Celebrating Neurodiversity in the Workplace

One of the most common questions I receive from employers is how to successfully interview and hire candidates with autism. More and more, employers are understanding the need to be inclusive of the talents of people who are neurodiverse. The stumbling block is that, when employers use traditional interview techniques to identify candidates that best fit their jobs, neurodiverse candidates are often left out and passed over for candidates who may not be better for the job, but historically ‘interview better’ during the applicant screening process.

First it is important to understand that neurodiversity is inclusive of a variety of disabilities, of which autism spectrum disabilities are only a part. Additional disabilities included in neurodiversity are dyslexia, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, dysnomia, and more. Neurodiversity itself represents a sub-culture of the disability movement that promotes focus on quality of life and celebrates differences in how people think, learn, and speak and dismisses the traditional cure-focused, medical model philosophy. 

For members of the disability community, quality of life is an important part of the current civil rights movement. It is something that has long been overlooked and side-lined, in search of a cure. As a woman living with epilepsy, I believe that research in understanding this condition is important, but so are my rights as a human. When I apply for a job, I want people to look at my accomplishments with a focus on my qualifications and strengths as an employee rather than look at my accomplishments as a miracle for someone with my ‘condition’ to accomplish. When I talk to people, I want to talk about how I think the Pirates will do this season or the latest novel I read for my mystery book club, not about how they worry for me and my health because I have epilepsy. When people think about me, I want them to talk about me as a person – my character, my beliefs, and my actions – not think of me with pity because I am one of the one in five Americans living with a disability. The idea that quality of life and the celebration of the differences that create the tapestry of humanity is not unique to neurodiversity, it is also celebrated in many areas of the disability community. Most recognized is the Deaf community who has long moved away from the focus on being ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’ and focuses on celebrating the cultural roots of Deafness. Indeed, quality of life and civil rights, is not even unique to the disability community but is also a focus of many minority groups.

Understanding that differences should be celebrated and that we all have our own role to play in our community and our workplace is the first step in truly being inclusive of individuals who identify as being neurodiverse.

The next step is moving from thought to action. It is not enough to say you are open to hiring neurodiverse candidates, you must hire neurodiverse candidates. To be successful in this area, you must think beyond traditional interview techniques and provide innovative solutions and apply appropriate accommodations throughout the interview process. Here are some common tips I give to employers when they are interviewing candidates with autism.

Evaluate and identify essential tasks. Prior to posting a job and beginning the interview process, know what is really needed in the role you are filling. I have filled many jobs in the past, from those that require candidates to be on the front lines with customers to those that have little to no customer interaction and from those that require a person who is able to multi-task and hop from one task to another constantly throughout the day to those that require a person who will perform the same function repetitively and need to be able to focus on the quality of that repetitive task without easily being distracted. The type of person who needs to interact with others to be happy and productive in their position is not the right person for the job in a role with little interaction with others and the person who prefers to stay in the background and keep processes moving is not the right person for a job that requires constant monitoring of customer satisfaction and troubleshooting problems for customers. Part of the reason I have been successful over my career in executive search and disability employment is my ability to understand the right type of candidate for the position I’m filling. Defining the position, prior to beginning interviews, helps to eliminate a focus on hiring the same type of personality for all job roles. This also opens the door to candidates who are neurodiverse.

Don’t make assumptions based on disability. When screening candidates with neurodiverse disabilities, it is important to remember that not all disabilities are the same, not all people with the same disability share the same personality, and not all people with the same disability share the same skills. Think beyond the stereotype and stigma to see the individual person who is applying for a job with your organization. Not all people with autism are mathematical geniuses and not all people with autism fall in the category of not being good with customers. I have hired people who have autism who have worked in customer service roles and have hired people who do not have autism who would not do well in these roles. I have hired people with autism who do very well in technical or mathematical roles, and those whose focus is more on roles that do not require them to work with numbers. The important thing is to remember that every person is unique and not to apply preconceived notions of what it means to have a disability. Get to know your applicant for their unique qualities, strengths and experiences. If an applicant discloses autism or another neurodiverse disability, ask them what accommodations they may need for an interview. Getting their input will help the candidate feel more at ease with the interview process and will allow your team to prepare accommodations ahead of the interview. This will also give the candidate the opportunity to best showcase their skills for the job.

