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How Can Employers Improve Neurodiversity in the Workplace?

Apr 29, 2022
Tim Vogus sheds light on ways employers can make the workplace more inclusive for employees on the autism spectrum

By Arial Starks

Tim Vogus

For professionals who may present with Autism Spectrum Disorder, office behaviors that many employees consider typical –  shaking hands, maintaining eye contact, and working in teams, among them – may not be inclusive ones. In recognition of Autism Acceptance Month, Tim Vogus, Brownlee O. Currey, Jr. Professor of Management at Vanderbilt Business and Deputy Director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, offers 4 ways employers can create a workplace inclusive of neurodiversity.

Remember that Autism is about difference, not deficit

People tend to think about a disability as something to be fixed. Vogus encourages everyone to look at a disorder like Autism as a natural variation of experiencing and processing the world. 

“When people think about disability, they think about deficit, weakness, wrong, broken… but it’s really about difference,” he said. “Yes, this is a different life experience that somebody’s having; it might involve different ways of processing the world in terms of sensory input, emotional input, all these different kinds of things. But it’s not bad. It’s not wrong. It just is. Having that as a mindset is an important starting point for making a workplace truly inclusive.”

Remove unstated expectations from the workplace

Offering clear and explicit expectations to all employees – regarding everything from performance to culture – ensures that everyone is provided a fair opportunity to succeed. Clear, frequent, and timely feedback helps remove unstated expectations in the workplace, which can exclude neurodiverse people, who may miss the tacit expectations of their neurotypical peers.

“If you have unstated expectations, that’s a recipe for biased and discriminatory outcomes, especially when you’re talking across neurotypes where people process the world in different ways,” said Vogus. “They are not looking for or picking up on the same thing.” 

This rule of thumb isn’t exclusive to neurodiversity, either. “It can also extend to gender and race, and other demographic minorities? The people who aren’t in the same social networks as the majority might not get the same exposure and the same kind of coaching around those unstated expectations,” he said. 

Examine company interview process and make necessary changes

Job interviews can be stressful for everyone involved, especially for people on the Autism spectrum. Icebreaker questions like “tell me about yourself,” introductory handshakes, and prolonged eye contact are common aspects of in-person and virtual interviews, and they can be taxing requirements for neurodivergent candidates.

“Sometimes people just assume that, ‘if this candidate isn’t making good eye contact, then they are antisocial or being rude’,” said Vogus. “As part of my research, and just as someone who is friends with many Autistic adults, multiple people have told me, ‘I don’t make eye contact because I can either look at you or pay attention to what you’re saying.’ Some people can’t do both, because it’s just too much sensory input.” 

By expanding what professionalism looks like in the workplace, employers can remove unnecessary obstacles for neurodivergent candidates and foster more inclusive hiring efforts.

“A lot of times, employers will not hire somebody because they have ‘bad body language’, they are ‘too fidgety’, or their eye contact isn’t good. These things have, in almost all cases, little to do with being effective in a job. But these can be reasons that autistic folks might stand out in an interview in a way that is not what the neurotypical interviewer expects, and it’s another form of unstated criteria,” said Vogus. Rethinking interviewing processes by training interviewers on autism and neurodiversity, making sure the interview focuses on job relevant skills and experiences, and minimizing anxiety-creating conditions (e.g., by providing interview questions in advance) can all help make interviews more inclusive.”  

Environment is everything 

Work environments tend to have direct correlations to employee productivity, even more so for  an autistic person with sensory sensitivities. Considering office configurations, lighting, and  helpful tools and resources in the workplace, help employers create a space where everyone can be comfortable and thrive in the office.

“Some autistic people are really sensitive to smells; if they sit near a kitchen in the office or a bathroom, it’d be really distracting,” said Vogus. “The same things apply to noise. A small accommodation could be to allow somebody to wear noise canceling headphones to better focus. Even certain lighting can be distracting, like the fluorescent bulbs with that steady hum. Some folks have light sensitivities, so even changing the light bulbs in an office or in a segment of the office can help. These small environmental modifications can make a big difference,” he continued.

Neurodiversity hiring initiatives have taken shape across corporate America, opening new doors to a long-overlooked segment of the workforce, but the work doesn’t end there. For Vogus, maintaining a truly neurodiverse workplace is the key to building sustainable, equal, and fair employment opportunities.

“I just encourage employers to not think about the job and the hiring of neurodiverse people as the destination, but rather as something that’s an ongoing effort,” said Vogus. “Autistic employees are every bit as worthy of training and development and leadership opportunities as anyone else. It may be a little bit different in form, but Autistic leaders can, and do, exist in all types of industries.”

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