October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It’s a time to shine light on both the necessity and the benefits of hiring and including people with disabilities in the workforce. One’s ability to do a job, earn a good living and effectively contribute to the betterment of society give great meaning to a person’s life. As a result, the employee experiences feelings of higher self-esteem and increased self-worth when they fulfill their purpose. These are critical success factors that are often lacking in people with disabilities for a variety of reasons.
Autism has a higher unemployment rate than any other class of disability. With over 90 percent of individuals with autism having no job at all (unemployed) or not working enough hours or making enough money to make ends meet (underemployed), it’s both shocking and disturbing that this is the reality for so many individuals with such remarkable potential. Autism primarily affects one’s ability to socialize and communicate information to others whether it is a co-worker, a manager, a customer or someone else. These skills are often necessary to both obtaining and maintaining employment. Furthermore, a potential employer may see more cost than benefit in hiring someone with autism or the person with autism does not fully understand his/her own skillset. While companies such as Boston Scientific, Microsoft, Walgreens and SAP are leading the way in maximizing the potential and the productivity of people with autism, there’s still a LOT of work to do (pun intended).
The TV shows Atypical and The Good Doctor both feature young men with autism working in their respective jobs. In Atypical, the main character, Sam, works part-time at an electronics store and has to occasionally answer customers’ questions about the store’s products. In The Good Doctor, Dr. Shaun Murphy is the main character and, as a full-time surgeon, must run medical tests on patients, communicate results both clearly and empathetically, and advise the best course of action which might include performing a surgical procedure. Even though both of these young men are very talented and have a wide array of knowledge in their fields of work, it is applying that knowledge and disclosing their findings to co-workers and/or customers in a clear and concise way that can make or break their performance in that particular job. For many people with autism today, the latter happens all too often resulting in termination of or resignation from employment.
Here are three workplace environmental factors that people with autism may misinterpret or struggle with and how attention is brought to these matters in Atypical or The Good Doctor. Be advised…SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
Each company has its own set of rules (often unwritten) that are expected to be adhered to by employees when it comes to relationships in the workplace. For instance, a lot of companies may permit but frown upon co-workers dating each other as their relationship might impact their work performance in a negative way. In the case of Sam in Atypical, he took it upon himself while on the job to ask out a female customer. While she did go on to say “yes” to his invitation, had she said “no” and Sam persisted, he could’ve gotten into trouble. Why? Because crossing the line from professional to personal unexpectedly or inappropriately could result in being reported for sexual harassment or a similar infraction.
A short-term mistake or misunderstanding can have long-term consequences. Even if no harm was intended or the person didn’t know the law(s) involved, employment can end instantly from such an encounter. A lot of companies have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any form of harassment and warnings might not be issued even if the employee has a disability like autism. People with autism often have loving hearts and might want to take their professional relationships personal because they care that much. Sadly, not everyone is receptive to this and many people with autism have been fired due to misconduct in letting professional situations get personal.
For those on the receiving end of the interest of someone with autism, if you are not interested, it is best to be firm and direct yet kind and understanding in these situations. That way, any unwelcome behavior will have less likelihood of continuing without any bridges getting burned. Human resources or legal teams should only be brought in as a last resort. You have more options than you might think.
For people with autism, if someone you like in the workplace says “no” to your advances, it is in your best interest to accept this response and move on from this person the first time you hear the person say “no” or if he/she explains that he/she is not interested. Even though it does not feel good to be personally rejected (I know this all too well), assuming you value your job and want to keep it, it is better for you to continue to be accepted professionally as a good worker. Like one of my job coaches once said to me, “Keep your nose to the grindstone!”
In this day and age, not only how well you do a job on your own but how well you work with others will impact your work experience and performance. The job you hold might be part of a specific team or department within the company. Each of these teams or departments likely has goals or deadlines they need to meet or beat in a given time period. They also are mindful of how much money is being spent in order to remain within their budget. In the case of The Good Doctor, Shaun, on his first day on the job, was very detailed and overly thorough in his examinations, remained focused on patients for a prolonged period of time and ordered tests that his department chair would later deem both unnecessary and costly.
