“Disability” is not a dirty word: it’s a core theme running throughout Zoe Gross’ discussion of ways employers can show up for their employees with autism.
“I think it's important to have disability pride and to embrace your disability identity. That's where our civil rights of people with disabilities come from,” Gross, director of advocacy at Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told HR Dive. “Until we're sort of ready to claim our disability identities, it can be hard to access our rights.”
Chiefly, Gross and ASAN work to ensure that autistic folks are heard in government and workplace policy-making. Whereas many organizations “other” people with autism – centering the responsibilities and challenges of family members, working toward cures, describing neurodiversity in coded language – ASAN focuses on putting power back in the hands of autistic people.
Inclusive language as a paradigm shift
For example, whereas the Job Accommodation Network describes autism as a disorder characterized by “deficits” and disabilities as “limitations,” ASAN adheres to an Employment First ideology. This includes tenets like, “Disabled people should be able to work if we want to,” and “We should be able to work in the same place as nondisabled people.”
These subtle differences point to a key DEI issue: inclusive and mindful language. “It's important to say ‘disability’ instead of something like ‘deficit’ or ‘disorder.’ Having a disability isn’t a bad thing,” Gross said. “Saying that we have ‘deficits’ is framing our disabilities in a very pejorative way.”
Instead, people with and without disabilities ought to see neurodiversity as an organizational advantage, she explained. “It's important to have people around who think differently. It's important to have different approaches to the same problem. It's important to have a workplace that is welcoming to people with all kinds of bodies and brains, whether they have a disability or not,” Gross said. “It also makes the workplace more welcoming for everyone. So it's a good test of how resilient your workplace is, in terms of who it can accommodate and who can succeed there.”
Even diverse hiring programs have room for expansion
Many employers, especially in STEM fields, are stepping up and announcing talent initiatives for people with disabilities. Diversity, equity and inclusion expert Mandy Price told HR Dive at the top of the year that neurodiversity was a key trend for 2022, nodding to Hewlett Packard’s autism buddy program. HR Dive also reported on Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Career Connector, where, with help from their Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable, the computer tech company connects talent with disabilities to inclusive employers. Roundtable members include Dell, EY, IBM, Google and Salesforce.
Amid the shifting attitudes toward neurodiverse people, Gross underscored that getting autistic talent in the door at major tech companies is peripheral. For one, the increased interest in autistic inclusion is in tech, math and finance. (Along with the aforementioned tech giants, Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Prudential and Wells Fargo also makeup the Neurodiversity @ Work roundtable.) But what about other sectors?
“I also feel like this sort of push to bring autistic people into the workplace is really focused on autistic people without intellectual disabilities,” Gross noted. Additionally, she’s observed that college-educated people with disabilities working as computer programmers, data analysts and accountants, for example, are centered in the movement., “People who don't have those skills or who would pursue different kinds of work are being left out.”
Rethinking the interview structure
Because of different understandings of social interactions, many autistic people find job interviews to be challenging. “That's a place where many of us struggle, because we may not make what's traditionally considered a ‘good’ first impression.” It’s that intangible thing that hiring managers just can’t put their finger on, she explained, adding, “Someone might interview the person and say, ‘Well, I didn't like their vibe.’” That vibe or “undefinable thing” isn’t something that would actually make the candidate a bad employee. “It's just that the candidate autistic and is not recognizing social cues or conforming to social norms,” she continued.
ASAN recommends that employers’ inclusive hiring initiatives focus on whether a candidate has the skills necessary for the job – not abstract concepts like “cultural fit” or “vibe,” Gross said. Skills assessments and asking “what would you do if…” questions can help employers get a better sense of whether a candidate is suited to the role, as opposed to other criteria like firm handshakes and eye contact.
She added, “Autistic people and blind people will say, anecdotally, they've been held up for promotion because of eye contact." Gross said criteria like this is relevant to very few jobs, "and yet not making eye contact can be like a barrier to employment, even a barrier to promotion.”
Having a disability isn’t a bad thing.
Director of Advocacy, Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Plain language for workplace policies benefits everyone
Many DEI experts recommend using plain language to foster disability inclusion. While writing about user design, Gina Bhawalkar, principal analyst, and Senem Guler Biyikli, user experience at B2B research firm Forrester, asked three key questions corporate leaders should seek to answer. Do you use words that people can easily understand? Have you checked that the words you use are not exclusionary or offensive to anyone? Did you consider the needs and feelings of your audience when writing this content? These three questions can also serve as guidelines for chief diversity officers or HR leads.
Bhawalkar and Biyikli suggested consulting plainlanguage.gov, a U.S. General Services Administration resource and a comprehensive guide to plain language best practices, which adheres to standards set forth by the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Gross said writing workplace documents to this standard is a great accommodation and not just for people with disabilities.
A sixth grade reading level is ideal for communicating with the general public, she continued, adding that workplace documents tend to be technical and written at a higher reading level. Writing plainly can help employees with autism, with developmental disabilities that may affect language processing and folks who speak English as a secondary language.
In-office accommodations can be very simple
For example, open office plans and the accompanying noise can be a difficult work environment for people with sensory processing issues. Sometimes, an accommodation looks like the request for a personal office, which can be beneficial to workers who are hard of hearing or have ADHD as well, Gross said. For people with auditory processing issues, written instructions as opposed to verbal explanations can be helpful.
Other times, a beneficial accommodation is the freedom to “act autistic in the workplace and not have that count against you,” Gross said. “If you can't sit still for an entire meeting, is it OK if you get up and pace? Is it OK if you stim during the meeting, meaning do repetitive motion like rocking back and forth, or flapping your hands?” And “If that's not OK, why not?”
Gross said that stimming, or other self-stimulating, self-regulating behaviors for neurodivergent people, doesn’t mean that they can’t participate or aren’t engaged in meetings. It’s just that sometimes, people with autism behave differently in their bodies, and “That needs to be OK,” Gross said.