April is Autism Acceptance Month, and while acceptance is a step in the right direction, that’s all it is; a step. We have to keep going if we’re going to move toward true autistic inclusion in the workforce and in society as a whole.
Acceptance Must Be Actionable, Not Performative
I think one of the reasons Autism Acceptance Month can be a double-edged sword for the autistic community is because the word ‘acceptance’ is often used in performative instead of actionable ways.
This is especially true in corporate settings when a company wishes to be seen as being on the cutting edge of neurodiversity inclusion but hasn’t yet taken the steps necessary to be on the cutting edge of neurodiversity inclusion.
When a business uses autism buzzwords and the month of April to just tick a DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) box, they’re doing the exact opposite of being helpful to the autistic community–and making us very wary in the process!
Since the autistic brain is naturally designed with strong pattern-recognition abilities, and transparency and fairness make up the core of our being, coming face to face with something that looks like one thing but is quite another underneath sets off that unsettled, uncanny valley feeling within us that many neurotypical people experience when they see human-looking robots or excessive CGI on movie actors. (2019’s Cats, anyone?)
In other words, it’s scary. Performative acceptance not only goes against everything we are as autistic people, it also sets us up for failure. In fact, it sets everything up for failure, including your neurotypical employees and your bottom line!
How to Elevate Your Inclusion of Autistic Employees
If you read through more of my content here, you’ll see I have full-length articles dedicated to many of the suggestions I outline below, so I encourage you to read those. Below is just a short run-down of some of my primary best practices for working effectively with autistic people.
- Learn how autistic people communicate.
You can memorize some suggestions on how best to communicate with autistic people, or you can elevate your inclusion by actually learning how we think and communicate.
When you memorize something, you can practice it and repeat it, but you may not fully understand it, which can make what you’ve memorized non-transferrable in situations beyond the scope of literal facts.
When you learn something, however, when you truly understand it, your ability to use it becomes flexible, malleable, and applicable to far more situations. This takes a bit more work on the front end, but the rewards are worth it in the long run.
Immerse yourself in autistic culture, even for a short while. Read books written by autistic people, watch documentaries and shows featuring autistic people, and follow some of us on social media.
- Assume positive intent.
Autistic people are often direct, driven, focused, and literal, and all those things individually (or a combination thereof) can make us come across as intentionally rude to a neurotypical person. As someone who employs and/or works with autistic people, assume positive intent, and if you’re not sure how they meant to come across, just ask!
- Believe your autistic employee’s words even if their facial expressions and vocal tone appear to contradict.
Many autistic people have what is clinically known as a ‘flat affect’, which means our facial expressions and/or tone of voice may not reflect how we are feeling on the inside. That’s why it’s important to take our words at face value, even if our expression, tone, or body language appear to be conveying something else.
- Use clear and concise language to provide accessibility.
When explaining anything from work expectations to how you interpreted something your autistic employee said or did, always use clear and concise language. Being direct may feel uncomfortable at first, since you may not be used to it, but if you think of it in terms of providing accessibility to someone who speaks a different neurological language, that may help.
- Remember that questions are not a challenge, they are necessary for learning and understanding.
I feel like Bart Simpson writing on the blackboard as many times as I say this, but autistic people ask questions to get answers, period. Not to challenge authority, not to call someone else’s experience or knowledge into question, and not to make other people look bad. When an autistic person asks a question, they are looking for an answer. That’s it. Answering their questions while assuming positive intent not only provides accessibility but emotional safety for the autistic person.
In order to employ different thinking, you must understand different thinking. Only then can you move from passive acceptance to actionable inclusion–every month of the year.