Autism Spectrum Disorder: What You Should Know About ASD in the Workplace
Did you know that April is designated as National Autism Awareness Month? Learn more about Autism and how to better understand Neurodiversity in the workforce.
By Angie Hill
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Autism has directly impacted us working at Jadex Strategic Group (JADEX). Nearly 14 years ago, my brother who is also my business partner, had his son diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). And many years later, I would face my own ignorance and challenges with living and understanding ASD. This week is a personal journey into why we are passionate about inclusiveness and diversity at JADEX. We believe sharing our story can help those struggling with ASD, and employ a more inclusive workforce by learning the symptoms and values of a neurodiverse workforce.
“Autism comes in varying levels of symptoms, sensitivities, and functionalities”.
What Exactly Is Neurodiversity and ASD?
The term “neurodiversity” coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1999 refers to the concept that certain developmental disorders are normal variations of the brain and have varying strengths. Autism Spectrum Disorder is considered neurodiverse, and people diagnosed with ASD provide strengths to the workforce that should be valued and considered.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes ASD as a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.
Individuals with ASD function with a wide array of symptoms and sensitivities, but most typically experience:
- Communication and interaction difficulties
- Restricted interests
- Repetitive behaviors
- Experience symptoms that affect the ability to function in a variety of situations
ASD individuals experience their surroundings differently as they have sensory sensitivities to their surroundings and it is difficult for them to adapt incoming sensory responses within their physical environment. Basically, they are unable to respond to ALL sensory outputs like: touch, taste, smell, and noise, and are as a result overstimulated. Unlike people who are able to decipher incoming senses at a rapid response someone who doesn’t have sensory issues is referred to as neurotypical and can handle more sensory inputs.
Hollywood would lead us to believe Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond in the blockbuster hit Rain Man is the typical representation of Autism. However, Autism, is often referred to as on the “spectrum” due to ALL individuals having varying symptoms, sensitivities, and levels of functionality. Not one case is the same. And not every person you encounter with ASD displays overt symptoms. In fact, a form of high functioning Autism called Asperger’s involves struggling with social interactions, restricted interests, desires for repetition and rituals, and exhibit distinctive strengths, often goes undiagnosed. Famous people we know diagnosed with Autism are: Dan Aykroyd, Roseanne Barr, Darryl Hannah, Dan Harmon, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Interestingly, Sir Anthony Hopkins according to the Daily Mail was diagnosed with Asperger’s later in his life. My point is, Autism does not have a face. Literally anyone could have it and you may not know unless you understand what to look for.
My Experience with Asperger’s (Autism)
This was the case with my boyfriend, who for 37 years went undiagnosed. From the outside, he looked like the guy next door, clean cut, athletic, graduated from a prestigious university and has no physical attributes or overt mannerisms that would lead you to think he struggled with sensory issues and isolation. Unlike my nephew who was diagnosed at an early age, he went nearly his whole life feeling like an outsider.
And I, literally had no clue what Autism was supposed to look like. My exposure up until this point was minor glimpses into my nephews’ outbursts, meltdowns, and sensory overreactions which I dismissed as disobedience or rants due to my ignorance on the subject matter.
My ignorance of ASD, the symptoms, mannerisms left me ill-prepared to understand what I had walked into. I had no clue how to help someone coping with ASD.
When I moved in with my boyfriend, I began to pick up on what I thought were issues. I learned from his family that he had always struggled with communication, had major outbursts when overwhelmed and seemed to have major misperceptions about his place and belonging in the world. He struggled at the workplace and was often “clueless” about communication from managers or understanding why a work situation abruptly ended.
I started realizing that my partner had sensory processing deficits such as sensitivity to eyesight, noise, or with overstimulation of any kind. An example, our dog barking excitedly as we waited for coffee at Starbucks and his puppy cup of whip cream, would send my boyfriend into an immediate meltdown. At the time, I could not understand his extreme reactions to auditory noises.
It took us three years, testing, patience, and now education to learn how to live with ASD. I would say there are many symptoms and sensitivities that can lead people to misunderstand someone struggling with ASD, however there are also some amazing traits that individuals on the spectrum display. I find them beautiful and admirable. Working with, employing, and having someone with ASD in your life can enhance and bring value to you and your workplace. I often reflect on my first date with my partner. He literally made me stop and smell the roses. Something to be honest, I never do. We spent the day exploring our beautiful city and taking the time to smell every spring flower.
