Different – Not Disordered
At Simplify Workforce, we strive to translate the priorities and pain points of autistic people into actionable technology solutions for businesses. Our approach to neurodiversity solutions aims to integrate the lived experience of autistic persons and the focus of businesses on a neuroinclusive world of work.
But often the first order of business is to dismantle the myths and misperceptions that create barriers for autistic people in the workplace. This piece will discuss how autism is often misconceived and offer a better framework for understanding your autistic colleagues as “different – not disordered.”
What Autism Isn’t
Too often, autism is referred to as a disorder, deficit, and threat to children. It’s not. Such framing often prompts voices from outside the autism community to spread narratives that do not align with the identities and priorities of actually autistic people. Conversations and research seeking so-called “treatments and cures” for autism are misguided and often offensive as they suggest that the world would be better off without autistics. It wouldn’t.
The Autism Industrial Complex
Framing autism as a disorder and a threat to children has led some stakeholders astray. An autism industrial complex has emerged where most of the money does not help autistic people live more fulfilling lives. Research funding is squandered seeking “treatments and cures” that autistics never asked for and, in fact, often find harmful. For example, autistic self-advocates like Jude Morrow compare mainstream ABA therapy to “dog whistle training” which traumatizes autistic children.
Well-intentioned stakeholders cannot help address the pain points and priorities of actual autistics while subscribing to this framework.
Autism is not a problem to be solved. Autistics are capable and proven contributors to our workforce and society, just as they are. In the words of autistic author Eric Garcia, “We’re not broken.”
What Autism Is
The Neurodiversity Movement offers a better framework for understanding autistic people than the traditional medical model of disability. Through this lens, autism is viewed as a natural variation of the brain and nervous system that has always existed within our species.
For example, many autistic self-advocates have drawn parallels between neurodiversity and biodiversity. Just as a species’ anatomy might enable it to excel in one environment and require support in another, neurodistinct minds and nervous systems thrive under the right conditions and need accommodation in others.
Autistics’ distinct operating system has equipped them with many strengths that employers covet. For example, many autistics demonstrate:
Honest and straightforward communication
Strong attention to detail
Intense interests allowing for hyperfocus
Strong sense of justice and rule-bound systems
In addition, many autistics have support needs in traditional work environments with tasks that require:
Adapting to sudden change
Discerning nonverbal communication and social cues
Processing sensory information
Regulating and communicating emotions
This list of autistic strengths and support needs is not intended to be comprehensive, as our understanding is evolving rapidly and each autistic person is unique. Employers can consider this list a starting point for reframing their understanding of autistic talent, helping them see beyond the myths about autistic people and consider a new perspective on neurodiversity at work. But to actually design more neuroinclusive work environments and processes at your business, it is imperative to take a person-centric approach and get to know the strengths and support needs of each neurodistinct individual in your workforce.
Given that gainful employment is a cornerstone of adult well-being, businesses play a critical role in helping autistic people live more satisfying lives. While self-advocates’ efforts in the Neurodiversity and Autism @ Work movements have begun to bear fruit, more work is needed to create a neuroinclusive employment ecosystem.
If you’re new to neuroinclusion and the Autism @ Work movement, here are some suggestions:
Unlearn the myths and misperceptions you’ve been taught about autism.
Get your information directly from actual autistic people.
Support autistic-led, neurodiversity-affirming organizations rather than those seeking treatments and cures.
Honestly assess how inclusive your workplace environment and processes are for autistic talent.
Buy books written by autistic authors like We’re Not Broken
Read the Autism @ Work Playbook