Employees with autism bring benefits and challenges to the workplace


Most forward-looking employers understand the value of hiring a diverse workforce, but it’s easy for best efforts to get tripped up, especially when diversity involves what’s becoming known as neurodiversity.

That label includes hiring workers with different cognitive abilities, including individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Two major challenges can impair good intentions. First, employers must fit the job duties to the person, which means hiring correctly so that abilities match the essential functions of the job, with or without legally mandated accommodations.

Organizations that get this right have found that workers with autism can be among their most focused, productive and talented employees.

Second — but really first when it comes down to practical application — other workers and the management team must be sensitized to the different needs or work styles of coworkers with autism or other cognitive disabilities.

When Engage PEO, a human resource company, works with client companies, their consultants often find that the biggest barrier is educating the workforce at large.

“The problem often is starting the dialogue,” said Vanessa Matsis-McCready, an assistant general counsel at Engage PEO. “Workers need to know there’s an open door so they can ask questions about accommodations.”

But answering such questions requires walking a fine privacy line. Ideally, managers are trained not to reveal specific health or diagnosis information about individual workers. Rather, they need to talk about the organization’s broad inclusion policy, she said.

If someone complains that Sallie doesn’t contribute in meetings or is allowed to wear headphones when coworkers aren’t, a manager ideally shouldn’t go into detail about Sallie’s autism or why she needs a quiet work environment.

Rather, the manager needs to say that the organization is committed to diverse hiring and accommodating different needs — and stop there.

If Sallie’s headphones allow her to concentrate without being easily distracted, those headphones may be the only accommodation necessary. But managers really aren’t supposed to go into detail about Sallie.

If the organization is correctly matching persons with disabilities to the job duties — and correctly measuring performance against expectations — the coworkers’ questions or complaints may be quieted simply because Sallie is getting the required job done. No one’s carrying an extra load because of her.

In a conversation with me, Matsis-McCready repeatedly urged “sensitivity training.” The very phrase, like “diversity training” often elicits groans in the workplace. Some people won’t ever buy in; others feel hammered over the head about what they’d do right anyway.

But diverse and different people must be woven into the workplace fabric for all kinds of financial and social reasons. End of story.