Creator of Neurodiversity Celebration Week Siena Castellon, who is autistic herself, shares her own experiences and insights around the workplace in World Autism Acceptance Week
Out of all my neurological differences, autism carries the most stigma.
This single word can immediately close doors and redefine the way people perceive me. Although how a person responds says more about them than it does about me, I am affected by the stereotypes that most people carry and the judgments they leap to.
As an autistic woman, I am often informed that I can’t be autistic because I’m not a man. I’m also often congratulated for not appearing autistic and for looking so “normal” – a well-intentioned comment that is actually a back-handed insult. On other occasions, I’ve had colleagues I considered friends avoid me when they discovered I’m autistic.
Every autistic person will have experienced their version of society’s prejudice reflecting back on them. These moments add up and collectively serve as a wake-up call that reminds us of the dangers of being our authentic selves. There is no way to sugarcoat that we live in an intolerant society in which autism is seen as an aberration.
The only way to chip away at deeply held stereotypes and misconceptions about autism is to showcase the many multi-faceted sides of what it means to be autistic.
But many of us are too scared to come out of the shadows. It takes great courage to expose yourself to your employer and work colleagues. If the response is positive, the quality of our lives can be greatly enhanced.
However, there is a great risk that you will be seen as a liability and as someone who now makes others uncomfortable. Whether or not to disclose is a perilous decision with danger lurking around every corner. It is no wonder that many of us chose to remain silent.
Whenever I find myself in a quandary, I always ask myself if I want to be part of the problem or solution. Framing any problem or dilemma this way guides me in the right direction, because I always know which side of that equation I want to be on. However, if you are a business and driven by profits, you may not be motivated by what is fair or just or right. However, there is no tension between the two.
Creating employment opportunities and inclusive environments where autistic people can flourish, isn’t a charitable thing to do, it makes business sense. When properly supported, autistic employees are much more productive than other employees.
Since our brains work differently and are not confined to traditional ways of doing things, autistic people can also drive innovation. As many companies are beginning to recognise, tapping into autistic talent and skillsets can be highly transformative and profitable.
If you are a business leader, ask yourself if your perception of autism is blocking you from seeing the unlimited potential of a largely marginalised community that could be an asset to your organisation:
- Could your company benefit from creative solutions and forward-thinking trailblazers?
- Would your work environment be enriched by people who experience and perceive the world differently?
Since the answer is obvious, the next steps are too.
The first step is to flip your narrative of what autism is from focusing on the negatives to focusing on the benefits and strengths.
This change in mindset will free you to look at the opportunities and possibilities that autistic people have to offer. From there you can adapt your hiring strategies and interview process, modify the workspace to accommodate for any sensory sensitivities and make other small and inexpensive modifications that will allow your autistic employees to perform to their potential.
The beauty of autism inclusion in the workplace is that there is no tug of war between what is morally right and profits. Instead, there is a conflation of the two that means everyone wins.
And who doesn’t like to win?!
This year’s World Autism Acceptance Week runs from 28 March to 3 April. Business Disability Forum has a host of helpful tools to explore: