Dustin "EvilMog" Heywood is a senior managing consultant for IBM X-Force Red, IBM's elite security testing team. Views are the author's own.
Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I seemed like any other kid — sure I was a bit awkward, but who isn't in their teenage years? I was perfectly average, that is until someone would catch me struggling to place my hands in the middle of a conversation, or to simply make eye contact. What I would soon come to realize was this "quirky" behavior was all due to my Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD wasn't ever something that held me back, especially considering around one in 270 people worldwide have it. Through the years I've learned coping mechanisms and it placed me in the "high functioning" category. And while this might seem like benefit, it's actually something that has proven to be an interesting obstacle for me.
Having high functioning ASD is often described as having ASD but with the ability to successfully assimilate to society and lead a normal life — read: it's easier to hide. This is in contrast with others in the community who might have a harder time masking their symptoms, which can span the inability to look or listen to people, trouble with back and forth conversation, erratic gestures and facial expressions, etc.
I've been able to leverage the unique, "high functioning" way my mind works in my current role as a hacker for X-Force Red, IBM's veteran team of hackers — but this isn't the case for everyone with ASD. One of my neurodiverse peers at IBM recently explained that while he was able to continue his education despite his diagnosis, his brother with a more severe case of ASD didn't have the same ability — so it's no surprise the unemployment rate is more than 80% among adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Despite its benefits, the term high functioning is something that is heavily debated because it can paint a distorted picture. The misconception is that high functioning individuals have fewer ASD symptoms, which often gives the perception that they're in some way "better" than those who are not high functioning. Because of this, society often sets these two groups apart, disassociating high functioning individuals from their rightful place as part of the ASD community. We're seen as those with less serious cases of ASD, rather than "different" cases, with their own set of strengths, weaknesses and needs.
Being labeled high functioning also brings added pressures. Because I come off as neurotypical, my peers treat me as such, which means they can't often decipher when/how things are triggering me in order to identify that adjustments need to be made. I have to either verbally make people aware or hit a breaking point.
All this in mind, I have mixed feelings about the term high functioning. While I do believe the term can cause misconceptions, I also believe that there needs to be a way to differentiate the various levels of ASD. What's most important to me is that people understand there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ASD, especially in the workplace, which is critical to ensuring you're properly acknowledging and accommodating everyone within the community.
To avoid handling ASD at only the surface level, organizations should be taking strategic steps to employ a more neurodiverse and welcoming workplace. First, adopt accommodations at the very start, which means taking a closer look at hiring processes. Are your current processes taking neurodiversity into account? Or are they geared toward neurotypical candidates who handle things like small talk better than their ASD peers? Don't miss out on quality talent because of social cues that have nothing to do with the job a candidate will perform — let's close that neurodiverse employment gap.
Next, educate your workforce. Take the time to inform your employees on what neurodiversity is and the different ways in which our minds work — whether that's ASD, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc. This way, they'll not only understand the struggles different neurodiverse peers are dealing with and how to be patient with them, but more importantly, the strengths they bring to their jobs and how they can be leveraged.
Lastly, don't make it a big deal. The only thing worse than being overlooked for your diagnosis, is being constantly watched like you're a science experiment. If you're not sure what will make your neurodiverse colleagues uncomfortable or comfortable, just simply ask. We actually prefer that rather than you walking on eggshells around us.