Currently, autistic workers are undervalued in the workforce. There are an estimated 700,000 people currently living in the UK with some form of autism diagnosis. Yet shockingly, only 16 per cent of them are in full-time employment. But people with autism are ‘neurodiverse’ thinkers. They can be powerful and invaluable employees in many ways.
The reason behind this is undervaluation is often down to general confusion and ignorance there is around autism itself. The word ‘autism’ refers to a wide range of developmental disorders on a spectrum, some of which are worse than others. Many people with autism find social interaction and communication more challenging than in ‘neurotypical’ (non-autistic) people. And some can be extra-sensitive to loud, bright environments.
In some instances, this confusion about autism is fuelled by inaccurate stereotyping and stigmatisation. But thankfully, attitudes are changing. More often than not, autistic people make brilliant employees — and employers are starting to wake up to that realisation.
A big advantage is that people with autism tend to have IQs that are much higher than the average. They also tend to have skills in areas that are in short supply. Obviously, every autistic person is an individual and different from the other — like the whole of society — but together the autistic community tends to think differently to the rest of the population. This is the essence of neurodiversity.
Studies have shown that autistic people process more information and at a faster rate than most neurotypical people. This means they often can demonstrate incredible attention to detail — and a very good logical analysis. With such attention to detail comes excellent pattern recognition, and a heightened ability to detect errors. In the scientific literature, this state is sometimes referred to as “hyper-systemising” or “hyperfocus”.
When in hyperfocus, autistic people can work on complicated projects for long periods of time and under an intense amount of concentration, without being distracted easily. The ability to demonstrate hyperfocus is a highly valuable skill that is no doubt in short supply, and especially in the construction, engineering, and technological sectors.
Another great advantage is that neurodiverse people tend to analyse problems differently from the general population. Most people tend to look at a problem from the top down, while autistic people tend to do the opposite: they consider problems from the bottom up, before coming to a conclusion. This ‘bottom-up’ approach takes more time, but the results are often much clearer, better, and less biased.
And herein lies the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce. Having a mix of autistic and neurotypical employees gives the manager more options. It affords them the opportunity of opting between a fast and creative solution or a slower, more exact, more detailed one.
How to work closely with autistic employees
Studies have suggested that autistic people have heavier brains that are on average more ‘interconnected’ than the brains of neurotypical people. This may be a reason why autistic people often demonstrate great cognitive power. The trade-off is that, in some instances, autistic people can find social interaction more difficult.
But social interactivity does not have to be a problem, with a little training. A lot of confusion that arises from engaging with autistic people stems from how they interpret instructions. Autistic people often require very clear, to-the-point communication. Any instructions must be very detailed, precise, and unambiguous.
In a typical office setting, it might be appropriate to show a colleague a pie chart and ask them what the pie chart represents. If you asked the same question to an autistic person, you might get a response like “it is a pie chart”. But if talk in a very detailed way about what it is you want them to analyse and give their opinion on, you are likely to be rewarded with an excellent logical examination.
It is certainly true that some minor training may be required — such as how to be more specific in communication and more aware of autism itself — but this is only ever likely to be more beneficial to the wider workforce at large. After all, a greater awareness of other peoples’ personal conditions, and a clearer, more precise dialogue with employees can only benefit everybody.
Making an autism-friendly working environment
Given that autistic people often demonstrate brilliant cognitive and problem-solving prowess, who wouldn’t want a more neurodiverse workforce? The reality is that there is one final myth, one final negative stigma that often impedes autistic uptake and recruitment. And that is: that it would be too costly or impractical to make a work environment suitable for them.
True, autistic people are often more sensitive to the environment around them, and particularly to bright lights and certain sounds. But any adjustments to make them feel more comfortable are likely to be very minor and inexpensive — and the long term benefits of hyperfocus among other valuable skills will almost certainly far exceed the initial set-up costs.
Another positive is, by taking the initial plunge and making a section of your office or working environment friendlier to autistic people, opportunities are opened up to hire similar talent in the future at no additional setup cost. Such a scheme might even make you eligible for the government’s Disability Confident scheme, making your business an all-round more attractive employer, cutting down on recruitment and further training costs.
‘Adjustments’ can be as simple as putting a desk in a quieter and less bright part of the office. A greater degree of flexibility might also be required, as sometimes the morning rush hour commute can represent a high-stress environment. Allowing autistic employees the flexibility to avoid rush hours will a huge positive impact on their productivity and esteem at work.
But lastly and most importantly, autistic workers need acceptance for who they are and why they might need the adjustments they have.
Hiring autistic workers
Changes may also have to be made in recruitment, in order to successfully hire a neurodiverse worker. As mentioned above, autistic people often need very precise information. This needs to be translated into any job advertisements and descriptions. A neurodiverse thinker will need to know, exactly and unambiguously, what will be required of them and if they are right for the role. (Again, this is an ‘adjustment’ that can only have a positive impact on all recruitment.)
Secondly, standard job interviews are not autism-friendly and should change. Job interviews are by nature high-stress, and generally assess people for their social skills (and not, actually, their work skills). With neurodiverse people, it is far better to have them demonstrate their skills in a technical, cognitive and non-verbal way.
Of course, questions can and should still be asked, but in a more informal way. (Again, it is hard to see how changing the job interview process like this wouldn’t have greater benefits across the board.)
All of the changes proposed here are very minor, inconvenient and inexpensive — and yet they could make all the difference in having an extremely talented neurodiverse employee, and just another neurotypical one for the job.
Neurodiversity could greatly improve your business’s general output, ability to solve problems and ability to deliver projects on time. All of this can be achieved in just a few small steps, and with an open mind.
This article was written by Neil Wright of Webster Wheelchairs, a company that supplies wheelchairs, rollators, and other disability-friendly equipment to companies and health services in the UK.