I employed a genius with autism, but it did not go very well…
23rd July 2021
Well, the above is not exactly true. Elizabeth Aspiedent’s founder is autistic, and she is a genius.
But while we manage a small autism training & consultancy company, Aspiedent CIC, and we have employed autistic people, not all have been super intelligent.
I am wary of the benefit of mantras such as ‘all people with autism are intelligent, good at systematisation, and would rather work hard than socialise’. That ‘businesses are simply missing out on untapped talent, wasted skills’, and so on…
Hands up, I am guilty of reciting variations of the above statements. But it is not as straightforward as this, even though it might feel good to say it.
Why do I need to say this? Well, although it is certainly worth employing people with neurodiverse conditions, there can often be a difficult side to it. Representing it as all purely positive & rewarding is setting up false expectations for employers.
Perhaps worse, it is also making it more difficult for autistic adults (and there are many) that don’t come armed with special superpowers and, for example, an ability to sit and work solidly for hours on end, solving complex problems.
We do however come across a lot who are averagely intelligent, kind, loyal, hard-working, determined, and caring individuals but who have social communication and other difficulties which have held them back and who require understanding and patience from employers. Not all autistic people have these skills either (as don’t all people in general).
I think for employers to benefit from a neurodiverse workforce, we need to be more realistic about what they can expect from employees with neurodiversity. Indeed, many caring employers already are, as they have experienced problems in the workplace due to different ways of thinking, and call upon Aspiedent to help them solve these issues in the workplace.
Take our Founder, Dr. Elizabeth Guest. Under the right conditions and with the right type of personalities around her, she thrives. She will easily solve many resource-draining problems that you cannot solve in your organisation. Indeed, even ones you think are impossible to solve.
Given the opportunity, she can explain some of the most challenging workplace issues. For example, where and why productivity is being lost. She will then proceed to provide solutions so cheap and simple that you will not believe that they will work!
But along the way, she might inadvertently intimidate your other team members due to her extensive understanding of their subject. Or, her hypersensitivity to noise may cause tensions in the office due to disagreements about what is and is not an acceptable level of noise. Indeed, her extreme desire for truth at the expense of people’s feelings could cause some very tricky to navigate HR issues. This is just one case example.
Is employing people with neurodiversity good for business?
We often see in the media that employing people with autism and neurodiversity is good for business. I would agree and say that in certain cases, yes.
On the other hand, employers may fear that it would create more problems within a team. In certain circumstances, it might, at least initially. But this can be true for any new employee trying to fit into an established team! Raising awareness about different ways of thinking in the workplace (autism-related or not), and then knowing what to do about them, may very well improve workplace harmony and productivity.
Embracing differences at work
Consider our training & consultancy organisation, Aspiedent. People often say that they see Dr. Elizabeth Guest and me as a double act and that our strengths and weakness dovetail nicely. I am inclined to agree.
Elizabeth is fundamentally logical and has particular ways of thinking that are rare in most people. Although this is highly valuable, it causes her social communication difficulties. Social communication difficulties which are at the core of the diagnostic criteria for autism. She needs support in this area.
We both acknowledge this, which means we have to be mindful when Elizabeth is dealing with customer-facing aspects of her job or trying to engage with social media.
On the other hand, I have high emotional intelligence which means I am especially good with our customers. However, I have poor problem-solving skills, cannot comprehend numbers and I have OCD, which means that it can take me a while to grasp something important or to learn a new skill. For this, I need significant input and patience from Elizabeth.
So while we are embracing our differences and even benefitting from them, we have to stay realistic and accept that having neurodiversity within an organisation is not always a smooth ride. But that is fine! When is it ever a smooth ride when it comes down to people?
It is vital employers properly understand what they are letting themselves in for when embracing neurodiversity in the workplace. It is not just a fashionable trend or a quick win. Nor should it be a bandwagon to jump on or simply a kitemark with no real substance behind it.
For example, did you know that not all neurodiverse people accept that they are just different, not disabled, or simply disabled by society?
Were you aware that many people with autism do not have special skills or abilities and are quite average in their skill set? Probably. But an unbelievable amount of people continuously claim ‘superpowers’ and ‘genius’ to promote autistic people to employers.
We want to cut through the noise and the soundbites and actually help employers feel 100% confident in managing staff with autism or Asperger’s. We want to help employers to keep it real and save them from getting lost in the false narratives promoted about autism, which although may sound good and make people feel good, do not help employers to truly make the most out of their autistic (and non-autistic) people.
These things are vital to know when claiming to be a truly inclusive and diverse organisation.
It is something that requires commitment and effort but in the end, if done correctly, it will pay off dividends.
Neurodiversity is different from other forms of diversity, because there are infinite amounts of diversity within neurodiversity!
In Aspiedent’s example, fundamental differences (both strengths and weaknesses) if treated properly, actually combine to make us a powerful team and a force to be reckoned with. We also appreciate each other’s strengths and accept each other’s weaknesses, as we understand why each other has them. I’m sure we drive each other up the wall at times. But knowing why helps us be more tolerant and kinder.
If we did not understand our underlying differences, we probably would not work together so well, and could potentially be averse to working with each other. I’m sure this is happening in other organisations where two different thinkers literally can’t see eye to eye (see things from each other’s perspective).
The key thing is that we have learned that these strengths and weaknesses exist, and the underlying cause of them. Instead of ignoring them, we acknowledge them, and we work with them (not against them). This creates a successful and truly diverse working environment.
Essentially, we teach others how to do this.