This year's International Women's Day (IWD) theme asks for a "commitment to choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world." [i] grit & flow joins the IWD 2021 call to action, today and every day, to "Choose to Challenge" organizations to become more inclusive and foster a sense of belonging in the workplace where everyone can thrive. We maintain a steady focus throughout the year on autistic womxn and the bias, challenges, and discrimination they sometimes feel in the workplace. We incorporate their stories, challenges, and struggles into all our projects, but we would not miss the chance to join in on today’s international focus on womxn to share what we have learned.
We chose to use the word womxn in our campaign title, as the campaign aims to be inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community. We wholeheartedly understand and respect that individuals may prefer an alternate term. We are open to opinions and suggestions as we want to learn when we can be more inclusive. We will interchange the use of the words "non-men," "woman," "women," and "womxn" in our published articles.
grit & flow understands that there are multiple ways to refer to individuals on the spectrum. We prefer to use identity-first language, as does the author of this paper, but that is not all we will use as we try to be inclusive. We will interchangeably use "autistic person," "person on the spectrum," and "person with autism." Also, our published works include using identity-first language for disabled individuals but understands that others may prefer "person with a disability," so we also interchange these terms.
It is the final week of grit & flow’s campaign focusing on Autistic Womxn in the workplace. This week's paper touches upon barriers, disclosure, reasonable accommodations, and tips to make the workplace more inclusive for autistic employees. Thank you to all who have embraced this month's work; we sincerely appreciate your kindness. A special thank you to those who reached out and engaged with grit & flow or me after reading and watching the interviews. Here we go, the last installment in this month's focus on Autistic Womxn.
It is true that most people curate their workplace identities to convey that they are dedicated employees who can reliably and effectively complete the job tasks assigned. As a result, the pieces of ourselves that we bring to work are restricted by written and unwritten rules of what is appropriate to share in the workplace and what is not. Therefore, many employees avoid disclosing a non-visible disability or sharing details of their lives that may be central to who they are as people or possibly help others understand them better. Because of these dynamics of bringing our true selves to work, the intention of sharing intimate details and research about the experiences of autistic womxn was done in a genuine effort to foster awareness and understanding in the workplace, not to create further assumptions and bias.
This month's choice to share writing that combined research on autism with personal details of my own experience was intimidating, scary, and I felt a high level of vulnerability after releasing the first paper. It was intimidating because I cannot speak for all autistics; I can only incorporate academic research findings with my experiences and those of the autistic folks I have chatted with. It was scary for me because this is the first time I have shared my writing and research publicly. I felt vulnerable as I shared intimate details of my personal life and my experience of being autistic as it could potentially open the door for others to discriminate or make assumptions. I did not feel this way for long; the messages from others and their appreciation of the content quickly eased my worries. The best thing about this month is, I learned that sharing my experiences publicly gave others the strength to be open about their autistic diagnosis, and for that, it was all worth it.
Barriers to Sustainable Employment:
Job Descriptions & Interviews
The initial barrier for autistic job seekers is how companies advertise vacancies and new positions. Job descriptions often include what the ideal candidate would bring to the organization and may not accurately portray the position's basic skills and abilities. For example, a job description lists the skill of "strong verbal communication" even though the job tasks do not require verbal communication for completion. Therefore, someone uncomfortable with social communication will likely not apply, even if they meet or exceed every other skill and education requirement listed. The organization misses out on a highly valuable applicant because the job description is not inclusive. When a job seeker reads a job description that highlights the organization's inclusive efforts, they know from the start that there is a culture of acceptance.
When it comes to the interview process, avoid panel interviews whenever possible and instead offer interviews in a sequential format. That is because, during a panel interview, there is a lot of sensory input. Autistic job seekers need to simultaneously interpret the body language, facial expressions, and communication styles of multiple people. We are taking in a river of sensory input while doing our best to identify and share relatable work skills and experiences. The result is that we may seem nervous, distracted, and unable to communicate effectively. grit & flow guides organizations in creating inclusive job descriptions and offers "Interview Best Practices" that provide an in-depth approach to interviewing, organized by the type of neurodivergence or disability. The interview guides include how to communicate best, setup the environment, and how to provide overall support to disabled job seekers in the interview process.
Autistics face barriers despite having many innate abilities, learned skills, and gathered knowledge. Approximately 85% of autistics are unemployed or underemployed and many of us would love to use our skills and knowledge in the workplace.[ii] In fact, research has reported that the educational credentials of autistic womxn should place them in a favorable position in the labor market. However, unemployment and underemployment remain significant issues.[iii]
Within society, not just within the autism community, research stated that womxn are pressured to be more social than men and that the presence of autism amplifies these social pressures.[iv] The truth is that social conventions are a real barrier in the workplace, particularly those related to communication or making eye contact. Autistic womxn also face discrimination for not appearing "feminine" in the textbook sense. We may be less congenial and more assertive, enjoy different fashion preferences, and may prefer traditional "male" interests such as computers, math, building, and science. Social conventions like the ones mentioned are unwritten and unfairly put in front of us to the extent that they impact our job-seeking experience and the sustainability of our employment.
