What is neurodiversity? Neurodiversity is a newer term. It is more than just a word, though—it is a concept. Neurodiversity applies to autistic people, people with attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, highly sensitive persons (HSPs), people with dyslexia, and other neurological conditions. The concept behind the term “neurodiversity” is that these differences are part of the natural variation found in humanity. This piece focuses on employment and autistic people.
According to the CDC, 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While it remains controversial whether the numbers are increasing or better rates of identification are at play, we do know that many autistic people are exceptionally talented. One example is Susan Boyle, a Scottish singer who tried out for Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. To see something beautiful, unexpected, and awesomely inspiring, I highly recommend watching the Susan Boyle audition.
This was an unemployed 47-year-old woman who seemed to have little concern for her appearance and was perhaps viewed as a little eccentric. She stunned the audience with her angelic rendition of Les Misérables’, “I Dreamed a Dream.” At that time, it was believed that she had suffered mild brain damage during her birth, but in 2013, she revealed a newfound Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Asperger’s syndrome is now called high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, according to diagnostic criteria used by medical professionals in the U.S. Susan went on to produce several hit albums.
I have a personal interest in the topic of employment and autistic people. I have a very bright four-year-old daughter with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. At home, she chatters non-stop and loves to act silly. At pre-school, she is quiet, shy, and serious. Social anxiety frequently occurs with autism. As a parent, I worry about her prospects for employment as an adult in spite of her superior cognitive abilities. There is good reason for this concern. According to several sources, the unemployment rate of autistic adults is around 85 percent.
Many autistic individuals are capable of doing paid work. However, there are certain problems that autistic people face in seeking employment. While getting an interview is a victory for anyone, this is where many autistic people typically get passed over. One of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is impairment in social interactions. Another is social communication deficits. In addition, many people with autism have sensory processing differences, which can lead to behavior that is not understood by neurotypical people. An example of this is a high sensitivity to sounds well tolerated by neurotypical individuals which could lead to covering the ears. This behavior may not be understood by the uninformed.
Considering the diagnostic criteria of autism spectrum disorder along with typical interviewer expectations, autistic people are at a significant disadvantage. Many interviewers probably do not know how to interpret some of these potential occurrences: lack of eye contact, repetitive movements like opening and closing the hands (which can increase under stressful conditions), not answering questions in the expected manner, going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent, and wearing unusual interview attire among other possibilities. Reduced affect may also be judged negatively. It is not that autistic people do not feel; they simply express their feelings differently.
Given the value of diversity, what can be done to improve this situation? Part of the solution would be employer interest in diverse hiring practices with an emphasis on including autistic adults. Another important piece is to rethink the purpose of an interview. Are the behaviors that might be considered undesirable during the interview necessarily an obstacle to performing the job? This is the key question. In American culture, extroversion is celebrated as exemplary, and introversion is generally viewed as undesirable. Autistic people may be perceived as introverted. Interviewer bias can also be introduced by negatively judging an applicant’s traits that are unrelated to job performance. Perhaps interviewers are looking to stay within their own comfort zones; however, if it is not necessary to do the job, then it should not matter during the interview process.
There are some other ways to increase participation of autistic people in the workforce. Many individuals are capable of doing great work when given the right accommodations. One idea, which would likely increase participation in the workforce by all disabled people, is to offer more part-time positions. Rather than having one full-time position available, have two part-time positions. Many disabled individuals have medical appointments or transportation issues that can make it difficult to work 40 hours a week, but they may be able to work 20 hours each week without getting overwhelmed. For autistic people specifically, reduced hours could be important due to the intense overstimulation that may occur for autistic individuals when they are out in the world. This leads to another solution, which is to offer remote work as an accommodation for people with disabilities including those with autism spectrum disorder. This removes a significant barrier for people who struggle with physically getting to work and for those who struggle with tolerating bright lighting or noisy open office floor plans.
The most important thing is to have an open mind. Job applicants are not required to disclose disabilities; therefore, it is necessary to be aware that there might be good reasons for behaviors that are not understood. Keep evaluative judgments narrowly focused on what is necessary to do the job. Autistic people naturally think differently, and this is a key component to innovation. People who experience life differently will think and act differently. Employers and their representing interviewers must evaluate their biases and decide what attributes are truly necessary for successful job performance. All people are unique whether disabled or not. And that’s a good thing. But let’s not just tolerate these differences. That does not lead to an inclusive environment. Let’s celebrate and appreciate human diversity in all of its forms everywhere—including at work.
This piece originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association’s publication Perspectives.