Avoid abstract questions. In an interview many people with autism will provide very literal meanings to questions being asked and may struggle if questions are too abstract. As an interviewer, it is common to ask candidate’s questions that require candidates to think through what the interviewer is looking for in an answer. This provides insight into the thinking processes of the candidate. However, abstract questions do not allow a candidate with autism to best showcase their skills. I advise my customers to expect direct answers and literal interpretations of questions being asked. Reword questions to ensure clarity. Be prepared to potentially need to ask questions in different ways in order to ensure the applicant understands the intent of the question. If you want to understand how the candidate thinks, describe a specific scenario or provide a specific problem and ask them to walk you through the steps they would take to resolve it.

Be patient. Some people with autism may need to take a moment, prior to answering questions. Allowing them a few moments to collect their thoughts and prepare an appropriate answer will lead to a more productive interview. Be sure that you are not cutting them off by continuing to talk while they are preparing to answer. If you do not feel you are getting enough detail, ask for additional information and give them time to answer instead of growing impatient. Replace ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions with ones that are more open-ended to gain additional detail or context. Ensure your body language and demeanor remains friendly throughout the interview, rather than becoming tense or frustrated as this will likely have an impact on the overall success of the interview.

Be aware of common autism characteristics. While not all applicants with autism will display all of these attributes, it is important to understand them before interviewing. I have had many hiring managers make assumptions about applicants based on the following areas that do not apply in the same way when screening applicants with autism. Understanding these characteristics along with the essential needs of a position prior to interviewing makes it easier to evaluate applicants based on their ability to perform the role they are applying for and not focus on preconceived notions of what certain behaviors mean in an interview. Some of these include:

  • Speaking with a flat affect or with an unusual tone or manner vs. speaking with enthusiasm

For a person with autism, tone of voice does not necessarily also mean lack of enthusiasm. If you are unsure that the applicant is interested in the job, be direct. Ask them if this is something they would like to do.

  • Inconsistent eye contact vs. looking directly at the interviewer

For a person with autism, looking away does not equate a lack of interest, a feeling of distraction, or that the person is lacking in confidence. Many people with autism will look away while collecting their thoughts or processing information you have shared with them. Think carefully over whether or not direct eye contact is essential to the job before ruling someone out based on this behavior.

  • Difficulty engaging in small talk vs. friendly and engaging conversation

Apparent lack of interest in small talk can be a common trait for someone with autism. However, this does not mean the person is not friendly or interested. For positions where small talk is not essential or where being chatty would actually impact productivity negatively this is actually a positive trait. Some people with autism are very outgoing and may engage in small talk enthusiastically. For others, they may do better with small talk when you ask questions rather than expecting them to take the lead in the conversation. For example, if trying to get to know a person with autism, ask them what class they liked, what movies they watch, what sports they are interested in, etc.

Provide a written outline of screening steps, and if requested interview questions ahead of schedule. Ensure the applicant understands all the steps involved in the screening process so they are able to map to where they currently fall in consideration for the job. In my experience corporate screening processes are typically multi-faceted and could include multiple interviews, phone and in-person, as well as completing paperwork and in some cases tests. Providing this information will also allow the applicant to set expectations and to prepare or request accommodations for certain steps in the process such as timed tests or panel interviews. In some cases, providing an outline of interview questions prior to the interview can be a successful accommodation for a person with autism. This will allow the applicant to think through appropriate responses prior to the interview.

Use innovative assessment solutions. Some companies are employing innovative alternatives for neurodiverse applicants and specifically applicants with autism to avoid candidates being overlooked from a skills perspective based on their interviewing techniques. Some of these alternatives include setting aside specific positions in a variety of job roles for candidates that identify in this area, using a more hands-on approach to interviewing that allow a candidate to demonstrate abilities, and developing job role-based sample questions that specifically accommodate individuals who are neurodiverse that can be made available to hiring managers.

The good news for applicants with neurodiverse disabilities, including autism, is that employers are asking questions and looking to develop solutions for inclusion. Providing training, such as our iDisabilityTM product, and developing procedures for success in this area will lead to widening the lens of what a good applicant and successful interview looks like. I am excited to be a part of the conversation in this area and applaud those employers who are taking steps to include and celebrate neurodiversity in the workplace. As employers increase hiring in this area, I know they will see the benefits and advantages of hiring neurodiverse employees and this will bring about more change and positive steps in the future.

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