Resources for Autistic Employees and their Employers: The Autistic Community
29th July 2020
People who identify with their diagnosis of autism, are sometimes referred to as the ‘autistic community’.
This community can be a source of help for employers and employees with autism.
While we would argue that the autistic community is not representative of all autistic people, (but only those with certain ‘types’ of autism), there is a vocal activist component of said autistic community, who campaign for workplaces to be autism friendly.
This is good right? Actually, it depends.
Although many autistic autism advocates do have some understanding of autism, it is rarer for them to understand the needs of those who are not autistic. That’s a big mistake!
In fact, misunderstandings on behalf of the autistic and non-autistic populations works both ways. It is right to be careful when taking advice from anywhere, including when seeking advice from the autistic community about how to manage autism in the workplace.
Pitfall 1: The Autistic Autism Speaker
It can be very valuable to have an autistic person put themselves out there and talk to people about their own experiences about being autistic, as it can reduce fear about the condition and raise awareness. But there is a tendency for some autistic people to teach people only about their own autism. Unfortunately, this may be completely the opposite to another person’s autistic issues and experience of being autistic!
There are also many people who would argue that simply being autistic is a qualification to teach other people about the whole spectrum of autism. (It is not in case you were wondering!)
It has been known for autistic people to stand up in the workplace and talk about their experience of being autistic (often for free) and have this be called ‘autism training’.
This is worrying because it can devalue all autism training and can actually be quite exploitative of the autistic person. It then also means that autism training is often expected for a very low fee or even for free (my pet hate).
In fact, to get really good quality autism training (that will actually improve the workplace so that it makes more profit and becomes more productive - the primary objective of business) you do have to invest a reasonable amount of money in autism training!
It is also incorrect to assume that because a person is autistic themselves, then they have a complete understanding of the depth and breadth of autism and can come into the workplace, talk about their experiences, and suddenly everybody is trained in understanding autism!
I reiterate, there is a place for autistic people to deliver their life stories, and it is recognised that audiences respond well to this tugging on the emotional heart strings. But this can easily get confused with proper, scientific and research-led training about autism. I am pleased to tell you that is what Aspiedent prides itself on.
The advice here is to try to be aware that there is a big difference between somebody telling a group about their own experience of autism, and somebody (autistic or not) training a group to understand autism as a whole.
Pitfall 2: Mutual Misunderstanding
Sometimes, there is little understanding by the autistic community of the needs of the non-autistic people.
There are a lot of complaints (and sometimes quite rightly) from the autistic community that standard working environments and practices do not accommodate autistic people.
For example, work Christmas parties can be a nightmare for somebody with autism who because of sensory issues, cannot cope with busy noisy environments for very long.
Or, when the need to understand complex office politics at work is too much to ask from somebody who has social difficulties because of their autism.
But autistic autism activists often campaign for environments that will make many (but certainly not all) autistic people comfortable, but which will actually make working life for many non-autistic people (the larger segment of the population) extremely uncomfortable!
Aspiedent undertake workplace assessments to help managers and autistic employees to understand each other better thus work together positively and productively. We have done a workplace assessment for someone who wanted to ban people in their workplace from meeting socially and face to face in order to create a ‘level playing field’ for themselves as an autistic employee.
You can probably understand why this was not realistic. But then again, perhaps COVID 19 has now delivered on this.
The point I am making here is that just as non-autistic people are expected under the equalities act to make adjustments for autistic employees, those with autism need to accommodate non autistic people.
If this is not considered, then actually real, meaningful equality for autistic people in the workplace is unlikely be achieved.
Related to this, is a misunderstanding on behalf of the autistic community of what are ‘reasonable’ adjustments for an employer to make.
Pitfall 3: Unreasonable Reasonable Adjustments
The social model of disability is often strongly pushed by autistic activists and autism training companies. Looking through the lens of the social model, workplaces are seen as the problem and it would be argued that an autistic person is not disabled by their autism, but disabled by the workplace environment because it does not cater for their needs. In other words, the workplace should change to remove all barriers for them (irrespective of what barriers that raises for other people).
We know when we do a Workplace Assessment with someone who has been strongly influenced by autistic activism or the ‘neurodiversity movement’, because they turn up with a long list of ‘reasonable adjustments’ they would like, many of which are just not reasonable.
This is in opposition to the medical model of disability which sees autism as a problem to be ‘fixed’. In this model the onus is on the autistic person to adapt to the workplace and muddle through somehow.
Clearly, neither approach is ideal.
Aspiedent’s approach is a combination of both models (the social model to us is completely unrealistic). In fact, when we do workplace assessments for neurodiverse individuals, as well as recommending reasonable adjustments for the employer, we often recommend the employee makes some, too!
This is always well received by both the employer and the employee. Aspiedent is run by somebody with autism, so it is not easy for an autistic employee to claim that we do not know how difficult things can be for them. We do.
What is important is that we help the employee and manager to meet in the middle when it comes to workplace reasonable adjustments, which is a realistic way forward.
If you would like to know more about helping yourself, your manager, or your employee with autism or neurodiversity related issues, please use our get in touch via our contact us form or email Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org.