A CEO asked me, “What do my employees and I need to know to hire and retain people who are on the spectrum?” He has a manufacturing company with highly technical jobs that require precision, repetition and care.
The CEO’s question gave me the opportunity to investigate and learn more about how to accommodate people who are gifted differently. So I reached out to a friend of mine, Beth Redmond-Jones, who is a mom with an adult daughter with autism. She is also a museum professional who, among many talents, advocates for those with invisible challenges.
Beth told me that, according to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, about 1 in 54 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, though it is 4 times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.(1) Beth said, “Society has focused on children with autism but what is often forgotten is that these children grow up to be adults with autism who continue to need support, especially in a work environment. Even though those with autism think differently, they can be a huge asset to an organization due to their unique skills, capabilities, interests and focused-attention.”
What ASD is
Scientists do not yet know what exactly causes these differences for most people with ASD. According to the CDC, “Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people. However, people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need little help and only some guidance.”(1)
What an organization needs to know
According to EEOC, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, unless it would cause undue hardship.”(2) “Reasonable accommodations,” as they relate to three areas of employment, include:
- Ensuring equal opportunity in the application and hiring process. It’s helpful to remember that hiring is a social process which can be stressful for people with ASD. Hiring managers can offer options for a phone, video or in-person interview. They can ask in the interview, “If you were hired for this position, what would I, as your supervisor need to know about you to help you be successful in this position?” The manager can also be aware that eye contact, small talk and quick responses may be challenging so it may be necessary to allow for longer pauses, different body language and extra time. Organizations should be prepared to answer questions about how they accommodate those with autism, sensory processing disorder and/or other disabilities.
- Enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job. This may require modifications to the work environment, or to the way a job is usually done. For example, managers can allow people to wear noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses or non-restrictive clothing. They can provide written and/or graphic job instructions, as well as short- and long-term goals.
- Making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. This may require modification to training and support. Managers can help the employee “learn the ropes” by having a mentor help the employee navigate work and social issues, someone with whom the employee feels affinity and who can provide constructive feedback without shame or blame. Managers can schedule consistent meetings with the employee and their mentor to set goals and review progress. They can allow for support during or exemption from group gatherings and team-building events.
This is a lot to consider. It can seem overwhelming to have to provide accommodations for everyone who is gifted differently, especially because each person is unique in their needs.
How to make accommodation work
I am a career-long educator; I started out as a classroom teacher. I entered the workforce at a time when children with disabilities were being mainstreamed into regular education classrooms for the first time. If I wanted to keep my job, I had to learn quickly to make accommodations for differently gifted kids and still cover the curriculum.
What I came to understand is that it is not just special education children who are different; every child is unique and has different needs. It was interesting to learn and witness over time that whatever accommodations I made for the needs of special education kids, the regular education kids benefitted too. For example, when I posted the daily agenda and added intended outcomes for children who experience anxiety, every student had more clarity about what was expected.
The same principle applies in our work environments (and children grow up to be managers and fellow employees!). When we accommodate minorities, majorities benefit as well. When we design a work or play environment for those who are most marginalized, we are increasing access and removing structural barriers for everyone. And if you re-look at the bulleted list above, most of those accommodations will benefit everyone in your organization. This is called Universal Design. “UD is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.”(3)
Driven in part by factors such as the large number of Second World War soldiers returning home with disabling injuries, the rights and needs of older people and people with disabilities were brought to the forefront. Governments responded with the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation. As new laws served to promote social inclusion and prevent discrimination and social movements of the 20th century gathered momentum, pressure was placed on the design industry. The industry responded with efforts to create accessible and usable products, services and environments.(4)
The most prevalent example of UD that benefits many of us is “curb cuts,” where sidewalks corners come down to meet streets. “Not only for disabled veterans in wheel chairs, but most of us benefit from curb cuts,” Beth said, “from parents with strollers to kids on scooters and people with walkers who struggle to step up.”
How UD relates to CI
Cultural Intelligence is the ability to be in conversation with someone who is different from us; it is the ability to appreciate their perspective and adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect. With CI we are curious and interested in others. “This is where you can apply Cultural Intelligence,” Beth told me, “be open to learning from people with autism.” Accommodations are sometimes referred to as ‘productivity enhancers.’ You can ask an employee, ‘What can we offer that will enhance your productivity?’ or How can we help you feel more comfortable?’”
Because accommodating minorities in an organization benefits majority people as well, there are three Culturally Intelligent Planning Questions we can ask when we are looking to hire and retain people who are gifted differently or have a different cultural background:
- Who is currently most marginalized in this context?
- How do we hold these people at the center of our policies and practices?
- What can we learn from them?
I asked Beth what she has learned because of having a daughter with ASD. She told me that had she not had her daughter, she would not be so in tune with those who have invisible challenges, especially in a learning environment like a museum. Beth said, “This understanding has not only made me a better designer of exhibition experiences for children and adults, she said, “but also a better leader personally and professionally. I have more appreciation, empathy and patience than I ever had before with both myself and those around me.”
There are two resources she wanted interested employers to know about:
- “27 Companies Who Hire Adults With Autism”
- St Louis Arc provides employment services that empowers individuals with disabilities to achieve their employment goals: https://www.slarc.org/programs/adulthood/employment-training/
In 2019, Beth was asked to share her experience and wisdom about inclusion and Universal Design at the Annual Conference for the Museum Computer Network. Here’s her Ignite talk, “Imagine the Future of Museum Accessibility.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/small-employers-and-reasonable-accommodation
- Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. http://universaldesign.ie/Home/
- Leeper, V. June 5, 2018. “History of curb cuts – 99% invisible.” Idaho Centers for Independent Living Newsletter. https://dacnw.org/newsletter/history-of-curb-cuts-99-invisible/
Dr. Amy Narishkin, CEO and Cultural Intelligence strategist at Empowering Partners. Drawing on her years of experience teaching Cultural Intelligence and working with leaders and executives to build more diverse and engaging work environments, Dr. Amy provides the context and offers specific tools while engaging participants in thoughtful dialogues to build the skills for Culturally Intelligent conversation with colleagues and clients. You can find out more at EmpoweringPartners.com