Accommodations and Disclosure
Another significant barrier to entering the workforce is the need to disclose to receive accommodations. Career coaches and job developers often tell autistic and other disabled individuals that disclosing is not always a good idea. Let's think about why professionals would advise us this way. If the views of autism and disability were positive, why would we need to hide or conceal? We would not. Employers have negative attitudes about disability, which can cause them to make faulty assumptions about an applicant's skills and abilities.[v] Furthermore, some employers do not believe disabled workers can uphold successful leadership positions, which thwarts career advancement and representation in top leadership positions. Employers' stigma and negative attitudes are considerable barriers for autistic and other disabled people to overcome in the workforce.[vi]
As you may have experienced in your own life, people can be nervous when engaging with things and people they do not fully understand. To that point, some employers think high costs are associated with providing accommodations when the truth is, 56% of them cost nothing, and the rest cost an average of $500. This statistic has stayed consistent for many years.[vii] Other employers are concerned that hiring autistics will increase the potential for legal complications and revenue loss.[viii] This makes many autistics concerned that disclosing would result in isolation from coworkers, decreased expectations and job responsibility, being treated with less respect, overlooked when it comes to advancement, and worst of all, termination.[ix] Therefore, these biases cause many to conceal their autism and, in doing so, go without the support they may need in the workplace to sustain employment.
Research has shown that there are significant benefits to an individual's wellbeing in the act of disclosure and many positive outcomes for the employee and the organization. For example, after disclosing, stress was reduced, and tensions among coworkers decreased while job effectiveness increased.[x] Organizations that welcome disclosure and successfully apply reasonable accommodations enjoyed increased morale and retention because employees are more satisfied and passionate about working for a company that is genuinely focused on inclusion.[xi]
Autism in the Workplace
Almost all employers have hired or trained a neurodivergent individual, even if they did not realize it, as many of us conceal our diagnoses. It is also true that when leadership adjusts the workplace to support neurodivergent workers, the changes benefit all employees. Additionally, data shows that both autistics and non-autistics make requests at the same rate for certain types of adjustments to their jobs.[xii] The table below shows that, according to supervisors, the greatest percentage of each adjustment type was provided to both autistic and non-autistic workers, with the exception of a job coach.[xiii]
The autism community and others describe the autism spectrum as not linear but rather a circular color wheel of varying strengths and interests. Like all humans, autistics are unique individuals with varied skills, abilities, and life experiences. We are not either low-functioning or high-functioning, and the presence of these labels only construes the experience of being autistic. Labeling autistics as low functioning makes it easier for people to overlook their strengths and abilities. Labeling them as high functioning mischaracterizes their experiences and puts them at significant risk for having their needs go unsupported, neglected, or minimized.[xiv]
Autistics have a myriad of interests, skills, strengths, and abilities; no two autistics are alike. Some require no accommodations in the workplace, while others need the daily presence of a job coach for support. Some feel disconnected in social spaces, while many crave it and prefer jobs where they can regularly engage with others. For many, the hiring and onboarding process will be unique. Still, employment opportunities always exist when you focus on the individual's particular interests or strengths and seek a supportive workplace environment.
Inclusion is a journey; it is not a single street or highway traveled with a set destination; instead, it is often an "over the hill and through the woods" approach. True inclusion and sustainable employment for disabled individuals require more than just a hiring initiative. They require knowledge, acceptance, a person-centered and strength-based approach, as well as an understanding of the authentic lives and experiences of others.
I shared a lot of research this month, but I know there is always room for additional learning, growth, and understanding. I also understand that language and terminology are not static but constantly evolving. This month's information includes some of the first research reports published on the lives and experiences of autistic womxn. Future research will likely evolve our collective understanding and quite possibly refute previously held beliefs.
grit & flow's focus on Autistic Womxn has hopefully provided a deeper level of knowledge about the lives and experiences of some autistic womxn. I hope that family, friends, and coworkers gained insight from the research, strengthening their relationships with the autistic individuals in their lives. I also hope that HR professionals and business leaders integrate some of this knowledge into the development of successful inclusion initiatives. Contextualizing the experiences of autistics with interviews was done as a way to break down stereotypes and assumptions of what autism "looks like."
Thank you for reading. grit & flow will spotlight different topics on inclusion and supporting disabled and neurodivergent workers throughout the year. Next month we will be featuring Small Acts of Inclusion, which will feature quick tips and action steps that you can take now to expand your current inclusion efforts or get you started on the path.
