Welcome to our September blog post. Our focus is going to shift from why and how to source autistic talent to understanding some of the most important elements in providing a supportive work environment for your autistic colleagues.
Blog post art provided by Isaac Rader. To view more of Isaac’s artwork, visit doghouseart.net!
The Supportive Workplace
By Marcia Scheiner, September 2022
Employers often assume that when an autistic individual enters the workforce, the new employee will need training and/or specialized support to “fit in” to their new work environment. They may expect the new employee to learn social skills that will allow them to interact effectively with colleagues and be successful at their jobs. It is as important, if not more so, however, that employers understand how to provide an environment that will enable autistic employees to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
Creating an environment that is conducive to success for employees on the spectrum, as with any employee, allows them to perform at their best. While individuals on the spectrum can be prepared for what they will encounter when they go to work, they still bring with them a different way of thinking and processing information that may translate into behavioral differences at work. Some key areas – education and training, manager support and the office environment – need to be addressed in creating that supportive workplace.
Education and Training
When setting up education and training programs, it is important to recognize that education and training are not the same thing, and both need to be done. Education involves creating awareness among employees in your organization about autism – the demographics of the autism population, how autism affects individuals, and how autistic colleagues may present in the workplace. Training is a more targeted effort in providing your employees with the skill sets to interact successfully and supportively with autistic co-workers. Do not assume that someone who knows about autism will intuitively know how to manage successfully or work cooperatively with someone on the spectrum.
Creating a base of understanding of the talents and behavioral differences of autistic colleagues among your existing employees is the first step in preparing your organization, so conduct autism awareness education. These sessions should, at a minimum, cover the topics below, and be delivered to as broad an audience in your organization as possible:
- Understanding neurodiversity – addressing the variations in cognitive thinking and processing
- Defining autism – what is the autism spectrum?
- Strengths of autistic talent
- Behavioral differences associated with autism and how they manifest in the workplace
Training needs to be provided to individuals who will interacting with autistic job applicants and employees on a regular basis. Anyone involved in the interview process should have training that addresses how to conduct an effective interview for autistic candidates. Interviewing training should cover topics such as:
- How to evaluate the resume of autistic candidates
- Expectations around eye contact
- Engaging with candidates who provide too much or too little information
- Phrasing questions for maximum comprehension
- Recognizing and minimizing candidate anxiety
Manager training should be conducted for the direct supervisor(s), hiring manager, human resource business partner and key colleagues of the new employee. This training should be tactical in nature, addressing day-to-day management situations. Engage managers on how to address issues related to the hidden curriculum (the unspoken rules that allow us to “fit in” to social situations), executive functioning (skills such as time management and organizing that allow us to put our intelligence to work), different communication/learning styles and sensory sensitivities (to light, noise, smells, etc).
In the spirit of “nothing about us without us”, include autistic individuals in reviewing education and training content, and engage autistic volunteers in your organization to speak to colleagues about their experiences as an autistic jobseeker and worker.
For autistic individuals, being surrounded by a team of colleagues who know how to communicate effectively with them and can adapt to their working style is critically important. The preparatory training discussed above is only the first step in ensuring managers and co-workers are prepared to do this.
Establish a process to have frequent (weekly) check-ins with managers. If you have multiple managers of autistic employees, hold group check-ins so that managers can share and learn from each other’s experience. Provide access to experts and resources on managing autistic individuals to help your managers become better natural supports at managing your employees on the spectrum. Have experienced managers of autistic employees mentor first time managers. Not every manager will be well-suited for managing autistic individuals, so having a formal process for frequent check-ins with managers will allow for a prompt course correction before a situation becomes untenable.
Many autistic individuals struggle with sensory sensitivities that can be distracting and increase their level of anxiety. The office environment can be full of noises, smells and visual stimuli that trigger these sensitivities in employees on the spectrum. The move to remote work has lessened the impact of sensory sensitivities for many autistic individuals, as well as the stress and anxiety related to social demands, but even in a remote work situation, employers need to be aware of potential distractions in the employees’ work environment. Addressing these issues is not difficult, if you are aware of the individual’s needs, so ask what your employees need. In the office, adjustments could include noise cancelling technologies, seating in quiet/distraction free areas, and non-fluorescent lighting. In a remote work situation, be sensitive to the amount of video meetings (cameras on or off?), establishing clear work hours and times for breaks, and overwhelming employees with the constant chatter on Slack channels or similar platforms.
Employers are responsible for ensuring their workplace is supportive of all employees they hire. Preparing your organization to provide a supportive work environment is critical to attracting and retaining neurodivergent talent. The key areas to focus on are broad-based awareness education, manager/colleague training, ongoing manager coaching and employee sensitivity to environmental triggers, whether in the office or working remotely.
Your Next Steps
Is your organization neurodivergent-friendly? Conduct an assessment to determine what you need to do to support neurodivergent employees. Develop an action plan to fill-in any gaps identified in providing a supportive work environment for neurodivergent talent.
Stay tuned for our October post when we focus on disclosure.