Creating organizations that truly welcome autistic employees requires an understanding of autism that goes beyond the outdated medical model. It involves recognizing Autism not just as a difference in neural wiring, but also as a culture, a unique way of experiencing and interpreting the world. Similarly to Deaf culture, Autistic culture has distinct meanings and symbolism that stem from shared experience, as well as its own art, literature, and scholarship.
Co-creation of autistic culture was catalyzed in 1990s by the work of Jim Sinclair and his 1993 “Don’t Mourn for Us” manifesto of autism acceptance, as well as “Autreats” – autism acceptance gatherings. The emergence of the Internet sped up and enriched the creation of Autistic culture and language, including the term “neurotypical.” It became part of the vocabulary of the autistic culture, serving to emphasize the neurological, social, and privilege disparities between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. The seminal work of Judy Singer on defining neurodiversity as one of the important human intersectionalities helped further build a cultural perspective on Autism and Neurodiversity.
Since 1998, there had been a growing acknowledgment of Autism as a cultural phenomenon and as a culture ‘unfairly disadvantaged in the cultural marketplace’, a consequence of the ‘economic and political decisions made by the majority of neurotypicals.’ This disparity poses a significant risk of serious injustice. Even though the existence of Autism culture is still contested by some authors, its representatives continue making clear and unique contributions to human discourse.
Understanding Autism as a culture has several important implications for the workplace. It can help allistic managers, colleagues, and employees of Autistic people to let go of the expectation of neuronormative sameness and instead, approach interactions with an open-minded anticipation of differences, much like one would approach cross-cultural interactions. Moreover, it could help allistic individuals to expect that there is a great deal of individual differences among Autistic people, just like most of us expect individual efferences among members of national or organizational cultures.
Of course, while a cultural perspective on Autism could provide a helpful lens for managing differences in communication styles and other forms of behavior, not all intercultural encounters are successful. When approached from the position of stereotypes and superiority, intercultural encounters can go very, very wrong. An approach that helps productively navigate cultural differences is that of cultural humility.
The Framework of Cultural Humility
In a general sense, humble individuals don’t just focus on their positive qualities and themselves, but also acknowledge their limitations. They actively seek feedback from diverse sources and appreciate the contributions of others without feeling threatened. Humility also requires a relationship-focused perspective that is vital for effectively building collaboration in diverse organizations and teams.
Cultural humility promotes a lifelong commitment to self-assessment, resulting in continuous learning. It supports an acceptance that our understanding of others’ cultural experiences will always be limited and incomplete, and a commitment to striving for improvement. Cultural humility encourages an other-oriented perspective that respects the equal dignity of all individuals and recognizes the value and complexity of their cultural backgrounds. The cultural humility perspective also calls for addressing power differentials and systemic inequalities. It fosters personal accountability for challenging institutional barriers that impact marginalized communities.
In the context of supporting autistic colleagues, cultural humility could mean acknowledging the limitations of the allistic understanding of Autism and striving to learn from our Autistic peers, who are experts on their own experiences. It could mean actively inviting their participation in creating work environments that support Autistic productivity and well-being. It means understanding that supporting Autistic individuals in the workplace extends far beyond mere accommodations and includes an appreciation of different ways of thinking.
For example, Autistic people are often told to be less direct, and their straightforward communication is seen as a sign of being “broken.” However, national-level cultures also differ in how direct or indirect is the expected communication. From the perspective of cultural humility, the direct-communicating Dutch are not broken as compared to the much more subtle Japanese – they are just different. Autistic people effectively communicate with other autistic people – their communication is just different from allistic communication. In many situations, directness has the advantage of reducing the likelihood of misinterpretation. Looking down on autistic way of communication is a reflection of bias.
Allistic leaders and allies can use cultural humility as a framework that encourages acknowledging the limitations of their understanding of people and their diverse cultures. It also calls for the attitude of lifelong learning, and for playing an active role in reducing power imbalances. By investing time in understanding the identities of their team members, leaders can identify unique opportunities for development and gain a deeper appreciation of the challenges their team members may encounter.
Leaders and allies seeking to create a more inclusive workplace are likely to benefit from the recommendations below:
1. Explore your own identity and possible biases: Consider your recent interactions with those who are different from you. Have you perhaps judged someone from a position of superiority? Have there been influences in your life that led you to approach others from this position? How could you replace this attitude with understanding differences from the point of view of humility?
2. Encourage Learning: support educational programs that can help your team deepen the understanding of the autistic experience. This includes creating safe environments where neurodivergent team members can safely share and authentically express themselves.
3. Honor Autistic Communication Styles: Autistic people often communicate in unique ways. Remind yourself and encourage other allistic employees to appreciate these differences rather than discount them as deficiencies. Developing such appreciation could involve training sessions or workshops that highlight autistic communication styles, or more informal reminders and micro-learning opportunities. On the organizational level, honoring neurodivergent communication styles also means expanding the range of communication options to ensure that these options serve a broad range of people.
4. Facilitate Autistic Spaces: Create both online and physical environments where autistic people can socialize and collaborate with each other comfortably, without sensory assault, invasion of privacy, or neuronormative judgment.
5. Advance Autistic Voices: Encourage the input and engagement of autistic employees in decisions, in particular, when those decisions impact them. This could include creating a permanent autistic or neurodivergent council, gathering focus groups, inviting autistic employees to participate in meetings and other forms of discussion and decision-making, or seeking their feedback on specific issues.
6. Promote the Representation of Autistic People in Leadership: Remove barriers to the advancement of autistic employees toward leadership positions. Non-tokenistic autistic representation in leadership is important for several reasons. It ensures that valuable and underrepresented perspectives are incorporated into high-level decision-making and helps to avoid groupthink. It also helps break stereotypes that pigeonhole and constrain autistic careers, supports talent growth, and provides role models for other autistic employees.
7. Celebrate Autistic Culture: Highlight and celebrate the strengths, talents, and contributions of autistic individuals, display Autistic art, sponsor the reading of Autistic literature, etc. This could also involve hosting Autism and neurodiversity–focused events. Just keep in mind that Autism Acceptance Month and the associated events may also have some negative connotations in Autistic culture, and make sure to involve multiple autistic perspectives in planning any events.
By embracing Autism as a culture and practicing cultural humility, leaders and allies can foster a more supportive and inclusive work environments, where a wide range of human differences is respected and appreciated. An attitude of humility can help create truly equitable and productive relationships.