Have you decided to take a closer look at autism in the workplace? Would you like to welcome atypical employees in your company, but don’t know how to do it in an appropriate manner?
Autism is among the leading taboo subjects in business.
Although autism and employment are very compatible, companies are still struggling to fit in atypical profiles.
Welcoming and onboarding an employee on the autism spectrum does require a review of one’s Human Resources practices, but the wealth that all employees get out of it, in terms of skills development, is worth the effort.
At Didacte, our corporate culture and business field (online training) lead us to take a closer look at the topic of autism in the workplace.
We are even more aware of the cause since Daniel Genest-Lebel, our Marketing Analyst, joined the team in October 2021. He has agreed to share some of his experiences with us in this article!
Here are some concrete advice we would like to share with you for a successful employee onboarding:
Outline of the article
- What is autism?
- Hiring employees on the autism spectrum means cultivating neurodiversity in the workplace
- Onboarding employees on the autism spectrum: a challenge
- Using training to successfully onboard employees living with ASD
Reading time: 9 minutes
1. What is autism?
From autism to autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
You’ve surely heard a lot about autism, but are you sure you have a clear definition of it?
To start with, autism is not a disease, but a disorder. Since 2013, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are used to designate autistic disorders and Asperger’s syndrome.
What is autism ?
The American Psychiatric Association, quoted by Public Health Canada, defines ASD as a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in the spheres of language, nonverbal communication and social interactions, combined with restricted and repetitive behaviors, interests and activities.’
This disorder usually appears early on in childhood (before the age of 3) and lasts throughout a person’s life. It can cause learning or social integration difficulties.
We speak of ‘spectrum’ because there are different degrees of disorders, more or less severe. Each person lives with ASD in their own unique way.
Almost one in 10 people may be autistic
Autism officially affects 1.5% of the population in Canada.
That being said, many people are diagnosed late in life, and ASD is largely under-diagnosed, especially among women. Many functional autistic people are never detected, which leads experts to estimate that between 5 and 10% of the population is on the spectrum.
There is a good chance that you are currently working with someone on the spectrum without even knowing it.
Daniel is a good example:
"I was diagnosed at the age of 28 and I was the one who initiated procedures to be evaluated.
I went through my entire school career and early adulthood without ever raising suspicions."
In practical terms, a person on the autism spectrum without an intellectual disability is at high risk of flying under the radar. Because their difficulties are only really visible outside of school, they are often simply seen as introverted.
Are autism and employment compatible?
Of course they are, provided that people with ASD are welcome and integrated!
Public opinion often associates autism disorders with intellectual retardation, which is inaccurate. In fact, people living with ASD face challenges when it comes with finding and keeping a job.
Although many autistic people are educated, they face communication (verbal or nonverbal) and social interaction challenges.
Daniel tells us:
"I am able to behave appropriately socially when my environment is predictable. But in a new job, nothing is known to me, so everything becomes unpredictable.
It puts me in a state of hyper-awareness, and it's very demanding mentally. So demanding that it can create awkward social interactions."
Finding one’s place in the work space is particularly difficult for these people if companies do not develop specific employee onboarding training.
2. Hiring employees on the autism spectrum means cultivating neurodiversity in business
Neurodiversity in business can have many advantages.
Wondering which ones? That’s what we’re about to see!
All companies try to innovate, but few rely on neurodiversity (having employees whose brains work differently) to achieve it.
However, with a great diversity of styles and capabilities, neurodiversity makes it possible to find new solutions and take innovative, creative decisions. With atypical employee profiles and people who think outside of the box, one can truly build an intrapreneurship culture and improve employee engagement.
Neurodiversity impacts in the short, medium and long term
Over time, if the onboarding goes well, people on the spectrum will prove their skills: direct communication style, strong memory, reliability, etc.
You will also probably notice that your employees develop new skills alongside employees living with ASD: listening, a better understanding of these poorly-known disorders, flexibility on the part of managers, etc.
In other words, inclusion and neurodiversity within teams benefit all employees!
For Daniel, this is an often-overlooked benefit:
"My ideas sometimes often enrich the ideation process. Since social norms are less obvious to me, it allows me to consider things that are quickly put aside by others.
The element that is even more underestimated, however, is the benefit of internal communication. Since I need things to be well verbalized, I ask more questions to validate that I have understood, which encourages better communication practices."
