Companies hiring autistic employees – do they (we) even know what they’re getting into?

I lasted three years longer in a space like this, than was healthy for me. Sheer hell. Every. Single. Day.
I lasted three years longer in a space like this, than was healthy for me. Sheer hell. Every. Single. Day.

So, the my Twitter feed has been filling up with stories about companies now hiring autistic folks. Of course, I’m nowhere near the conversations taking place in the C-level suites, but this affects me.

At first, I thought it was a great thing. I mean, who doesn’t want that?

Then I thought some more about it, while driving to and from work, and on second (third… fourth… fifth) thought, I now have a lot of reservations.

First, what kinds of jobs are these, anyway? Low-paying, entry-level jobs? High-powered uber-achiever positions? Are these grunt-work positions? Is there any leadership opportunity involved? Is there opportunity to advance?

Second, whom do they think they’re hiring? Rain Man? Or someone on the no-superpowers-sorry end of the spectrum? Are they profiling a certain type of “autistic person” and welcoming only those who fit that profile? Or are they factoring in the full range of the spectrum that it is? I’m not sure what they expect – do they want “low-functioning” Auties*, or “high-functioning” Aspies*, or do they want something in between? And if they do get something in between are they really prepared to stick it out with us? Will there be thresholds or expectations of levels of ability? Is it possible, perhaps, that we may meet some of their criteria in certain ways, but then fail in other significant ways?

*  IMPORTANT: I’m not implying that Auties are low-functioning, while Aspies are high-functioning, I just needed two different words that I hadn’t used yet.

Third, even if they prioritize hiring “us”, does that mean we’ll fit? Are autistic new hires going to slot right into positions and become welcome members of our teams? HR says auties need to get hired, so hiring managers meet their quota. What does that mean in terms of larger company culture? Or individual teams? You can’t just plop people down in a team environment and order them to mesh. Look at the whole offshoring/outsourcing Asian talent scene of the past 15 years… All my Indian co-workers, no matter how friendly they are with me, still eat lunch only with other Indian co-workers, and I often get the distinct impression that they’re just tolerating me for the sake of getting the job done.

And do companies really understand what it means to effectively integrate autistic employees? One of my major concerns with the whole trend to hiring autistic workers is that employers or really not prepared for what they’re about to get. What about the variability within the course of the job? What happens when we are absolutely stellar in a job for six months, and we are outperforming all the expectations, and then we hit the proverbial wall? I know I am not the only one out there who can get into a state of overwhelm even after being highly successful in a position for a period of time. It’s started happening to me, lately. One of the biggest issues really with autism, is that our spurts of high productivity activity (when we appear to have superpowers), is often followed by a time of either voluntary or involuntary early forced downtime.

We expend so much energy, that we can burn ourselves out, and we need substantial recovery time to recover.

And I don’t know of a single employer who would be willing to provide that to an employee on a semi-regular basis. And when I say semi-regular, I mean just that. If I could predict when I’m wiped out and in need of three weeks of silence and darkness, I would surely schedule it appropriately and take steps to make it so. The fact that I haven’t — and can’t — should tell you something about how unpredictable things can be for me — and tons of other folks on the spectrum.

Autistic folks are the unknown. We can be highly variable, and there is no guarantee, from day to day or week to week (or month to month even year to year) that we will continue to perform at exactly the same level at all all times. In fact, I would hazard to say that one of the hallmarks of our characters or personalities, is that we are highly irregular, that we have our extreme ups and our extreme downs. And therein lies the problem for so many of us with getting and keeping long-term jobs.

I know for myself, I have often found it easier to take a contract position for a while.. say six or nine months on one job… and then move onto another. For me, that relieves me of the increasing pressure to build upon past experiences and to cumulatively advance in my career. It lets me refresh on a regular basis, and it also keeps me from getting into a situation where people realize that the great, great promise that I showed at the start, is largely unrealized in the long run.

I often feel like a version of Einstein, who achieved this one amazing thing — the special theory of relativity — and then never did “more” (although people found out he was right about gravitational waves – took them long enough). Everybody’s standing around, waiting for me to do That Next Amazing Thing. But all I want to do is take a break. And sleep. Or disappear into the woods.

I am not sure I personally have what it takes, to actually be successful in the way the narrow typical world expects us to be successful. I’m irregular. Variable. I hit snags. I have flashes of brilliance. And it costs me dearly. I do know that the inconsistencies of the autistic experience – the highs and lows, the times of extreme high performing activity and high productivity, all come with a cost.

And as I said before, I don’t know of a single employer who is willing to pay that price. Nowhere have I ever seen an actual employer accommodate requisite rest and relaxation in their overall HR provisions. I have never come across an employer that included (or even allowed) downtime as part of an employee development plan.

It’s called “slacking” and it’s frowned upon.

But if you are autistic, you have to have those things, or you will not develop. You have got to have some time to recover after the sprints. You can’t have one sprint after another and expect to indefinitely, infinitely succeed. You have to have downtime. You have to be able to rest your sensitive self and digest all of the lessons and experiences that you have had, so you can return to the fray even better than before — or at the very least, on par with who/how you were before you burned yourself to a crisp.

If anything, I think that employers and autistic employees are going to have a rude awakening in a couple of years. I predict that employers who are always trying to get more neurodiverse are going to realize that in order to hire and retain highly talented, competent autistic employees, they are going to have to pay a little more than they would like. That payment comes in the form of flex time for us, it comes in the form of accommodating certain special needs that we have, such as our sensory issues, our tactile defensiveness, our hyperacuity, our intolerance for fluorescent lights, as well as our need for solitude and to be sheltered from the flow of what has become the gold standard for workplace configuration configuration – the open workplace.

I can think of no more horrific environment to work in as an Aspie employee, than an open workspace. I should know, because I worked in one for three years, and I thought for sure it was going to kill me. I cannot begin to tell you the stress and the anxiety and the overload that it visited upon me on a daily basis. And the cumulative affect was brutal. The worst part was, the company didn’t even care. All they cared about was that they had their fabulous new open workspace and their cost-saving resource monitoring, HR-friendly production floor.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I loved the people I worked with and I loved the work that I did, and the company made it impossible for me to stay there one day longer. And if I had not been recruited away from them, I would still probably be there, suffering. Or I might not be. I might have melted down and lost it — been fired after an outburst. Towards the end of my sojourn there, I had a particularly embarrassing freak-out on my boss — during my performance review / bonus appraisal time, no less. I was so taxed and so fried, I could not even muster the energy or the resources to have an intelligent, coherent conversation with recruiters and hiring managers when I did go out looking for a job.

So the end product, cumulatively of those kinds of work environment is highly talented highly capable highly motivated workforce that has been rendered helpless and useless by company policies and industry fads. It comes at a high cost to us, and ultimately to the companies that lose people like me, because they are culturally incapable of creating a work environment that doesn’t slowly kill us.

That, is what I fear will happen to a lot of autistic employees, if they are brought into a standard issue work environment that is dominated by narrow typical sensibilities. We’ll get fried. We’ll get a raw deal. And in the end, companies which have been unwilling and unable to create a truly neurodiversity-friendly culture will point the finger of blame at us. Our fault. Again.

Because after all, everyone knows that the business world is tough and has to be that way to stay competitive. Only the strong will survive. Only the strong should survive, according to the dominant paradigm.

Where that leaves all these “promising” Autie and Aspie job candidates, I have no idea.

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