As with many mental illnesses, autistic individuals suffer a lot of negative stereotypes and unfair practices in all areas of their lives. Media portrayals and reporting about autism don’t help the situation, and the fact that neurotypical individuals will refer to themselves as “a little bit autistic” when they’re concentrating hard or get obsessed with something only compounds the issues surrounding the condition. A lot of these negative stereotypes come from a lack of understanding about what autism is, how it affects individuals and what steps we as a society can take to promote autism acceptance.
What is autism?
According to the official definition put forward by the National Autistic Society of the United Kingdom, autism is a lifelong developmental disability which changes the way individuals perceive and interact with the world. It’s essential to know that there are no defined causes, and the wide range of symptoms and levels of support required have resulted in medical professionals creating a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. This shows that there is no “one way” to have autism, and that it’s essential to recognize that autism is not something that can be cured or fixed; it is an integral part of who someone is.
Promoting Autism Acceptance At Work
As society evolves and becomes slowly more progressive towards minority groups and demographics, there has been a bigger push towards autism awareness. Many cities across Canada now recognize an autism awareness month in their communities and schools and more businesses are aiming to become autism friendly employers. As an employer or a colleague, there are steps that you can take to promote autism acceptance at work:
- Develop inclusive hiring practices - the unemployment rates for autistic adults in British Columbia make for hard reading: an estimated 80% of them are either not in work or in jobs that don’t make use of their skills and qualifications. As an autism-positive employer, you can make your hiring practices more neurodiverse by teaming up with an autism talent management agency to help you find talented workers who bring a unique skill set to your company.
- Create autism-friendly working environments - there are no laws in Canada that require autistic workers to disclose their condition, nor are there any provisions that allow employers to ask. However, you can create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable to share vital information about themselves that will help everyone to make necessary accommodations to help them succeed. This ranges from the simple signs around the workplace talking about autism awareness to creating that atmosphere during the hiring and onboarding process.
- Get to know them as individuals - the old saying goes that once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. What this means in the workplace is that just because you’re aware that someone has an autism diagnosis, it doesn’t mean you can hop online and look up their symptoms. While there are some commonalities, you will need to take the time to get to know your autistic worker. This should definitely not just focus on how autism presents with them; you also need to find what makes them tick as an individual in the same way as you would with any employee.
- Listen to their needs - in the same vein, each autistic worker will have their own preferences and required accommodations in the workplace. Again, there are some steps you can take such as reducing the overall sensory stimulation of your office environment and providing autism awareness training to all staff, but it’s essential that you get information about their needs and wishes direct from the source. Not only will this help you get the best from them, but they’ll also feel loyalty to your organization as you’ve taken the time to truly listen and understand them.
- Aim for acceptance, not tolerance - an overarching challenge for all mental illnesses is that society is currently focused on tolerance - the idea that neurotypical individuals can exist in the same world as their neurodiverse colleagues but there’s always a distinction between the two groups. As an employer you have to shoot for acceptance; treating everyone with equity (giving each person what they need to succeed even if this isn’t equal) and making everyone realize that there’s room at the table for everyone.
These steps towards autism acceptance are hard to undertake by yourself, especially if you don’t have prior knowledge or experience of autism. Working with a local autism talent management agency will give you access to not only the best autistic workers out there but also allow you to tap into their expertise and training.