April 2 is observed as World Autism Awareness Day to highlight the need to help improve life quality of individuals with autism, a serious developmental disorder impairing the ability to communicate and interact, so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society. Unfortunately, even today, inclusion of autistic people in the workplace remains a distant dream due to the discrimination, stereotypes, and stigma against people with disabilities.
The common assumption is that individuals with autism cannot contribute positively to growth in workplaces, and hence, there are less employment opportunities for them. But can their disorder really rule them out of work?
In an interaction with People Matters, Mumbai-based neurodiversity consultant, author, and parent advocate Gopika Kapoor shares insights on benefits of hiring individuals with autism, the discrimination, stereotypes and stigma they face and how organisations can incorporate inclusive practices to employ and retain autistic talent and make them a part of their workforce in the post-pandemic world.
Kapoor is a passionate inclusion advocate, and speaks on autism and inclusion at schools, colleges, clubs and corporate organisations. She also helps organisations to incorporate inclusive practices to employ autistic talent.
In February 2020, Kapoor published Beyond the Blue: Love, Life and Autism, a realistic, positive book for parents of children with autism, that includes her personal and professional experiences with the condition.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
What are the benefits of hiring autistic people? The qualities that they bring?
We all have strengths and challenges, and some of the strengths that people with autism display include:
- Focused, logical thinking: Autistic people are extremely focused and can be absorbed in a task. They also work best when given tasks that involve order, structure and logic.
- Expert knowledge: Some people with autism have expertise in areas of their interests, and are experts in these areas.
- Loyalty, reliability and honesty: It is a known fact that people with autism find it extremely difficult to cheat or lie. This makes them extremely honest employees. When they are given a task, they make sure that it is done. And the fact that they find transitions challenging, ensures that they will stay loyal to the organization and not keep jumping ship, and as we know, retention is a major plus for any organisation, culturally and financially.
- Technical ability, such as in IT: A lot of people with autism show excellent technical abilities which are useful in careers in IT, software, and coding. The precise structure required in solving IT issues appeals to and works on their logical thinking.
- Excellent memory: Memory is a major advantage of people with autism and can be very useful and an obvious added advantage.
- Strong adherence to rules: Because people with autism like order, they are likely to follow rules once they have understood them completely.
- Can concentrate for long periods of time: When motivated, people with autism can focus on tasks for a long period of time.
- Precise and detail-oriented: People with autism are likely to do things with complete precision. This makes them great employees in sectors that require extreme precision such as IT, and hospitality.
- Drive for perfection and order: Your autistic worker will not rest till they have completed the task you’ve given them to perfection. They are also very orderly and will make sure that their workspaces are structured and that processes are followed precisely.
- Can spot patterns: Because autistic people are mostly visual thinkers and learners, they are quick to spot patterns, especially in numbers. This is especially useful in accounting, and there have been many instances where autistic people have spotted accounting errors and saved companies thousands of rupees as a result.
However, it’s important to remember that while these are strengths that people with autism tend to display or have, not everyone who is autistic has all these strengths or to the same degree.
How does autism affect an employee's ability to work?
Employees on the spectrum are impacted in several areas, some more than others depending on their individual strengths and challenges (like all neurotypical individuals). For many of them, being among a large group of people in the workspace is challenging, particularly the social communication and interaction involved.
A lot of them don’t understand the unwritten rules of an organisation, they may not understand (and therefore, not follow) hierarchy, and socialising with their co-workers may be more stressful and challenging for them than the pressures of the job.
The sensory inputs, such as having fluorescent lights, open desks as opposed to cubicles or desks with partitions, or very strong fragrances used as air fresheners or cleaners, may also cause anxiety and impact their performance. All of these factors can cause anxiety, which if unchecked or not supported by the workplace, can cause a breakdown.
Challenges people with autism might face at the workplace, and what can companies do?
For many people with autism, communication is the major challenge. In the workplace, and where they are forced to communicate with people at different levels, this, sometimes, gets them into trouble.
For instance, an employee on the spectrum may not know that they’re not supposed to joke around with a senior leader, and might crack a joke that may be inappropriate. Similarly, people with autism find it difficult to understand sarcasm, and so might take things that are said literally.
Another challenge that individuals with autism face in workplaces is time management and organisation.
These are skills that need executive functioning, which is impacted by autism, in particular mental flexibility (shifting attention in response to different demands or applying different rules in different settings) and self-regulation (setting priorities and resisting impulsive actions or responses).
Added to this are the many sensory challenges that a lot of people with autism face such as being in a loud noisy environment with phones ringing, conversations between colleagues and many other visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory distractions.
Companies can support employees in a number of ways, and most companies find that the accommodation that they put into place for their autistic employees ends up benefiting everyone in the workplace.
To start with, being as visual and explicit as possible helps remove ambiguity and makes rules, regulations, policies and culture very clear for employees. This could be having a weekly task sheet with clear timelines, breaking up tasks into smaller steps, writing down times the employee can take a break and for how long, and other such clear reminders and prompts.
They can also provide each autistic employee with a buddy, who will have lunch with the person, explain culture and hierarchy to them, and help them navigate the social aspects of work, as well as a mentor, who will help them solve work-related challenges as and when they come up. Companies can also re-think their workplace structure and incorporate principles of universal design into their spaces.
How important is inclusive training before organisations decide to hire people with autism?
I think companies should have basic sensitisation training and be well aware of what autism is. They should also be very clear why they are hiring people on the spectrum – is it because they want to fulfill a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) requirement or is it because they genuinely believe that people with autism will add to their organisation?
Once their motives are clear and they are fully committed to this, then they can be trained on the other aspects, policies, dos and don’ts of how to ensure that people on the spectrum are not only included in the workplace, but that they also thrive and succeed.