much better?

So it is with our brains and the way we think and process information. We are each unique, but many — called neurotypical people — look at life the same way, through the same lens. It is when someone neurodiverse comes along that a unique perspective is added. Yet these neurodiverse people have the highest unemployment rate of any group of people — 85%.

Many neurodiverse people have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Many common stereotypes of people with autism exist in the media. Rain Man, for example, portrays a person with autism requiring a lot of accommodation; someone who probably wouldn’t be able to function in many professional jobs. However, this stereotype is both outdated and not based on data. Most people with autism are so high-functioning that they are sometimes not believed when they come forward about their autism, or they are denied accommodations.

Another stereotype is that people with autism are a savant in some manner, such as main character of the television show, “The Good Doctor.” Actual characteristics common to people with autism are perseverance, loyalty, and a high level of expertise and knowledgeable in their chosen field. These are characteristics that any employer would be lucky to have on their staff. So why is the unemployment rate for people with autism so high?

Let’s look at the case of Kay Robbins. Kay has ASD, but is considered high-functioning. Yet she was placed on leave, faced disciplinary action, was mocked by her fellow employees, and eventually found herself unemployed. Kay, like many people with autism, is sensitive to certain lights and sounds, so she requested a filter for her computer to make it easier for her to look at. Her coworkers accused her of “milking” her autism.

“My time in work so far has been very stressful, as I’ve constantly had to defend and explain myself all the time. If employers were more aware, I’d be able to work in an environment that supported me, rather than one that battled against me. All I want to do is work, and I have a lot to offer, but I can’t seem to fit in anywhere.”

Other people with ASD agree. “I’ve been fired for not understanding office politics, for ‘allowing’ myself to be taken advantage of, and because I’m seen as an easy target when someone wants to hire a friend or family member,” says police officer Goodrich. “I’ve been fired for ‘tattling’ on coworkers and for not telling when I see something wrong. I’ve been reprimanded for being a loner and for ‘butting in’ to conversations. It’s like I can’t win.”

While there are laws in the United States to protect against discrimination for people with autism, many say that they face discrimination every day in the workplace. Many people with autism say that, during the interview process for a job, they are often met with someone who assumes the stereotypes are true, and therefore they are put into a category before the interviewer even takes the time to get to know their unique strengths and talents.

While people with ASD are generally capable of performing the same jobs as people who are neurotypical, the majority find themselves unemployed, which leads to isolation. A shocking majority feel depressed, and over a third have attempted suicide.

The tide seems to be turning though, as companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Walgreens have all made a conscious effort to employ people with ASD, with excellent results. Deb Russell, former manager of outreach and employment services at Walgreens and now a managing partner with Global Disability Inclusion, based in St. Augustine, Florida explains what she saw in her neurodiverse employees.

“Characteristics include limited understanding or noticing of subtle social cues, a tendency to be very literal, a better understanding of information presented visually versus the other learning modalities, and a higher level of comfort with concrete versus abstract thinking processes.”

She goes on to say that her neurodiverse employees are more likely to be punctual, have lower rates of absenteeism, pay close attention to detail, and excel at following the rules, while they may have trouble improvising and can be subject to sensory overload.

Kyle Weafer, 21, is an excellent example of a person with ASD who thrives in the workplace. He arrives to work half an hour early at his AMC movie theater, where he works as a film crew associate, greeting customers and completing regular start-of-day tasks quickly and efficiently. One year, he was the only associate at that movie theater who received a perfect score on his individual evaluation, says Andy Traub, SPHR, director of recruitment at AMC Entertainment.

The best way to ensure your workplace is diverse and accommodating is to be educated. The majority of neurodiverse people need very little in accommodations; mostly they just seek to be understood. A great resource is the National Autism Association. They offer information, tools, training, and more—all for free.

Common Accommodations:

  1. Allowing the workspace to have fewer lights and sounds.
  2. Allowing the employee to wear headphones.
  3. Patience. Social cues are likely to go unnoticed. When things change suddenly, a neurodiverse person may not handle it well, including disruptions to their routine. When learning something new, they may ask a lot of questions.
  4. If you know a change is coming, let them know as soon as possible.
  5. Allow a stress relief process. Some people with ASD “stim,” a way of comforting themselves. Fidget spinners and stress balls are some ways to help relieve tension in a subtle and harmless way.
  6. Extra breaks/solitude. This is especially needed after an event like a big meeting.
  7. Remember that every person is different, whether they are neurotypical or not.

If you have any questions about how to ensure your workplace is both diverse and accommodating, contact our experts at Exodus HR Group today.


Annette Shannon, Team Lead, Client Services

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