Neurodiverse Talent: Autism in the Workplace
Jenna Christianson-Barker and Heather Linka of the Pacific Autism Family Network (PAFN) discuss how employers can utilize a talent pool of candidates who are neurodiverse and some tips on how to best work with these individuals.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) So just a little bit about our organization and why we’re invested in the employment community. So we’re a new group. This is our hub location here in Richmond. We’re a hub and spoke model dedicated to building capacity in how families access autism services and then addressing gaps in those services.
So, when we were doing our initial consultation, employment was something that came out as a huge need in the autism community. So, we invested quite a bit of resources and staff into that.
(Heather Linka) And also supporting employers with inclusive hiring efforts would be our program: Ready, Willing and Able, which is the program that I’m now supporting which links employers like yourselves to our community agencies where we find individuals that are good fits and we send them right to you.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) So this is Practical Tip One. Putting together a few practical tips, this was the first one we wanted to touch on because even putting these practical tips together was difficult because diversity is diverse. The autism community is extremely diverse. And it’s really hard to say these things work for this group because that’s not necessarily true.
There is of course some overlap and some generalizations that we can make, but as a preface, just know that the community is so diverse. So if you have one staff member that identifies as being on the autism spectrum, that’s not gonna look the same for the next staff member.
And just to kinda give you a wide range of opportunities through the work we’ve done, we’ve supported people with multiple master’s degrees into very well-paying positions. And we’ve also supported some guys into jobs that need some more support, on the job support. So, just a really wide range of types of support that are needed and types of opportunities in your workplace that could fit.
We hear a lot about tech and autism, which is wonderful, but our guys aren’t all good at tech so keep that in mind too.
(Heather Linka) An interesting example about this is through our work with SAP actually. They had a really great program to onboard individuals with ASD into their Autism at Work program.
And so, as we were doing the onboarding there, it was this really slowed down onboarding process where they were working on their own projects outside of their teams, and so yes, this is created for people on the spectrum. But then once we were in it there was one individual there, where no, this whole slowed down process is actually giving him extreme anxiety, and this is not working.
So even though it’s created for individuals with autism, diversity is diverse and it’s not going to work for everyone.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) So the interview process. When you think about what an interview is, you’re coming into a place where you’re making a quick judgement about someone’s ability to socialize with you. Do they make good eye contact? Do they shake your hand appropriately? Do they be enthusiastic about the job?
For some guys in our community, that sounds like the worst thing ever and is all of their challenges put into a box. So, the interview process can be pretty scary. We talked about that earlier as well. So just working to create that casual environment and being flexible in that. Heather, you had a good example about our own interviewing process.
(Heather Linka) Yeah, so for the Go Group that I was mentioning earlier, we were doing all of our interviews in our cafe space where they would eventually be working. And so, I had my interviews all set up for the day. And we would be sitting in one of the booths there. But then, I think it was one or maybe even two individuals that were coming for interviews, just sitting in a booth that’s enclosed is extremely limiting in their space and that gave them anxiety.
So then of course I had to adapt my interview for them. It was an easy accommodation to make, just moving to a different table where it wasn’t in a booth environment. I just wanted to drive home the fact that we need to be adaptable and accommodating and flexible on the fly as well.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, it’s gonna make them even more uncomfortable talking about it. So be prepared for that, and if they have self disclosed, have some prepared questions that you’re gonna ask about what that means, what that looks like, what type of support you would like.
Some things around language as well. Language in our community can be a bit complex and sensitive, so practice. What we do is I ask individuals, “how do you like to be identified?” And making sure that we’re sensitive to that as well.
Again, because everybody has different opinions about that and you need to respect that.
(Heather Linka) And one more thing too, about the interview, how we’re saying about multiple avenues to showcase talent. For a lot of individuals that we see, it’s really hard for them to speak about their own personal talents especially, in an interview when the questions might be quite vague.
So, another great way that a lot of employers are giving them this opportunity would be like a walkthrough of the space where they actually would be working, and because then it’s actually really real, it’s not just a vague idea, imagining yourself to do this. “How well will you do it?” “Well, let’s actually walk around and let’s talk about it and see, would this be challenging for you?” “Would you enjoy this?” Is a great way to also assess their talent.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) And then, when you’re finishing the interview up, providing clear expectations and what’s coming next that can alleviate some anxiety and miscommunication around how long it’s gonna take for you to get back to the person, if they’re supposed to provide reference. Just be really clear and specific about what’s coming next.
