Many businesses have two things very wrong about autism and the workplace. Firstly, there's a misunderstanding in thinking the level of accommodation is costly and challenging to implement. Secondly, there is the idea that autism is somehow at odds with innovation because there's a rigid need for structure and consistency.
Now, let's dispel these myths.
Surprisingly enough, autism is very cheap to accommodate for. The caveat being the support system needs to be in place, and the autistic person needs to be aware of their needs, limitations and requirements (just like any employee).
The same work structures that work for autistic employees work for neurotypical employees. And it's why we should see these as good management, not as accommodations.
All things that autistic employees require:
- Complete transparency around workplace culture, social practices and business processes. Explain ‘the why' a business, team or workplace culture does something the way it does.
- Calm and safe working environments — Look at the sensory. Consider it an allergy to sound, light, or touch (depending on the individual).
Nothing here costs the business; it's just good management practices. All reasonable workplace management practices allow an autistic individual to function; all employees benefit from these methods. In this sense, the idea of accommodation shouldn't be considered as accommodations, and instead should be seen as effective management.
Look at accommodation as a business tool
In the most straightforward terminology, accommodation is a tool for an employee to complete a task. Different workers require different artefacts. For someone autistic, these generally address workplace structure and the sensory. According to Scheiner and Bogden (2017, pp. 28–29), accommodations for autistic people are remarkably cost-efficient.
Success measures are usually slight environmental changes and effectively communicating needs or expectations.
These accommodations may look like this:
- Clear communication because Autistics are literal thinkers. This is to lower stress and anxiety and manage expectations. Additionally, it reduces communication gaps.
- Flexibility for working at our best, as in styles of work. Set working conditions to the employee's mental model.
- Instructions in writing. An autistic worker needs the rules and instructions in writing.
- Limit change. Autistics need structure, so no spur-of-the-moment changes.
- Mentor. Having a go-to person will give the autistic person one point of contact and allow them to prioritise far better.
- Understand the sensory challenges. LED lights and headphones are the cheapest accommodations you can give an autistic employee to ensure they are happy in an office
- Understand the social difference. All autistics are different. However, an autistic person has a cultural difference compared to the neurotypical standard. Get to know this.
- Use plain language because many on the spectrum misunderstand sarcasm or nuances in speech, such as double meanings.
Neurodivergent thinking and innovation
Most businesses talk about innovation, but few effectively implement it. Businesses need leadership and diverse thinking methods to foster innovative or convergent thinking patterns.
The cookie-cutter effect or the same employee mould creates boredom and is terrible for business. There is no edge because the neuro-patterns are so similar. The team cannot develop a dynamic solution because it only considers issues from a singular perspective.
The secret sauce often overlooked is the types of minds brought into solving problems or innovating a notion. Various neuro-patterns address problems in distinctive ways; they generate solutions according to their innate cognitive thinking paradigm.
Additionally, these patterns are more apt and weighted for different ways of learning and envisioning details. You cannot have innovation without fringe thinkers: people who deviate from the norm of the dominant social mindset.
In simple terms, autistic workers are deep thinkers and often highly specialised in thinking around a specific special interest in a subject area. They usually are considered leaders of a particular discipline. For example, autistic people excel at detail and pattern recognition. Their mind disposition places them above a neurotypical standard for recognition-based tasks.
In other words, they frequently identify errors or very different approaches to solving complicated, commonly overlooked business problems. This thinking fits nicely into cyber security, UX, programming, or a field discipline knowing more facts about that given area.
Thus, neurodiverse individuals, like people with autism, thrive at tackling complicated problems and approaching business ideas from a unique perspective.
How autism fits into your business' innovation strategy
As I have demonstrated, neurodiversity, specifically autism, is a competitive edge. In a business context, autism is a force multiplier.
“Autistic employees can be up to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees. JP Morgan states that autistic professionals are appropriately matched to jobs that harness their skills and passions (Ossola, 2021).”
Thinking of neurodiverse staff as force multipliers drastically change innovation and resource management. Rather than considering it a burden, these individuals are more likely to address the complicated difficulties an organisation or discipline faces.
Creative thought is not the result of conventional or obedient thought patterns. It involves using a diverse attitude and talents in the ideal situation. Hence, it's applying thinking modes to the right context.
So, will an autistic employee be part of your business' secret sauce?
Honeybourne, V 2020, The neurodiverse workplace: an employer's guide to managing and
working with neurodivergent employees, clients and customers, Jessica Kingsley Publishers,
Ossola, A 2021, Neurodiverse applicants are revolutionizing the hiring process, Quartz, viewed 5 March 2023, <https://qz.com/work/1981466/neurodiverse-applicants-are-revolutionizing-the-hiring-process/>.
Scheiner, M & Bogden, J 2017, An employer's guide to managing professionals on the autism spectrum, Kindle Edition, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London; Philadelphia.
Simone, R 2010, Asperger's on the job: must-have advice for people with Asperger's or high
functioning autism and their employers, educators, and advocates, Kindle Edition, Future Horizons, Arlington, Tex.
Singer, J 2019, Reflections on the Neurodiversity Paradigm: What is Neurodiversity?,
Reflections on the Neurodiversity Paradigm, viewed 14 December 2022, <https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html?m=1>.
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