Autistic employees can bring particular strengths

Updated: 2013-05-01T02:35:15Z


Special to The Star

Although I’m getting in just under the wire, April is Autism Awareness Month. I discovered that while researching the column I was already going to write — about adult autism in the workplace.

In our society, many of us rely on pop culture media to give us the storyline on how we think of anything and everything, and not on our immediate experience.

And autism is a fairly recent issue of awareness in our society. When I think about how I typically see it presented in the media or discussed in my presence, it almost always deals with children who have autism. That’s an important and pressing issue, but autism is an issue for adults also.

Autism spectrum disorder is a range of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health.

And with autism on the rise — the rate of diagnosis going from 1 in 88 to 1 in 50 — it’s an issue America’s workplaces need to pay more attention to.

Although some experts say that many symptoms of autism can improve with age, an increasing number of adults with autism are entering the job market.

The unemployment rate for people with all varieties of mental and physical disabilities is higher than the national average, which reflects the bias that many employers perceive about how those disabilities will manifest in the workplace.

In researching autism in adults, I was struck by how the traits that describe their disorder are traits emphasized in job interviewing — the inability to read body language, maintain eye contact and engage in the social cues and small talk.

But it’s unfortunate if an autistic person’s lack of schmooze abilities keeps that person from getting an otherwise well-suited job, because the tools that employers need to use to create a better workplace for adults with autism are tools that could improve the workplace overall.

For example, according to the organization Autism Speaks, adults with autism described a need for clarity and specificity in job descriptions and expectations.

But if you talk to a large number of people in the workforce who do not have autism, many will complain about fuzzy job descriptions and even fuzzier expectations from their employers.

On the flip side, business leaders at a 2012 think tank on autism said that workers with autism tended to have the strengths of following company rules, arriving on time and having low rates of absenteeism, along with having attention for detail and a need for perfection. Many bosses would like to see more of those traits among their workforce.

As with all differences in the workplace — which is all workplace diversity is — there is much to be learned and appreciated from how others bring their natural selves to the workplace.

Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.

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