And right into direct communication. That’s the next piece of what we wanted to talk about as a Practical Tip. This is something that, as a manager, I had to learn how to be better at. We do have an inclusive staff, and I thought I was being direct and not micromanaging. And so I had to navigate how to not micromanage but still be more direct. So just thinking about using plain language, be very specific about expectations.
That thing we talked about earlier with the employment framework is great for this as well, having something specific to look back on. Seek confirmation of understanding and don’t rely on those unwritten rules about body language or kind of what’s expected in the workplace. If you’ve ever seen that movie The Circle, it’s expected that you spend x amount of hours hanging out with friends outside of the office. Well, our community might not know that if you don’t tell them. And that’s a weird rule so don’t do that.
(Heather Linka) I guess as we saw earlier with the mental health examples, how there is a stigma about talking about mental health and there’s sort of a taboo or just really an uncomfortability, like we have a fear of the unknown. That’s just something that, it’s running away from tigers someone was saying earlier. So this is the same too and it’s gonna be uncomfortable until you start practicing it and until you start saying it.
I think a lot of individuals, especially on the spectrum, can appreciate just the support and addressing it right up front when you’re talking about accommodations or their needs.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) And then when challenges do arise, one, don’t panic. Two, try to address those things quickly. Don’t let them fester, don’t assume that they’re gonna kind of fix themselves as they go. I know that that’s something, again, as a manager that tries to be a little bit more hands-off I had to learn that you can’t just let it work itself out. Sometimes you do need to intervene as quick as possible and make sure that the person has the supports they need to overcome whatever that challenge is.
Engage in your support system. So, the first step of that would be to have your support systems in place. Know who those people are. It might not just be one person. It might be multiple people for different things. So know what all of that looks like. And then have those available for your staff as well, so they know who to go to if something comes up.
Be open to creative solutions. Along the lines of accommodations, in a past workplace, we supported an individual who was having a really hard time with the lighting in his workspace. So, this particular employer had really expensive lighting so it was actually gonna be a pretty difficult thing to go out and change all the lighting. Well, instead they went to Ikea and bought a little umbrella thing that goes over his desk. So a creative solution, it was like a $20 accommodation, not a big deal, so just think creatively about how you address things.
(Heather Linka) And another example that I have seen or something that I use is having routine check-ins. In my previous role I was sort of the job coach, but this could come from a manager’s standpoint as well. If we have routine check-ins, we can identify small problems or just even uncomfortabilities along the way rather than waiting for them to eventually tell you when something is quite a bigger problem.
So I think that’s really important to remember. And with the responsibilities and expectations, we also want to have the same expectations for our neurodiverse talent as any other. If we are providing so many accommodations or not treating them like another employee, really we’re not helping them become independent. And it will be doing them a disservice in the end.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) It’s a hard balance to find the right amount of supports and not over support, and being sensitive to a person’s needs rather than over accommodating as well.
So along the lines of partners. There are so many great partners here in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland that you can have access to. So know your organization and what your needs are and then find partners that fit within that. And make a relationship with them. Take the time to get to know their services and what they have to offer, what the limitations of that may be and how you draw in other partners to help with those pieces of things.
For instance, our organization doesn’t provide mental health supports beyond some basic counseling. So, if we need someone to provide more serious mental health supports we’ll pull in another partner. And it’s good for the organization that we’re working with to understand that and have the right supports in place.
Employ an internal champion, we’ve had the privilege of working with several big companies and sometimes that gets a bit chaotic because we’re talking to 20 different people. That’s really great if on your end, you have kind of one or two people that really champion your inclusive hiring initiative, which is probably all of you guys. They get to work with us on our end.
And just be clear about what type of support fits within your organization. Of course, sometimes there’s a need for on-the-job supports but if, for security reasons, I don’t know, at the airport, I’m making this up so if it’s not true, airport people, sorry…
… but if you’re not allowed to go into a certain area, you let us know and know what your limitations are, and we’ll figure out how to work around that. And vice versa, just trying to figure out how we can best support the person. But understanding what your limitations are and how your organization can supplement the support services.
And realizing that a support organization isn’t gonna be there forever. We’re always certainly there if challenges arise but our job is not to be there every single day with that employee. So, it’s part of the relationship to help build capacity in each side of the employee and the employer.
(Heather Linka) Right, so within that, as things do sometimes get complicated with the manager, whoever’s doing the diversity inclusion, there’s the job coach, there’s the family members, the employees, so within that it’s important to define the rules of each so that everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. Everyone is there to support the individual and everyone wants to do their best. But I think that it’s best to define the rules because they can kind of get grey, those areas.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) Yeah, for sure, a thing that we had come up with Heather, so hopefully this is good that I share this is, an employer was contacting her directly regularly about some issues that came up with an employee rather than talking to the employee about it.
