Our website uses cookies to enhance and personalize your experience and to display advertisements (if any). Our website may also include third party cookies such as Google Adsense, Google Analytics, Youtube. By using the website, you consent to the use of cookies. We have updated our Privacy Policy. Please click the button to view our Privacy Policy.

Autistic Employees Revolutionize Workplace Accommodations

Autistic Employees Revolutionize Workplace Accommodations

When Chelsia Potts took her 10-year-old daughter to a psychologist for an evaluation for autism spectrum disorder, she decided, almost as an afterthought, to get tested herself. The results were surprising: Like her daughter, Ms. Potts was diagnosed with autism.

At 35, Ms. Potts thought she was dealing with anxiety or something else. A first-generation college graduate, she had earned a Ph.D. in education and become a high-level administrator at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After seeing a psychologist, she had to figure out how this diagnosis would affect her work life.

“I was confused at first and kept it a secret,” Ms. Potts said. “I had an image of what an autistic person looked like, and it didn’t look like me.”

She reflected on the ways she had compensated in the past to hide her disability and appear as a model employee, a defense mechanism known as “masking.”

For years, she tried to meet with colleagues individually because she felt uncomfortable in group meetings. She recalled smiling and sounding enthusiastic, knowing that some people found her tone of voice too serious. She also tried to avoid bright lights and noise in the workplace.

After struggling with her diagnosis for six months, Ms. Potts met with a university official. That conversation “was one of the most difficult experiences of my life,” she said.

“I was telling someone something I had never told anyone outside of my family,” she continued. “I felt very vulnerable. I felt ashamed. I realized how difficult it was for me to express what I needed and why I needed it.”

But the meeting did bring some positive changes for Mrs. Potts: she gained some benefits, including greater flexibility in her working hours.

In the United States, several large employers, including Microsoft, Dell, and Ford, are taking steps to make their workplaces more accessible and welcoming to neurodiverse employees, given the rise in autism diagnoses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 36 8-year-olds in the United States has autism. That’s up from one in 44 in 2018 and one in 150 in 2000, an increase that experts attribute in part to improved tracking. Additionally, 2.2 percent of adults in the country, or 5.4 million people, have autism, according to the CDC.

More and more autistic people are coming out publicly with their diagnoses. Ms. Potts is one of many TikTok users who have shared their diagnoses online using the hashtag #autistok.

Last year, singer Sia went public with her autism diagnosis as an adult. More recently, author Mary HK Choi described in an essay for New York Magazine how, at 43, she has developed a greater sense of self-understanding thanks to her diagnosis.

Autism activists have praised companies that have been more open to remote work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Workplaces with too much light and noise can overwhelm autistic people, leading to burnout, said Jessica Myszak, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who specializes in autism testing and assessment. Remote work “reduces the social demands and some of the environmental sensitivities” that autistic people struggle with, Dr. Myszak added.

But navigating the job market remains a challenge for people with autism, who are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, according to advocacy groups. Autistic job applicants hoping to make a good first impression may be reluctant to disclose their diagnoses or request accommodations in advance.

“You don’t want them to see your flaws,” said Haley Moss, 29, an attorney and autism activist, comparing the job interview to a first date.

Microsoft is recruiting

When Natalie Worden-Cowe, 32, was a professional musician, she struggled with the networking aspect of the business, which is crucial to getting gigs. When she decided to change careers a few years ago to become a software engineer, she struggled to get through job interviews. Her professional life changed when she discovered Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program, which was established in 2015.

The company’s program was modeled after an initiative created by German software company SAP and has since been adopted in some form by companies including Dell and Ford. So far, the initiative has brought about 300 full-time neurodivergent employees to Microsoft, said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at the company.

“All they needed was this different, more inclusive process,” Mr. Barnett said, “and once they got into the business, they thrived.”

Ms. Worden-Cowe, who was diagnosed with the disease at age 29, noticed a difference at Microsoft during her interview: She was given more time to answer questions and more breaks between meetings with company employees.

