Had the absolute pleasure to hear a fantastic talk yesterday about neurodiversity in the workplace by Sara Jane Harvey from the UK, an active advocate for both the Autistic & Differently Abled Community. Really opened my mind to the experiences of people living on the spectrum and got me thinking about how employers can help increase inclusion in the workplace through simple steps. I never realised how patterns on wallpapers and carpets appear to “move and swirl” for certain people and how lighting, specifically fluorescent lighting can have a very negative effect for a massive amount of autistic people who experience severe sensitivity to light.
Sara has a massive following as the Agony Autie on line and delivers content, interviews, podcasts and papers on Autistic identity, advocacy, health, wellbeing, culture & pride. Well worth a follow. I particularly liked the suggestion to have a quiet space or room in the workplace where anyone struggling can have time out to relax or retreat when feeling overstimulated, a great place to safely calm down.
Interesting to hear Sara say that there was possibly 10% of us in the room who have a neurodiversity but we are not even aware of it, we’re just coping and getting on with it as best we can in our jobs. For a lot of people though they just can’t get through the interview processes, the normal recruitment funnels that we’re all squeezed through.
Why? Well they might not be able to make eye contact and this will come across negatively to the interviewer and they will probably have a problem sitting still, they may rock, pace, flap their hands, flick their fingers all of which may distract the interviewer who has no understanding of what’s going on. The reality is that the candidate may be extremely “able” for the job they are being interviewed for, but at that moment in time they are just being judged on how they are reacting in a very stressful situation, in a room that probably has fluorescent lighting and distracting objects. It may actually be better to take the candidate out into the garden if it was a nice day and just sit on a bench and have a chat about their abilities rather than reviewing them in “normal” interview environments.
The reality is that autistic employees once they get through the door can bring valuable skills to the workplace. AsIam.ie an organisation that represents the Autism Community in Ireland list meticulous attention to detail, excellent memories and ability to excel at task-driven work as traits that a lot of autistic people have and that employers would love to have. However, getting by the interview process remains a massive challenge for many people on the spectrum. They report that up to 80% of autistic adults are either unemployed or underemployed.
How can employers help? Well simple changes like eliminating any unpredictability to remove anxiety will help both autistic candidates and all candidates, so providing information about the location, clear instructions about the process, images of what the room will be like as well as details about who will be in attendance at the interview is a great place to start. Better still if you have some graphics or videos included on your website it will help to give the candidates a better sense of what to expect and how to prepare.
I think it’s great that Autistic individuals are known for giving direct and honest answers, what a brilliant trait! But it’s important that interviewers realise this and that they are not going to get the usual text book prepared answers in all cases, some candidate will be just trying to answer the questions as honest and best they can under pressure. They may also struggle to understand questions if the interviewer uses vague terms, generalisations and sarcasm. Questions should be asked using plain language, in a calm and clear tone and should include as much details as possible. Jokes or slang should be avoided.
Interviewers should also be aware that some people can be hypersensitive to touch, so they may not always get that strong handshake that traditionally we’re told is important. Unless handshakes are a requirement of the job we shouldn’t take this too seriously. We certainly shouldn’t judge a person on a strong or weak handshake, but more on their skills and ability to do the tasks involved in the job they are being interviewed for. In extreme cases a candidate may not accept your handshake at all, so be open minded and ready to respond in a calm way that it’s ok. The most important thing is that the candidate is treated with respect and in a manner that will enable them to relax, be themselves and perform to their true capabilities.
I think all of the above changes will help everyone.