Another point you will surely find interesting is that opening your corporate culture to neurodiversity will allow you to cultivate your employer brand and position yourself as an employer of choice on the job market.
Many people living with ASD have a higher education and can offer sought-after skills. So it is in your interest to expand your candidate pool and welcome qualified, motivated employees.
In the current context of labor shortage, being able to recruit easier and improve one’s retention rate is a notable advantage.
3. Onboarding employees on the autism spectrum: a challenge
Employees on the autism spectrum often need special attention and support to successfully integrate. The goal is to set up a work environment where each employee can thrive, regardless of their difference, and benefit others.
Welcoming employees on the spectrum is not an impossible task: the better you know the challenges they face, the better you can prepare and help them integrate successfully!
Adapt your communication
The first point you will need to be vigilant on is communication.
People living with ASD may have atypical communications styles and they may have challenges spotting body language, reading facial expressions and voice inflections.
Need a few tips? Get rid of innuendos and hints, and give clear instructions in order to avoid making communication a source of misunderstanding, stress and exhaustion.
These tips can also apply to the rest of your employees.
Offer accommodations and flexibility
From a practical perspective, some people living with ASD have a hard time socializing or evolving in a highly stimulating environment, because of sensory issues.
As an employer, you can act on these points by adapting the employee’s work environment: you can offer them their own office, instead of a shared one, provide a sound and visual environment that is adapted to them (no neon lights, for example), remote work, etc.
When Daniel was asked what he liked best about his onboarding at Didacte, he mentioned that the hybrid work opportunity was a big factor in his success:
"If I'm feeling mentally tired, I don't have to follow a rigid schedule and live with the overload that face-to-face work brings.
On the other hand, if I feel great and would like to enjoy the social side of being in the office, it is possible. Being able to adapt my environment to suit my needs saves me a ton of energy."
Create an environment that fosters skills development
You can provide time management tools and set up work routines to create a reassuring framework that encourages everyone’s skill development.
And when it comes to training, make sure there is consistency between the objectives of a training and its content, and use real examples (stories, case studies, scenarios).
Neuroatypical profiles need to experience things by themselves. Give them time to integrate each training.
4. Using training to successfully onboard employees living with ASD
The good news is that you are not alone in this challenge! There are tools that can help you onboard neuroatypical employees in your company. Using a learning management system is one such solution that will help you implement your approach.
Open your corporate culture through training
It is well understood that when you recruit employees on the autism spectrum you must adapt your corporate culture to these atypical employees.
To do so, you need to make a good part of your employees aware of the topic, for example by explaining to them what autism is, dispel preconceived ideas and give them advice on how to welcome their new colleagues (by setting up good communication practices).
By using a learning management system to spread the use of this new, more inclusive corporate culture, you make sure all employees have access to the same information. And by using automated tracking, you can observe everyone’s progress and ensure that everyone is participating.
You can also develop specific programs for managers, because some of them may have never had to manage employees on the autism spectrum.
"In the past, I have told managers about my autism and they quickly forgot about it when situations became more tense. I often felt that they mistook my limitations for whims or laziness on my end.
Being empathetic is not enough. A manager must be able to understand that a person on the spectrum may behave differently in certain situations and that this necessarily requires a different approach on their behalf.
Because, most of the time, the autistic person in front of them is doing everything in their power to make it work."
Offer tailored support to employees with ASD
For employees on the autism spectrum, using a learning management system like Didacte yields certain advantages in terms of skill development, including:
- Gradually becoming familiar with your corporate culture and successfully onboarding
- Tracking the integration of the specific onboarding program you have set up for them (which is an asset for improving employee retention and reducing turnover)
- Training in a favorable environment, at their own pace, with no external distractions
- Choosing time periods when the employee’s concentration is at its best, in order to optimize learning over short periods (micro-learning)
- Customizing the training path according to the employees’ needs (for example, by strengthening time management skills)
The advantages of using a learning management system are twofold: it prepares your teams and therefore successfully onboards new colleagues, while supporting employees with ASD discover their new work environment and acquire new skills.
It’s your turn!
Is your company ready to promote skills diversity?
If so, you can use a learning management system as a tool for your overall inclusion strategy, revealing new skills in all your employees.
A tool is only a tool… it’s up to you to use it the best way possible and focus on human beings at the core of your training. After all, that is what makes all organizations really successful!
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