Autism can present itself in wonderful ways for children and adults when we are willing to open our eyes to possibilities before us. However, for most of us, our preconceived notions of patterns of speech and communication get in the way of our ability to see these possibilities. These possibilities take the form of more productivity in our workforce, an increased sense of belonging for all employees, and a society and organization system built on respect rather than neglect.
Studies show that a feeling of neglect will reduce employee productivity by a factor of 3-4 times. And, most companies want to grow. So why the disconnect? Because most companies don’t take the time to develop systems and practices for increasing awareness around inclusivity and creating a culture of psychological safety. So, where should you start? Start by changing leadership perceptions, specifically perceptions of others who present different thinking and communication patterns than what we are used to, known as neurodiverse or austisic children and adults. Why neurodiverse adults? Because there are incredible gifts that are beneath the surface, once you have the courage to see beyond your assumptions. And, because autism is on the rise, and soon, our population will be largely neurodiverse. And, neurodiversity will become more the norm than an outlier.
According to the newest estimate from Autism Speaks, autism in children represents a 15% increase in prevalence nationally: to 1 in 59 children, from 1 in 68 two years previous. The prevalence of autism in 4-year-old children in the United States has increased—from about 1 in 75 children in 2010 to 1 in 59 in 2014—to match a previously reported rise in 8-year-old children, according to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of individuals being diagnosed with ASD in the United States (US) has been increasing annually at 10–17%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children is identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the USA (CDC 2014). There has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of ASD in the last decade, with CDC reporting 1 in 150 in 2000 (CDC 2000).
This particular article outlines the advantages of promoting neurodiversity on a macro-economic, governmental, and societal level—as well as profit.
Rick, a well-educated and knowledgeable accountant, applied for a job as a comptroller at a mid-sized company. He was more than competent, even holding a certificate the previous comptroller didn’t have. His interview did not go well.
Rick has difficulty making eye contact, and that made the interviewer uncomfortable. Sensing things were not going well, Rick’s anxiety stiffened his body language and produced some involuntary muscle movements. He did not get the job because of the interviewer’s difficulties.
Despite Encounters Like This Happening, Change Is Beginning
Constructive and collaborative workplace diversity has been shaped by a legacy calculation of racial, ethnic, religious, and other demographics. Affirmative Action remains a well-intended process for numerically balancing employment opportunities for placement and advancement.
However, the labor pool has changed dramatically. A new wave, a sea change, a fourth turning—the new metaphors, research, and understanding describe the neurological diversity of a workforce that’s already very much with us. This burgeoning labor pool shares abilities once dismissed as disqualifying. Major corporations are leveraging the neurologically diverse population to fill their talent gap. But emotional connectedness may be the best accommodation!
Quite a few small and family-run businesses, including restaurants, hardware stores, and movie theaters have successfully employed workers with neurological conditions. The employees work in positions more demanding and responsible than greeting customers on arrival. They act as hostesses, make tables ready for guests, wash dishes, or prep food in the kitchen. They shelve hardware goods, price products, and run cash registers. They take tickets at the local cineplex or pour sodas and bag popcorn.
Many affected employees are comfortable in these close and structured environments, and their employers have pioneered this new workplace frontier. The unspoken strength behind their success is the emotional connectedness felt there. However, as the nature of work changes, it may be crossing paths with a workforce wanting higher-paying, more challenging, and significantly accountable work. John Murawski, writing for The Wall Street Journal notes, “Businesses scrambling for artificial-intelligence talent are tapping an unusual resource: people with autism.”
Rayna is a neurodiverse adult who works in the mailroom of a Fortune 500 company in center city. She walks the same path twice a day to and from the subway. She walks everywhere with her head down, and one day she did not respond when a police officer asked, “How are you today?” When she continued on her way without answering, the officer challenged her, “What’s wrong with you?” Rayna found this confrontational, becoming distracted, anxious, and physical. And, before she knew it, the officer had tackled her to the ground and cuffed her for non-compliance and resisting arrest.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required employers to make reasonable accommodation in hiring and employing disabled workers. For a generation, businesses have approached accommodation somewhat reluctantly because of the expense. They have also had a myopic view of disability as some condition apparent to all, such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, or similarly visible condition.
Without gainsaying these efforts and the generally positive results, that same corporate mindset has been slow to address current and future needs. Neurological conditions require less physical accommodation, but acceptance requires a sea change in culture and psychological accommodation.
At EY (Ernst & Young), they see reasonable accommodation as a cultural adjustment. “Diversity is a source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service for our clients. Differing abilities are part of that healthy diversity.”
Danielle Pavliv, senior manager of Diversity and Inclusion at SAS, already much-heralded for its diversity initiatives, says, “It’s not about fitting into the culture, it’s about adding to it.” And, that’s where the need for talented employees meets the underemployment of neurologically diverse labor.
There are hundreds of named neurological disorders not including those related to stroke or dementia. Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Epilepsy, Narcolepsy, Neurofibromatosis, and many more and less known affect you or your immediate circle of family and friends. Moreover, because those who are non-visibly disabled must self-identify, every workplace currently has some level of neurological diversity in place.
The great majority of affected people are willing and able to earn their living in personally satisfying roles and their increasing numbers will change the nature of the workplace. Organizations must “make way” for this burgeoning workforce. No one asks them to make way by creating space or openings, but the numbers are looming. For example, the Smithsonian Education Science Center reports, “STEM-related jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs between 2000 and 2010. By 2018, it is projected that 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled.”
SHRM quoted Nasdaq Vice Chairman Bruce E. Aust as saying, there were “500,000 well-paying computing jobs currently unfilled in the U.S. By 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs nationally than there will be graduates to fill them, resulting in a $500 billion opportunity gap.”
For most recruiting employers, STEM education is the “obvious” solution for this gap. But neurologically diverse candidates offer a ready solution to the talent shortage. One study assessed shifting human resources policies and practices at major employers including Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, Ford, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, SAP, and UBS among others.
These employers have recruited and placed high-functioning non-visibly disabled talent in jobs where they demonstrate extraordinary focus. Moreover, they tend to be reliable in terms of attendance, policy compliance, and cooperation.
Robert Austin and Gary Pisano analyzed neurodiversity as a competitive advantage for Harvard Business Review saying, “Perhaps the most surprising benefit [of employing neurologically diverse workers] is that managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.”
But the use of “leveraging” concerns us.
Making The Connection
Erin had two problems. Studies in comorbidity find as many as 80% of neurodiverse people have more than one condition. For example, Erin is on the Autism Spectrum, but she has also been diagnosed with ADHD. As she grew up and with the help of medication, Erin has mana