If you’ve never employed an autistic person before, you may have some outdated ideas about our neurology that could derail your ability to create a neuro-inclusive workplace.
One of the most common outdated misconceptions is that autistic people are either limited or gifted due to their neurology, with no in-between.
The truth is, being autistic is much more nuanced and multi-faceted than that. Autism is a spectrum, yes, but it’s not linear. This is why labels such as “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” don’t–well, function!
The Spiky Profile of the Autistic Brain
Using myself as an example, I could be seen as both limited and gifted depending on the context in which you view me. For example, when I write, I come across as articulate, knowledgeable, informative, etc. Someone who reads my writing (especially on a subject I’m very passionate about, such as neurodiversity) would be forgiven for thinking I’m formally educated with at least some kind of college degree.
I graduated high school and attended community college, but I couldn’t obtain a degree because of my dyscalculia (math learning disability). I can’t do anything except for the most basic math, and I need to do 95 percent of it on a calculator. So, by contrast to my writing, someone who saw me trying to solve a simple math problem might classify me as limited.
The first indication of my spiky profile was when I was in 2nd grade. Teachers told my parents that while I was already reading at a high school level, my math level was below Kindergarten. I also excelled in artistic endeavors but couldn’t follow even the most basic rules of board or card games. In gym class, I had all the coordination of a drunk moose–but I could speak at length about the philosophical and ethical import of the Star Trek multiverse from the bleachers.
See my point?
Marked Strengths and Weaknesses
While it’s common for everyone to have their strengths and weaknesses, for many autistic people, our strengths are very, very strong–noticeably strong, while our weaknesses are just as strong on the opposite end. It’s like a see-saw that never quite balances out. That’s what the spiky profile is; high aptitudes in a few areas and noticeable limitations in others–all in the same person!
Expectation vs Reality in the Workplace
Lack of awareness of the spiky profile in the workplace can cause a lot of turmoil between management and their autistic employees. For example, let’s say a neurotypical supervisor is training an autistic person, and they notice that their new hire has a significantly high aptitude for one aspect of the job, so they immediately pile on work for all facets of the job while simultaneously withdrawing support. After all, the supervisor doesn’t want to appear condescending to the “obvious genius” they’ve just hired.
The boss may, at first, think along the lines of, “Wow! This new employee catches on so quickly! Training them will be a breeze! They may even get a promotion right after their probationary period!” The reality is, the scale will inevitably tip back to something challenging for the new hire, and the unrealistic expectations of the boss, or, in other words, the story they told themselves, will cause them to have a more emotionally reactive response when having to answer what they perceive as “simple” questions about something a “genius” should already know.
Or, the exact opposite can happen. The newly-hired autistic employee starts training on an aspect of their job they find challenging, and, after supports are put into place to provide accessibility, the supervisor overlooks them for any other role or task believing it will automatically prove “too much” for them.
In this example, the autistic employee is perceived to need extra support with all aspects of their job, and they won’t be able to handle any additional challenges. This can make the autistic person feel stuck with no possibility to stretch and grow within the company.
Furthermore, a supervisor who sees an autistic new hire from the lower end of their spiky profile first may feel “duped” in some way when that same employee excels on a project geared towards the higher end of their spiky profile.
They may then (incorrectly) conclude that the employee is “lazy” or was “exaggerating” all along! This, again, can lead to an emotionally intense response from the boss, as well as accusations that will appear to “come out of nowhere” for the autistic employee.
Misunderstandings like this happen primarily because behaviors that may be considered suspect or questionable in a neurotypical employee are, for an autistic employee, simply the result of a different brain type interacting with the world.
Treat Your Autistic Employee Like a Person, Not a Stereotype
Due to less-than-accurate portrayals of autistic people in mainstream media, there are still many outdated stereotypes we have to contend with each day–but there is something you can do to make it easier, not just for your new employee, but for yourself and everyone who works in your company: Get to know them as an individual person.
Every autistic person is different, and while these explanations can serve as a blueprint, the only way you’ll know what the “house” looks like, decorations and all, is to get to know that person individually and believe them when they tell you what’s easy for them and what’s challenging, even if it’s not what you’re used to.
When it comes to hiring, training, and retaining autistic talent, throw everything you think you know out the window, and allow them to take the lead and guide you through how their brain works. When you do, you’ll not only provide them with the accessibility they need, you’ll also allow them to grow and thrive, and that can help take your entire team to the next level!