“Neurodiverse people sometimes need a little more time to process questions, or they may need questions written down,” Ms. Worden-Cowe said.

Once on board, she was assigned a job coach to help her with time management and prioritization. Microsoft also assigned her a mentor who gave her a tour of the company’s campus in Redmond, Washington. Perhaps most importantly, she works with managers who have received neurodiversity training.

Microsoft’s campus also has “focus rooms,” where lights can be dimmed and desk heights adjusted to accommodate sensory preferences. Employees who work in open offices can also ask to sit away from crowded hallways or be given noise-canceling headphones.

“The agendas are sent out in advance,” Mr. Barnett said. “Everyone’s communication styles and preferences are noted.”

Mr Barnett rejected the misconception that such arrangements cost companies revenue, efficiency or productivity. Instead, he said, they improve workplace culture and the overall well-being of staff.

Wendi Safstrom, president of the nonprofit Society for Human Resource Management, said more employers should commit to hiring neurodivergent people and educating their workforces about them. “If they’re not willing to change with the times, they’re going to be left behind,” Ms. Safstrom said. “The war for talent is real.”

Ms. Moss, the lawyer, said human resources departments have shown a willingness to change. “In most cases, they already have autistic employees who haven’t disclosed,” she said. And yet, she added of autistic workers, “a lot of us aren’t getting promoted.”

More employers should place neurodivergent people in leadership roles, Ms. Moss said, essentially to redefine the image of a boss. “You can be someone who communicates outside of what’s considered normal and be a fantastic leader,” she said.

“My true self”

For Murphy Monroe, communicating at work was never a problem. Very talkative, Mr. Monroe, 50, excelled because he could quickly memorize statistics about the organization he worked for and its competitors.

Having been told by therapists since childhood that he was probably on the autism spectrum but had never been tested, Mr. Monroe tried to avoid the topic. As a teenager, he knew he was different and was “actively afraid of not being able to hold down a job,” he said.

He studied theater in college and pursued a career in education, spending 17 years as an admissions officer and administrator at Columbia College Chicago. Like Ms. Potts, the administrator at Miami University, Mr. Monroe developed strategies for navigating the workplace, including taking a trusted colleague with him to help him pick up social cues he might have overlooked.

“Is there anyone I need to apologize to?” Mr. Monroe would ask after meetings. “What just happened?”

“I bite my fingers,” she added, referring to a form of stimming, behaviors that help some autistic people cope with sensory overload. “I’d sit in a meeting with the college president or a board meeting and I couldn’t stop bleeding. Those are the moments when it’s nice to have someone in the room with me, giving me a little push.”

At one point, Mr. Monroe told a human resources manager that he thought he had a form of autism that overwhelmed him with sensory input, especially lights. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You’re not autistic,’ ” Mr. Monroe recalled. “From that point on, for many years, I didn’t think about it again.”

But after watching TikTok videos of people sharing their experiences with autism, Mr. Monroe made an appointment with a psychologist in 2021 and received confirmation of what he had long suspected.

That self-awareness has changed the way he approaches his current job as executive director of Actors Gymnasium, a circus school in Evanston, Illinois. “I had this real desire to be open to the work,” Mr. Monroe said. “I just jumped into it. I bought a gold autism pin on Etsy and started wearing it all the time.”

She also makes accommodations, like taking days off to recharge and having blackout curtains in her office. She tries to be sensitive to her colleagues, too, she said, allowing them to adjust their schedules or tasks in ways that make sense to them, whether they’re neurodivergent or neurotypical.

In short, he’s trying to create the environment he would have wanted when he was wearing a mask to survive. It’s the kind of work environment many autism activists hope will become more common.

“For me, to be completely myself while running a joyful company,” Mr. Monroe said, “makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world.”

By Tom Sterling

Leave a Reply

También te puede gustar