People with autism are likely to be extremely detailed and might not move onto other projects or tasks until they have completed the current job due to their often high standards. Multitasking and shifting attention from one thing to another can be very difficult for them as well. This could slow down a team’s processes or increase the likelihood of the team not meeting the goal or deadline. As a result, when the team’s performance is not up to par, the person with autism may be bullied or resented by his/her teammates. This could create a hostile work environment and the team may say or do things to the person with autism in order to make him/her quit.
For those with someone with autism on their team, make an effort to include and get to know this person. Offer them a helping hand if they appear to be struggling or falling behind. Be patient as it may take him/her asking the same question multiple times before the information finally sinks in. Use logic and explain why something is (not) important or (not) urgent in a given moment. Finally, remind them that you are an ally and that your door is open.
For people with autism, your teammates have likely been working at the company longer than you and know things that you do not know yet. Listen to what a person has to say especially if the person is your manager or boss. As a team member, you may have to make changes or sacrifices you do not like because the team might struggle otherwise. While your opinion does matter, understand that not everything might go the way you want it to. Assuming you value your job and want to keep it, remember what Mr. Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”
In a company, there are directors, executives, senior managers and others that determine the direction of the organization and policies in the workplace. Hiring policies, for instance, are drafted, voted on and finalized based on legal obligations, company preferences and what will increase money and shareholder value in the case of a publicly-traded company. In The Good Doctor, viewers get to witness a hospital’s board of directors debating the pros and the cons of hiring a surgeon with autism. Dr. Aaron Glassman, Shaun’s mentor and president of the hospital, sees great potential and possibilities in hiring Shaun and making the hospital better for it. Dr. Marcus Andrews, head of the hospital’s surgical department, sees great peril and problems in bringing Shaun onboard. Furthermore, Dr. Andrews is eagerly awaiting the day that Shaun is dismissed from the hospital so that Dr. Glassman will resign and Dr. Andrews will become the hospital’s president.
It is troubling that organizations, or at least specific people within them, actually want people with autism and other disabilities to fail in the workplace or remain in low-paying, high-labor positions. Rather than having the best access to opportunities to truly succeed and move up in an organization, employees with autism remain at the bottom of the totem pole with little to no chance to be promoted within the organization. Also, people with autism are not likely to know if they’re being discriminated against or question whether or not the work that they are doing is legal, within their job description or healthy for them. This can cause people with autism to get stuck doing unpleasant tasks for years upon years upon years.
For those responsible for hiring people in an organization, it is understandable that you have a public image and a reputation to protect. People with autism are the key to making that image and reputation better, not worse! Whether it’s eliminating process inefficiencies, improving workplace rapport or bettering business with your customers/clients, people with autism can do and have done it all! Look past the legal requirements, do more than what is expected and see that there’s more to hiring someone with autism than simply doing so because ADA regulations say you must. Once you do, the world will be a better place!
For people with autism, a job where you’re hired just because you have a disability is no job at all. Even if you value your job and want to keep it, know that where you are working now may not be where you will truly thrive. It is okay to leave one job in order to find one that better suits you. It is the lessons that you learn from your job that you will take with you wherever you go and nobody can take those away from you. You deserve to work in a place where you are valued for who you are, not what you are. At the end of the day, be happy with the work you do. If you are not happy in your job, say something about it and make a change for the better rather than keep it to yourself. As Confucius said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life!”
You CAN make a difference in the life of someone with a disability by putting them to work! There are many ways you can share your knowledge and experience. Allow someone with a disability to shadow you on the job. Help them find their niche. Share pointers on constructing a resume or do a mock interview. Whether it is in a volunteer capacity, a paid internship or entry-level staff, it is allowing them to explore their job options and gain work experience in new environments that will allow people with disabilities to evolve and take their lives to the next level! What will you do to TODAY to bridge the gap?