[i] International Women’s Day. (2021). Retrieved from https://www.internationalwomensday.com/ [ii] Griffiths, A. J., Giannantonio, C. M., Hurley-Hanson, A. E., & Cardinal, D. N. (2016) Autism in the workplace: Assessing the transition needs of young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Business Management, 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved from: https://www.chapman.edu/business/_files/journals-and-essays/jbm-editions/jbm-vol-22-no-1-autism-in-the-workplace.pdf, p.6 [iii] Baldwin, S. & Costley, D. (2016). The experiences and needs of female adults with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(4)., 483-495. DOI: 10.1177/1362361315590805, p.2447 [iv] Milner, V., McIntosh, H., Colvert, E., & Happé, F. (2019). A qualitative exploration of the female experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 2389-2402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03906-4, p.2394 [v] von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., Bruyere, S. (2014). Perspectives on disability disclosure: The importance of employer practices and workplace climate. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 26, 237-255. DOI 10.1007/s10672-013-9227-9, p.238 [vi] Sundar, V., O'Neill, J., Houtenville, A. J., Phillips, K. G., Keirns, T., Smith, A., & Katz, E. E. (2018). Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 48, 93-109. DOI:10.3233/JVR-170918, p.95 [vii] Job Accommodation Network (JAN). (2020). Benefits and costs of accommodation. Retrieved from: https://askjan.org/topics/costs.cfm [viii] Ibid, Sundar et al., 2018, p. 95 [ix] Ibid, von Shrader et al., 2014, p.240 [x] Follmer, K. B., Sabat, I. E., Siuta, R. L. (2019). Disclosure of stigmatized identities at work: An interdisciplinary review and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 41, 169-184. DOI: 10.1002/job.2402, p.177 [xi] Lindsay, S., Cagliostro, E., & Carafa, G. (2018). A systematic review of workplace disclosure and accommodation requests among youth and young adults with disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 40(25), 2971-2986. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2017.1363824, p.2972 [xii] Krzeminska, A., Hartel, C. E. J., Carrero, J., & Samayoa Herrera, X. (2020). Autism @ work: New insights on effective autism employment practices from a world-first global study. Final Report. Brisbane. AutismCRC. Retrieved from: https://www.autismcrc.com.au/sites/default/files/reports/3-054RI_New-insights-on-effective-employment-practices_Final-Report_2021.pdf, p.28 [xiii] Ibid [xiv] Ibid, Baldwin & Costley, 2016, p.2441 [i] Ibid, Baldwin & Costley, 2016, p.2441 [i] Krzeminska, A., Hartel, C. E. J., Carrero, J., & Samayoa Herrera, X. (2020). Autism @ work: New insights on effective autism employment practices from a world-first global study. Final Report. Brisbane. AutismCRC. Retrieved from: https://www.autismcrc.com.au/sites/default/files/reports/3-054RI_New-insights-on-effective-employment-practices_Final-Report_2021.pdf, p.28 [ii] Ibid [i] von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., Bruyere, S. (2014). Perspectives on disability disclosure: The importance of employer practices and workplace climate. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 26, 237-255. DOI 10.1007/s10672-013-9227-9, p.238 [ii] Sundar, V., O'Neill, J., Houtenville, A. J., Phillips, K. G., Keirns, T., Smith, A., & Katz, E. E. (2018). Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 48, 93-109. DOI:10.3233/JVR-170918, p.95 [iii] Job Accommodation Network (JAN). (2020). Benefits and costs of accommodation. Retrieved from: https://askjan.org/topics/costs.cfm [iv] Ibid, Sundar et al., 2018, p. 95 [v] Ibid, von Shrader et al., 2014, p.240 [vi] Follmer, K. B., Sabat, I. E., Siuta, R. L. (2019). Disclosure of stigmatized identities at work: An interdisciplinary review and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 41, 169-184. DOI: 10.1002/job.2402, p.177 [vii] Lindsay, S., Cagliostro, E., & Carafa, G. (2018). A systematic review of workplace disclosure and accommodation requests among youth and young adults with disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 40(25), 2971-2986. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2017.1363824, p.2972 [i] Griffiths, A. J., Giannantonio, C. M., Hurley-Hanson, A. E., & Cardinal, D. N. (2016) Autism in the workplace: Assessing the transition needs of young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Business Management, 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved from: https://www.chapman.edu/business/_files/journals-and-essays/jbm-editions/jbm-vol-22-no-1-autism-in-the-workplace.pdf, p.6 [ii] Baldwin, S. & Costley, D. (2016). The experiences and needs of female adults with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(4)., 483-495. DOI: 10.1177/1362361315590805, p.2447 [iii] Milner, V., McIntosh, H., Colvert, E., & Happé, F. (2019). A qualitative exploration of the female experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 2389-2402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03906-4, p.2394