By Lacie Blankenship
April is Autism Acceptance Month, sometimes referred to as Autism Awareness Month, and is a dedication to recognizing the growing number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the impact of autism, and an opportunity to celebrate those living with ASD. The topic of neurodiversity in the workplace is growing in interest among leaders across the globe. Tim Vogus, Deputy Director, Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, and Brownlee O. Currey, Jr., Professor of Management, is using research to push for a workforce that welcomes, accepts, and embraces neurodivergent professionals. Vogus’ interest in this area derives from his personal experience with neurodiversity. Vogus’ son, Aidan, was diagnosed with autism at age 3; he is now a young adult.
“I see the experiences my son has had, the levels of support and friendships from his education, and the successes he has had as a result of that,” says Vogus. “As he is getting into young adulthood, we’re considering how we can create a world that is going to allow him to continue to thrive beyond his schooling.”
In this article, we discuss aids in the success of neurodivergent professionals, their unique strengths, and simple changes workplaces can implement to embrace neurodivergence.
Interview Questions Don’t Need to be Surprises
“If you’re going to bring someone in for an interview, you want to find out what their skills are and if they can actually do the job,” says Vogus. “Why not provide the questions in advance?”
Social interactions are often difficult for neurodivergent people. When interviewers provide questions in advance it removes the pressure of surprises. Candidates on the autism spectrum typically benefit from having the chance to prepare, allowing them to explain themselves accurately and answer questions completely and show the fullness of their skills.
Ask Job Candidates for Work Samples
“Having candidates provide work samples or portfolios are ways for interviewers to assess people’s actual work rather than how they talk about their work,” says Vogus.
Social expectations set by neurotypical standards can make it so that candidates with autism underperform in interviews. Giving candidates the chance to showcase their actual work gives everyone a fair chance to display their skill sets, capabilities, and previous experience.
Diversity Training Includes Neurodiversity
“There are a lot of unknowns with workplaces when it comes to including neurodivergence,” says Vogus. “Organizations of any size can increase understanding of autism for better collaboration.”
TRIAD, the Frist Center, and the College Autism Network developed Autism Career Empowerment (ACE), a resource for increasing the knowledge of employers and coworkers. Research finds that increasing knowledge of autism and neurodivergence increases workplace success.
Different Ways of Thinking Bring Unique Strengths to Teams
“There’s this untapped pool of talent in all kinds of fields where people are thinking and experiencing the world in a different way, and that’s an engine of innovation,” says Vogus.
Diagnostic descriptors may classify autistic behaviors as restrictive or repetitive, but this can translate in a workplace as someone who is really focused and has a depth of specialized knowledge on a nuanced topic. Another example is the direct communication (which some might label “blunt”) that is often associated with autism. This can translate as someone honest and authentic. Another example is systematic thinking. This can help organizations find small inconsistencies and detect issues.
Clear Expectations are Important When Managing
“Oftentimes folks on the autism spectrum and neurotypical managers have differing perceptions of what a good or ideal employee is,” says Vogus.
People with autism tend to be task-oriented, and some managers consider soft skills crucial in different roles. If expectations of soft skills are not clear, employees with autism may not understand what is separating them from complete success in their role. Vogus’ research finds that clear expectations are instrumental for employees with autism.
Simple Adaptations Lead to Robust Success
“There are a lot of simple changes employers and managers can implement that lead to the robust success of neurodiverse professionals, and organizations as a whole,” says Vogus.
Accommodations like remote work, when applicable, can make a difference for autistic employees. Environmental components like busy windows and different smells can be distracting and overwhelming. Other ideas include providing noise-canceling headphones when in-person work is necessary and opening up alternate modes of communication, like instant messaging programs (e.g., Slack) to avoid unnecessary social stressors.
Vogus was recently featured on OpenLine, NewsChannel 5, where he discussed the Frist Center For Autism and Innovation and the value of neurodivergent workers.
The Frist Center For Autism and Innovation is a cross-university program that brings engineers, business scholars, and disabilities researchers together with experts in neuroscience and education to understand, maximize, and promote neurodivergent talent. The Center takes a strengths-based approach (as opposed to deficit-based) to understanding autism and neurodiversity.
“At the Frist Center, we focus on filling the gaps,” says Vogus. “We see an opportunity to support professionals on the autism spectrum by listening to their lived experiences and working to design a workplace that doesn’t presume neurotypicality. We help employers in this by providing employment readiness training, employment opportunities, coaching, and technology innovation that helps redesign interviewing and work, and to overcome barriers to autistic people thriving at work.”