If you’re an employer in 2021, you’re probably thinking a lot about diversity. You likely know why diversity matters in itself. You may also know that there’s a business case for it. Diversity, particularly diversity of thought, helps an organization solve problems in novel ways and succeed.
You probably already employ people who look different from one another, and there are variations in their backgrounds, experiences, abilities, and ideas. There’s a good chance you employ someone who is autistic. You may not know it. They may not know it either. That’s okay, and it’s not necessary to know in order for your organization to benefit from some of the approaches that support autistic people. In fact, I assert that adopting an organizational culture that supports an autistic person is a culture that will nurture other kinds of diversity as well.
Autistic people can be like outsiders in our own culture. We have to learn its implicit rules, which are often arbitrary and difficult to make sense of. A working culture which accepts that not everyone will automatically understand all of its assumptions can better support even non-autistic people who also need some things made explicit.
Communication is complicated. Autistic people sometimes take metaphors literally or misunderstand colloquial phrases. In the workplace, sarcasm may be taken seriously, jokes may not get laughed at, and subtext may be missed. A culture that is earnest and respectful in its communication, allows for the processing of misunderstanding, and values the work of repair and reinterpretation can benefit everyone. Such a culture can bear the productive conflict required to reach mutual understanding despite differences.
An important aspect of that culture is an emphasis on learning. It means running experiments, expecting that some of them won’t work. It means letting someone try something new, or letting someone repeat a task until they unlock efficiency. It means making it safe to ask any question in the world if it helps a person become better able to help solve the problems of the workplace. It’s risky, but the payoff can be tremendous.
At AANE, we talk about meeting people where they are, and supporting them to build meaningful, connected lives. What that means for each person is unique. While it’s possible to make generalizations about any group, it isn’t possible for that generalization to be true about every individual every time. This is true of every autistic I’ve met, and it’s true of every member of any other group you could name. Employment is an avenue to find connection and meaning, because when we work, we are part of a group working towards a common goal. We do our best work when we are enabled to bring the value that only we can bring. This has been true for every job I’ve ever had, whether it was flipping burgers, working an assembly line, teaching yoga, or helping doctors and nurses use software.
I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at 32. Five years later, I received some training that helped me land a new career. I now have a manager who recognizes my talents and fosters an environment where I can bring my full self to work. She accommodates my needs and gives me space to talk out interpersonal challenges. In 2019, she nominated me for a leadership program. With the skills I’m gaining, I am thriving in a way I never thought possible.
She is supporting my efforts to create a learning culture in our workplace that helps my colleagues to thrive. It isn’t easy work. Culture changes glacially. In times of stress it can fall back into old patterns, and innovation recedes. But just as curb cuts for wheelchairs also help strollers and handcarts, approaches that support autistics benefit everyone. I’ve seen what’s possible in the workplace that sets aside defensiveness and fear, and establishes a space where everyone can ask questions and learn. Together we reach new heights.
Karen Lean has sat on the Board of Directors and various committees, has given numerous keynotes, panel appearances, and led workshops for AANE. Her writing appears in the book of essays, “Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance, and Identity.” She was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2009, at the age of 32. Originally from Canada, she lives with her husband in Boston where she works in Healthcare IT.