Autistic employees revolutionize workplace accommodations

Associated media – Connected media

When Chelsia Potts took her 10-year-old daughter to a psychologist to be evaluated for autism spectrum disorder, she decided, almost as an afterthought, to get tested herself. The results were surprising: like her daughter, Ms. Potts was diagnosed with autism.

At 35, Ms. Potts thought she was dealing with anxiety or some other issue. A first-generation college graduate, she had earned a Ph.D. in education and become a high-level administrator at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After seeing a psychologist, she had to figure out how this diagnosis would affect her work life.

“At first, I was confused and kept it a secret,” Ms. Potts said. “I had an image of what an autistic person was, and it didn’t look like me.”

She reflected on the ways she had compensated in the past to hide her disability and appear to be a model employee, a defense mechanism known as “masking.”

For years, she tried to meet with colleagues individually because she felt uncomfortable in group meetings. She recalled smiling and sounding enthusiastic, knowing that some people found her voice tone too serious. She also tried to avoid bright lights and noises at the workplace.

After struggling with her diagnosis for six months, Ms. Potts met with a university official. That conversation “was one of the hardest experiences of my life,” she said.

“I was telling someone something I had never told anyone outside my family,” she continued. “I felt very vulnerable. I felt ashamed. I realized how hard it was for me to express what I needed and why I needed it.”

But the meeting brought some positive changes for Ms. Potts: she obtained some accommodations, including greater flexibility in her work schedules.

In the United States, several large employers, including Microsoft, Dell, and Ford, are taking steps to make their workplaces more accessible and welcoming to neurodiverse employees, as autism diagnoses increase.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 36 8-year-old children in the United States has autism. That’s up from one in 44 in 2018 and one in 150 in 2000, an increase experts attribute partly to better detection. Additionally, 2.2 percent of adults in the country, or 5.4 million people, have autism, according to the CDC.

More and more autistic people are coming out publicly. Ms. Potts is one of many TikTok users who have shared their diagnoses online using the hashtag #autistok.

Last year, singer Sia made her autism diagnosis public as an adult. More recently, author Mary HK Choi described in an essay for New York Magazine how, at 43, she has developed a greater sense of self-understanding thanks to her diagnosis.

Autism activists have praised companies more receptive to remote work since the coronavirus pandemic.

Workplaces with too much light and noise can overwhelm autistic people, leading to burnout, said Jessica Myszak, a clinical psychologist in Chicago specializing in autism testing and evaluations. Remote work “reduces social demands and some of the environmental sensitivities” that autistic people struggle with, Dr. Myszak added.

But navigating the job market remains a challenge for people with autism, who are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, according to advocacy groups. Autistic job seekers hoping to make a good first impression may be reluctant to disclose their diagnoses or request accommodations upfront.

“You don’t want them to see your flaws,” said Haley Moss, 29, a lawyer and disability rights activist with autism, comparing the job interview to a first date.

Microsoft is recruiting

When Natalie Worden-Cowe, 32, was a professional musician, she struggled with the networking aspect of the business, crucial for getting gigs. When she decided to change careers a few years ago to become a software engineer, she had difficulty getting through job interviews. Her professional life changed when she discovered Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program, established in 2015.

The company’s program was modeled after an initiative created by the German software company SAP and has since been adopted in some form by companies like Dell and Ford. So far, the initiative has brought about 300 full-time neurodivergent employees to Microsoft, said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at the company.

“All they needed was this different, more inclusive process,” Mr. Barnett said, “and once they got into the business, they thrived.”

Ms. Worden-Cowe, who was diagnosed at age 29, noticed a difference at Microsoft during her interview: she was given more time to answer questions and more breaks between meetings with company employees.

“Neurodiverse people sometimes need a little more time to process questions, or they may need questions to be written down,” Ms. Worden-Cowe said.

Once on board, she was assigned a job coach to help her with time management and prioritization. Microsoft also assigned her a mentor who gave her a tour of the company’s campus in Redmond, Washington. Perhaps most importantly, she works with managers who have received neurodiversity training.

Microsoft’s campus also has “focus rooms,” where lights can be dimmed and desk heights adjusted to accommodate sensory preferences. Employees working in open offices can also request to sit away from busy hallways or receive noise-canceling headphones.

“Agendas are sent in advance,” Mr. Barnett said. “Everyone’s communication styles and preferences are noted.”

Mr. Barnett rejected the misconception that such arrangements cost companies revenue, efficiency, or productivity. Instead, he said, they improve workplace culture and overall staff well-being.

Wendi Safstrom, president of the Society for Human Resource Management, a nonprofit organization, said more employers should commit to hiring neurodivergent people and educating their workforces about them. “If they’re unwilling to change with the times, they’re going to fall behind,” Ms. Safstrom said. “The war for talent is real.”

Ms. Moss, the lawyer, said HR departments have shown willingness to change. “In most cases, they already have autistic employees who haven’t disclosed,” she said. And yet, she added about autistic workers, “many of us aren’t getting promoted.”

More employers should place neurodivergent people in leadership roles, Ms. Moss said, essentially to redefine the image of a boss. “You can be someone who communicates outside of what’s considered normal and be a fantastic leader,” she said.

“My true self”

For Murphy Monroe, communicating at work was never a problem. Very talkative, Mr. Monroe, 50, excelled because he could quickly memorize statistics about the organization he worked for and its competitors.

Having heard from therapists since childhood that he was likely on the autism spectrum but never undergoing a test, Mr. Monroe tried to avoid the topic. As a teenager, he knew he was different and had “active fear of not being able to hold a job,” he said.

He studied theater in college and pursued a career in education, spending 17 years as an admissions officer and administrator at Columbia College Chicago. Like Ms. Potts, the Miami University administrator, Mr. Monroe developed strategies to navigate the workplace, including having a trusted colleague accompany him, helping him pick up on social cues he might have missed.

“Is there anyone I need to apologize to?” Mr. Monroe would ask after meetings. “What just happened?”

“I bite my fingers,” he added, referring to a form of stimming, behaviors that help some autistic people cope with sensory overload. “I would sit in a meeting with the college president or a board meeting and couldn’t stop bleeding. Those are times when it’s nice to have someone in the room with me, gently nudging me.”

At one point, Mr. Monroe told an HR manager that he thought he had a form of autism that overwhelmed him with sensory input, particularly lights. “She looked me square in the eye and said, ‘You’re not autistic,’” Mr. Monroe recalled. “From that moment for many years, I didn’t think about it again.”

But after watching TikTok videos of people talking about their experiences with autism, Mr. Monroe made an appointment with a psychologist in 2021 and received confirmation of what he had long suspected.

That self-awareness has changed how he approaches his current job as executive director of Actors Gymnasium, a circus school in Evanston, Illinois. “I had this real desire to be open at work,” Mr. Monroe said. “I just dove in. I bought a gold autism pin on Etsy and started wearing it all the time.”

He also allows himself accommodations, such as taking days off work to recharge and having blackout curtains in his office. He tries to be sensitive with his colleagues too, he said, allowing them to adjust their schedules or tasks in ways that make sense to them, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical.

In short, he’s trying to create the environment he would have wanted when he was masking to survive. It’s the kind of work setting many autism activists hope will become more common.

“For me, being fully myself while running a joyful company,” Mr. Monroe said, “makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world.”

Connected media – Connected media

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