For Managers &
Best Position to Support
Are you aware that your team member(s) may have a special talent?
Do you know how valuable a neurodistinct report can be when they provide an alternative perspective in a project?
WHAT IS NEURODIVERSITY and WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Neurodiversity is the idea that brain structure and connectivity can vary like any other part of the human body. These structural differences create minds which process input and thoughts differently. Taking the entire cloud of possibilities, there will be a large group that is similar - the neurotypical. The rest of the population adds to neurodiversity. This diverse, neurodistinct population is composed of many named items such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and many others as well as unnamed groups who just think differently.
We have recognized that at in many work space, generally, there is little understanding of how neurodistinct and neurotypical people engage and respond differently. Neurodistinct team members are often marginalized, the result of low awareness. Neurodiversity rarely enters the diversity conversation. To eliminate this bias we must affirm the mindset of embracing each employee for their abilities. It is critical that we expand our understanding of neurodiversity and the education of the greater tech industry the benefits this talent pool brings to companies.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is one of the typical type under broad "Neurodiversity " umbrella. Autism is a neurological variation diagnosed in between 1% and 2% of the population, with potentially a higher percentage among engineers. It is also widely under-diagnosed, particularly within historically marginalized groups. What causes Autism is not fully understood but seems to involve a variety of genetic and neonatal factors. The end result is that autistics tend to have particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness, leading to their experience of the world around them being more intense and chaotic than it is for allistic (non-autistic, frequently neurotypical) individuals.
The manifestations of autism tend to be highly individualized and specific, with no two individuals being quite alike in how autism affects their interaction with the world. This wide variation in manifestation is what causes autism to be referred to as a “spectrum” or a “ballpark.” There are certainly strong commonalities, but how those commonalities manifest or come across varies widely. Even if your perception of an individual's autism is “less severe”—i.e., you notice it less—their experience of the world is not necessarily "easier" than that of other autistics.
The differences between autistics and allistics often cause disability when interfacing with a world designed mostly by and for allistic individuals, especially with respect to social communication. Virtually all autistics suffer some degree of disability and it is also common for autistics to be impaired or disabled on other axes, and/or develop anxiety and depression due to their daily difficulties with interfacing with the allistic world.
One of the major areas of impairment in society for most autistics is the matter of social relationships. Autistic individuals tend to spend a great deal of energy navigating their environment, which may lead to less energy for internalizing social rules in childhood, and a higher cost for social interactions throughout life. This often leads to social rejection, which may increase their stress in navigating social spaces, and/or to varieties of social performance which are learned more-or-less by rote.
Etiquette for Working with an Autistic Person
It’s important to note that much of the “common knowledge” available to allistics about autism is either incorrect, comes from allistic-headed organizations that work on behalf of autistics, or are based on teaching young children.
Best practices for interacting with autistics look a lot like best practices for interacting with most people in the workplace: clear, consistent communication that takes into account the person is key.
Be conscientious of what you are trying to say, and say it explicitly. Don’t overly depend on nonverbal communication or for the team member to “hear” what you aren’t saying: communicate clearly, early, and often, especially about areas of concern or sensitive topics.
Provide a context in which decisions are being made and instructions are being given: don’t simply provide instructions on what to do without context.
Give the team member as much notice as possible about changes to routine, e.g., cancelling or rescheduling 1-1s, major shifts in direction, etc.
Be aware that many autistic individuals will manifest stereotypical behaviors (e.g., rocking, “odd” vocalizations, etc). These behaviors (which can also take forms that are common among allistic people, such as pen-spinning and finger-drumming) are a way of self-soothing or helping process the world. If these are in some way disruptive it can be helpful to talk to the team member privately and be prepared to discuss alternative strategies.
Be aware that just because the person isn’t giving you the signs you expect for a given emotion doesn’t mean that they aren’t feeling that emotion. Autistics often are difficult for allistics to “read” effectively, so when in doubt, ask.
Just because one autistic employee was a particular way doesn’t mean that another will be. Remember that autism has a wide variety of manifestations, and every individual’s circumstances and coping strategies will be different. Also remember that just because you don’t see their challenges doesn’t mean that those challenges are any less than you might have expected.
Many autistics have other complications, such as sensory processing issues, anxiety, face blindness, or learning disabilities that can cause difficulties for them in a workplace environment. Be sensitive to these and, when in doubt, ask about what you can do to help.
Acceptance and education sessions are very useful for anyone who will be working with autistic team member. Some company like Google has community and accommodation team offer further information or advice to support.
Interested in learning more?
Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage - Harvard Business Review article
Webinar discussing Autism/Neurodiversity in the workplace by Tim Goldstein TEDx Santa Barbara, 2021: Diversity from a Neurodistinct Perspective
Empathy The “Double Empathy Problem”
Double Empathy Problem article by Dr. Damian Milton (from the National Autistic Society of the UK)
Revealing the Double Empathy Problem (Apr. 2020, by Laura S. DeThorne, PhD; The ASHA Leader)