It’s no secret that autistic workers are downplayed or undervalued in the world of work. And yet the number of people with some form of autism in the United Kingdom is substantial — with an estimated 700,000 people on the spectrum. Only a scant 16% of this total are working full-time. No calculations are needed to know that Britain has a huge standing army of underutilized autistic potential-workers in its midst.
There are many reasons why this might be. One factor will almost certainly be the result of negative stereotyping and personal prejudices. But far more likely is the general confusion around what autism actually is. Because ‘autism’ is an umbrella term for a wide range of developmental disorders — ranging from the severe to the barely noticeable — it's hard for the general public to understand both the disadvantages and the advantages that such disorders present.
Overall, a truly neurodiverse approach is a gateway to substantially improving your businesses’ general output, problem-solving techniques, and ability to meet project deadlines. All of this can be possible in just a few steps and with an open mind.
The unique advantages of thinking differently
One particular advantage is that autistic people tend to be naturally very intelligent. IQs are much higher on average among neurodiverse people than they are among the neurotypical population. Autistic people also tend to have innate skills that are rare or unusual in much of the general population.
Of course, there is the danger of generalising here. Every autistic person is an individual and — like with all of society — everyone is different from everybody else. But you will find that high intelligence and rare skill proclivities are very common in autistic populations. Autistic individuals also tend to think from the “bottom-up” instead of “top-down”. This is the essence of neurodiversity. This opposite approach may take more time, but the results are often clearer, less biased, and more satisfactory.
Research has shown that autistic people process information much quicker than neurotypical people. This often allows them to demonstrate an amazing level of attention to detail and logical analysis. Another by-product of this boost in processing power is a higher level of error-detection and pattern recognition. In academic literature, this deep analytical state is known as “hyper-systemising”.
The hyper-systemised state affords many autistic people with the patience and dedication to work on long, complex projects that often require immense levels of scrutiny and concentration, with minimal distractions. This is an example of the “rare skills” that are lacking in many neurotypical people. Hyper-systemising is invaluable for many key roles in construction and engineering, and all across the technological sectors.
Herein lies the advantages of a neurodiverse workforce. A mix of neurodiverse and neurotypical workers will provide different insights and more options; fast and creative solutions, and slower and more detailed ones.
Working with autistic employees
It's true that people with autism generally find social interactions and communication more difficult than neurotypical people. And a minority can be more sensitive to bright and loud environments. These tendencies may actually be trade-offs, a consequence of the fact that people with autism have heavier, more interconnected brains than most neurotypical people.
But these tendencies do not have to be problems at all; even in the office, it requires little training to break down these social barriers with autistic individuals.
A lot of the confusion seems to come from how autistic people interpret instructions. Generally, they require very precise, clear, unambiguous dialogue. For example, show a graph to a typical autistic person and ask them to comment on it, and it is likely they will say something along the lines of “it’s a graph”. But if you take a moment to explain what it is you want them to analyse, and ask for their opinion, and you are likely to be rewarded.
While some minor training will be beneficial for instructing managers on how to communicate with autistic workers, this training will be modest at best and will only be likely to have wider benefits in the workplace as a whole. Learning to communicate more clearly, and being extra conscious of the individual conditions of employees, can only ever be a good thing.
Making your workplace neurodiverse-friendly
With all of the advantages — and the minimal disadvantages — of hiring a neurodiverse team, there is no reason why most companies shouldn’t strive for a diverse workforce. The final obstacle autistic workers face is another myth: that it is too expensive or inconvenient to accommodate them.
This myth is even weaker now that many people are working from home full-time. And while it's true that autistic people do tend to experience a greater sensitivity to their surroundings, and especially to bright lights and some noises, most ways to accommodate these sensitivities are inexpensive and very minor. And these short-term accommodations are likely to pay dividends in the future as your new neurodiverse employees set about implementing their skills at work.
Adjustments can be as simple as relocating a desk in a quieter part of the office. Commutes are another thing that can be distressing to autistic workers, but by simply adjusting commute times to avoid rush hour (if there will still be a rush hour post-coronavirus), can go a great deal to rectifying this.
Another positive is that, by taking the necessary steps to make your working environment more inclusive, you will have forever opened up the gates for a more inclusive workforce. This can make you eligible for the government’s Disability Confident scheme, making your business more attractive to employees in the future.
Finally, the most important adjustment is to accept autistic workers for who they are, and have a general understanding of their developments, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
Interviewing and hiring neurodiverse workers
Recruitment post-lockdown is already vastly different from what it once was. So now is the perfect time to go one step further and implement new measures that are accommodating for neurodiverse people. As mentioned above, autistic people often require super-specific, detailed information. This needs to be reflected in any job postings, descriptions and advertisements. A neurodiverse thinker must understand exactly what the role will expect from them — this is another adjustment that can only have all-round benefits, for all future job postings, neurotypical candidates or not.
Secondly, it's crucial to acknowledge that interviews are, by design, high-stress, and actually tend to assess people for how socially skilled they are, and not their work skills. Obviously this puts autistic people at a disadvantage. With neurodiverse candidates, it makes far more sense to have them put their skills to the test in a non-verbal way. Of course, you can (and should) still ask questions. But try to ask them in a more relaxed, informal way. Again, it is hard to argue why this approach shouldn’t be standard practise across all industries anyway.
All of the changes recommended here are minor and most likely feasible to all businesses — even SMEs. And they are only likely to ever have positive side-effects across the board, positively impacting on all workers including neurotypical people.
About the Author
This article was written by Thomas Owen, Logistics Manager at Viking Extrusions, a company that manufactures silicone rubber extrusions. Their expert staff have crafted over 7,000 different stock dies for silicone rubber profiles, silicone cords and silicone tubes, meaning they can create thousands of silicone extrusions without producing a new tool.