As an entrepreneur and someone always on the go, I often forget to stop and take the time for myself that I really need. I struggle to be in the moment and am always rushing from one thing to the next. Living with someone who has ASD has helped me to think of the world differently, to learn patience, and to appreciate the day-to-day. Here are some tips you should know about Autism in order to build neurodiversity in the workforce.
What Should You Know About ASD?
According to the book Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder and my own personal experience, individuals with Autism display the following symptoms.
- Sensory Processing – People with ASD have abnormal responses to sensory integration (incoming information within their environment). This can cause overstimulation, confusion, and the inability to process information from all their senses of (smell, sight, taste, sound, and touch).
- Hypo-and Hyper-sensitivity – This is when individuals of ASD are sensitive to information pertaining to their senses.
- Hypo (under responsive) – Appear non-responsive and “sensory seeking”, meaning they will create or generate stimuli for their sensory experience.
- Hyper (over responsive) – Often overwhelmed by incoming sensory information such as auditory, sensitivity to touch, picky eaters, bothered by bright lights, and have rigid body posture.
- Repetitive and Restricted Behaviors – Depending on whether someone is high or low functioning can be determined by restrictive or repetitive behaviors. Highly functioning individuals exhibit more repetition and can have tantrums or “meltdowns”. Individuals with ASD appreciate their routine and can be deeply upset if their routines are disrupted.
- Difficulties with Communication and Social Interaction – Social cues and hidden meanings are difficult for those with ASD to pick up on. They simply cannot process when people may be joking, are being passive aggressive, or are “treading lightly” around a subject. Reading facial features is difficult, eye contact is avoided unless taught, and they often struggle with close relationships due to their hypo or hyper sensitivities.
- Personal Space – Private vs. Public – ASD individuals appreciate personal space and having the ability to retreat to a space that is calming. Creating a space at work that allows ASD individuals to step away, process, and to distinguish between public and private spaces is crucial. Due to sensory overload, those with ASD value having a space to recoup and process.
- Give Them Time to Process – Silence does not mean they are not listening or do not care. Due to how ASD individuals process sensory information, they are often overstimulated and can be overwhelmed. Surprising them with news and asking for immediate responses is not ideal when working with someone with ASD. Allow ASD individuals the time, space, and ability to process changes, updates, and communication.
The Benefits of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Neurodiversity in the workforce starts with understanding how to work with individuals diagnosed with ASD. Research and my own experience helped me develop a list of why we at JADEX believe Autism in the workplace is a benefit.
- Attention to Detail – Perfect for the technology field, auditing, compliance, and product managers. Neurodiverse individuals can be extremely passionate and may have photographic memories in the areas that pique their interest.
- Pattern Recognition – I personally believe someone with ASD would be great at editing, quality control, imagery, technical writing or auditing. Their ability to identify and recognize patterns could help you identify items missing in processes, papers, public papers, etc.
- Extreme Focus/Persistence – Hardworking is an overstatement. Someone with ASD or Asperger’s can be extremely focused and love the work they do. To the point you have to ask them to stop working. I’ve seen this first hand. I often have to ask my boyfriend to stop and eat as he is studying away for certifications or learning about a new product.
- Loyalty – Looking for that employee that is a team player and loves his job? Those with ASD are extremely productive to the point you must tell them to take a break. Retention rates in organizations can raise as those with ASD rarely leave a situation if the workplace is supportive and inclusive.
- Stop and Smell the Roses – Sensory stimulation allows those with ASD to stop and focus on the immediate. They cannot process a lot of information at once, so are able view ALL problems from another perspective. Whether it’s addressing a workplace problem or asking a co-worker to go for a mid-day hike, an individual with ASD can add value to your workplace by helping you slow down, take a step back, and reframe with fresh perspective. Also, nature is very calming for their sensory overstimulation.
- Routine and Order – ASD individuals soar with routine and repetition. If your workplace requires quality control, and compliance, creating a neurodiverse workplace can help.
- Creative and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers – They solve problems differently. ASD thinkers process information and senses differently which give them a unique perspective when solving business problems.
Thank you for reading our story. At JADEX, we care about educating others about our experience and build Neurodiversity in your workforce. If you are interested in how you can build a safe and dynamic workforce for those that have ASD, please reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. l