And the employee started feeling a bit defensive about that, like “why aren’t they talking to me?” “Where am I in all of this?” So knowing, kind of, what each of our relationships are is really important for all of the parties involved. Making sure that the employer understands it’s still your employee, if there’s a challenge talk to them directly. We’re here to support and making that all clear with everybody.
Provide mentorship within your organization. Employee resource groups were talked about earlier which is wonderful. I think there’s a need too, for that direct one-to-one mentorship. And part of that can be that it provides a structure for having a direct communication within the organization that’s kind of that friend, so it takes some of that barrier away from some people in our community that have a hard time building those relationships.
It gives a structure to that, and provides an opportunity to have some of those kind of intangible conversations. “Where is it okay to eat lunch?” “If I have to leave five minutes early, do I have to ask permission?” Or whatever the question is, it gives some of those informal structures to do that. And when there is a challenge or something coming up in the workplace, it can draw that out when it’s not in a formal environment. So, a peer mentor may be able to address challenges or notice challenges earlier on.
(Heather Linka) Right, so what one employer that we work with as part of their big framework,
They assign two different types of mentors to an individual coming onto their team who identifies with being on the autism spectrum. So they’ll have one that’s their mentor, which is their workplace mentor, the person they can go to for workplace type questions like about their team meetings or actual work that they’re doing on their team.
And then another one that’s called their buddy, and that’s one that would be more for the culture things, like how Jenna was referring to lunch breaks or maybe they’re having intern social outings, anything like that.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) And an added benefit of this, is that it costs no money, and it provides leadership and learning opportunities for atypical staff to be able to connect.
So questions, we have quite a bit of time set aside for you guys to ask us any questions.
(Audience member) Okay, I have one. So we’ve kinda had the chicken or the egg conversation, targeted recruitment, and so do you have any thoughts on is it better to have a job already defined and then to come and access your services? Or is it better to touch base and get a sense of the possible candidates and to tailor a job to someone and their strengths and interests?
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) I think it can go both ways. We’ve done some things with employers in the past where we’ll come in and look at their workplace and talk about positions that could be a good fit with our candidate pool, so we know what our candidate pool looks like and the people that we’re getting ready for employment.
And then we can kind of say, “Within our candidate pool, this makes sense.” So a bit of both, combining those two opportunities of having a defined position and also looking to the individual. Obviously I think the other side of looking to the individual is always gonna have the better outcome, because you’re starting with their abilities rather than taking a job and figuring out what doesn’t fit. But both are good, both are inclusive hiring.
(Heather Linka) Yeah, it’ll depend on them, like you guys, the employers and what you have the capacity or what you feel most comfortable with. And we can make either one work.
(Audience member) I wanted to ask if I could, could you just state some of the opportunities for being able to connect people, to connect employers, to focus on the autism spectrum?
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) Sure, through Heather’s work and through the Ready, Willing and Able project, they’ve supported 247 people here in BC to employment. And that looks like everything that employment looks like. So, in the north we’ve been really successful working with wineries, so positions that are seasonal. What’s great about those positions is that they are fairly flexible in terms of time.
SAP that was here earlier, Stephanie, we’ve been working with them to support their Autism at Work project. So again, a much different opportunity that’s quite a robust process in terms of what the onboarding process looks like for them. They do have a specific inclusive hiring process, so they do a cohort model, where they hire a group of individuals on the spectrum and go through a longer onboarding process.
(Heather Linka) They do a totally different interview process as well. Actually, it’s not really an interview at all. But they bring in individuals and they work on an activity and then we can observe how they work through this activity. “Oh, do they ask questions?” “Are they resourceful?” “Do they offer help to others?” “Are they analytical?” So they use different methods.
And then we would take them aside, once we feel they’re comfortable, and then we can ask them about what kind of background do they have, what are they interested in? So it’s all very slowed down so it is a bit more time intensive. But they’ve seen a lot of success with that program.
(Jenna Christianson-Barker) Yeah, SAP’s a great partner. One, because they’re intentional about their inclusive hiring and the other’s because they’re a big employer so they can do some innovative things and take time with that.
Thank you so much for having us and letting us chat. I put it out there that we’re here as a resource. We’re proud partners of the BCWIN project and other initiatives going on, so it’s never from our end a competitive thing about who does what.
So we’re happy to partner with whoever you’re working with them to help provide whatever information you may need.