How to Recruit and Retain Employees on the Spectrum
A few moments ago, I found myself in conversation with a young woman. She was experiencing the dreaded "culture fit" narrative that many minorities are starting to see rear its ugly head: her autism diagnosis was being used as a gatekeeper to the fear that she wouldn't get along with coworkers.
As a woman of color, I've experienced many of these, what I'll call, "fit gaps": there's something off, wrong, or unsettling about the person, thus there's not really a way to get around hiring them to do a job they are well-qualified to do.
This isn't the first time I've had this conversation with a person on the autism spectrum, either. Many of them tell me how much they want to do a job but are often denied or pushed aside.
The number one mistake I see employers make is assuming that people on the autism spectrum don't know it, like it's some sort of covert diagnosis that you dare not speak its name. I.e., the Voldemort of mental health. That we might grow big, scream in disgust, and generally beat our chests out of frustration.
To the contrary, we're actually hyper aware — many of us are quite clear on the diagnosis. We could probably tell you some of our favorite folks who have surpassed the stereotypes to become well-known actresses, award-winning authors, and great philanthropists.
Being one person, I can't speak for the entirety of the Autism community. No one can. Just like a person with your shared traits can't speak to everything that you are. But, being in the business world, I've garnered some tips that will help employers function better when interacting with people like us:
Put Formalities Aside
When I was first going through the "this is how you interview" talk, a lot of it involved techniques that I just found downright odd: staring someone in the eyes the entire time, having to measure the grip of a handshake, being seated only after someone says it even if there's obviously a chair there, and so forth and so on.
I understood, early on, that these were hereditary job duties that had been handed down over multiple generations. Always originated by men, for other men, and only a certain type of man. Women were basically told to shut their mouth and accept what was given. Ethnic minorities were taught to not make a scene.
However, with the advent of diversity in the workforce, no one really thought (other than adding women's restrooms and taking down the signs restricting ethnic minorities to one region or another), to actually investigate how this integration would affect or even change the face of work. So, we're stuck with following rules fit for folks not like us.
Break this habit by doing away with non-verbal traditions meant to skepticize a potential or existing employee's performance. Instead, make the instructions for the interview process crystal clear, and keep what's needed. Auticon, a German-based international company that was founded by and consists of many IT professionals on the Autism spectrum, lines it out on its recruitment process page. I only wish more companies would do so.
Be Flexible With Office Design
Most companies try to hedge people toward mass communication spaces. The open office concept has bloomed in recent years. However, articles are now suggesting that even though employees hate them, they still exist and — in some aspects — are growing. But that doesn't mean they work well for everyone.
A variety of articles on the internet offer different accommodations to make folks on the spectrum feel much more comfortable in their surroundings. But above all, just listen. Many persons on the autism spectrum can tell you exactly what it is that it bothering them and offer solutions. Personally, I worked with a therapist to ascertain reasonable arrangements that involved noise-cancelling headphones, a more ergonomic chair, and the ability to walk away to the less-trafficked spaces, when needed.
Make Sure to Bring Them to The Table
Something I've noticed across the board is that many people on the Autism spectrum — including myself — are so zoomed into our work, that we may miss opportunities that other neurotypical (people who are not on the autism spectrum) individuals may pick up right away.
Luckily, I had an ambassador, mentor, and buddy who would bring me into meetings that put me in high-profile arenas. But everyone isn't so lucky to be adopted by their extroverted coworker! Make sure to drag a person on the spectrum into projects that will let their work shine. Every project needs a taskmaster, and someone to ensure they try to find the loopholes in every single iteration of a plan. Folks on the spectrum are often fantastic with spotting patterns, among other duties. Use us to your advantage.
There are many advantages to having people who think, live, and work differently together in one workplace. The strategic benefits could place a struggling company into a niche market. Take the time to review your recruiting and retention process to ensure that everyone is included.And if you need help, feel free to reach out.