While many companies are beginning to better understand how the autistic brain works and how it can bring new and beneficial perspectives to the workplace, autistic people are often still “typecast”, in a fashion, as fitting into only a few specific roles.
If you’re unaware of the term “typecast”, it’s used to describe actors who continually get very similar roles in movies and television because their audience can’t easily separate them from a specific character type. (Hence the name.)
Ironically, due to the limited portrayal of autistic people in media, real-life autistic people are often viewed and treated in a similar way. For example, they are often seen as savant-types who struggle with social cues but can solve complex mathematical problems in seconds or build a new computer from scratch in a day.
More Than Just Math—Or No Math At All
I have dyscalculia, so I throw that particular autistic stereotype right out the window. I can’t do math without a calculator and a pep talk. I don’t really understand computers or anything technical at all, for that matter. I can do the basics, but if something even minor goes wrong, I call tech support–or just hand the device over to my partner (who actually does fit the tech guru stereotype as an autistic/ADHD person).
The Spiky Profile Element
In addition to incomplete (and downright inaccurate) media portrayals, autistic people are often considered only capable of highly left-brained, analytical work because of our tendency to have what is known as a “spiky profile”. This means we can be spectacularly good at one subject to the point of being way ahead of our peers and really, really struggle with another subject to the point of needing accommodations and modifications.
Once again, I’ll use myself as an example. By the time I was in second grade, my reading comprehension was off the charts, but my math never improved. It stayed at a 5th-grade level throughout my school career. Even when I took college classes, I was never able to understand the math–not even with modifications. The same goes for my writing and other creative skills. They’ve always been considered way above average. Yet I get lost startlingly easily and often can’t recognize the faces of people I know casually when I see those people out of context.
That’s the spiky profile in a nutshell. If you meet me when I’m in my element, I appear to be a genius. If you meet me where I struggle, you may wonder how I get by!
Strength-Based Employment Opportunities
As part of diversity and inclusion, it’s important for employers to offer strength-based opportunities for autistic individuals in all industries. This means expanding beyond math and tech and branching out into offering opportunities, accommodations, and modifications for all types of positions.
Autistic people can work in all sorts of fields, from hospitality to warehouse, education to health services, retail to manufacturing, and construction to transportation, and beyond!
Modifications Based on the Individuals, Not the Industry
While computer and tech industries are learning more about hiring, training, and retaining autistic employees, other industries are either struggling to catch up or haven’t even considered including neurodivergent talent. This likely circles back to the view that autistic people are only capable of a few select types of work.
I believe a better approach would be for companies in all fields to educate themselves about how the autistic brain works by reading books written by autistic people and also consulting autistic adults on the best approaches to communicating, learning, and working with autistic people.
This allows for a deeper understanding of autistic people as individuals who speak a different social language–a language that neurotypical people can learn, understand, and work effectively with.
Once a corporation has educated itself about how autistic people experience the world as they work and socialize, employers can redefine and upgrade their available positions to match.
Being inclusive doesn’t mean just allowing autistic people to work for you, it means making policy changes, educating yourself and your staff, and providing support that comes from a place of true understanding–not only of the autistic person but the unique benefits and perspectives our minds can bring to the conference table.