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Autistic Employees Find New Ways to Navigate the Workplace


When Chelsea Potts took her 10-year-old daughter to a psychologist for autism spectrum disorder, she decided to get herself tested without thinking. The result was shocking. Like her daughter, Ms Potts was also diagnosed with autism.

Ms. Potts, 35, thought she might have anxiety or another problem. A first-generation college student, she had earned a doctorate in education and went on to become a high-level administrator at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But after visiting a psychologist, she had to figure out how her diagnosis would affect her work life.

“At first I was confused and I kept it to myself,” Ms Potts said. “I had a picture in my mind of a person with autism, and it didn't look like me.”

She reflected on the ways she had used in the past to hide her disability and compensate in an attempt to come across as a model employee – a coping mechanism known as “Masking,

For years she tried to meet co-workers one-on-one because she felt uncomfortable in groups. She reminded herself to smile and appear cheerful because she knew some people found her speaking voice too serious. She also tried to avoid bright lights and noise in the workplace.

After six months of struggling with her diagnosis, Ms. Potts met with a university official. She said that conversation was “one of the most difficult experiences of my life.”

“I was telling someone something I'd never told anyone outside of the family,” she added. “I felt very vulnerable. I was ashamed. I realized how hard it was for me to communicate what I needed and why I needed it.”

But the meeting did lead to positive changes for Ms. Potts: She received some perks, including a more flexible work schedule.

Many large employers in the United States, including Microsoft, Dell, and Ford, are taking steps to make workplaces more accessible and welcoming for neurodivergent employees due to the increase in the number of autism diagnoses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 36 children age 8 in the United States has autism. That's up from one in 44 in 2018 and one in 150 in 2000, an increase experts believe is due to better screening. In addition, 2.2 percent of adults According to the C.D.C., there are 5.4 million autistic people in the country.

A growing number of autistic people are also publicly identifying themselves. Ms Potts is one of many TikTok users who have shared their diagnosis online using the hashtag #autistoc,

Last year, the singer Is came out publicly about being diagnosed with autism as an adult. Most recently, author Mary H.K. Choi described in an essay For New York magazine, she explained how, at age 43, she developed a greater self-understanding as a result of her diagnosis.

Autism activists have praised companies that have become more accepting of remote work since the coronavirus pandemic.

Jessica Myszak, a clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in testing and assessment for autism, said workplaces with too much light and noise can be stressful for autistic people, leading to burnout. Dr. Myszak said working remotely “reduces the social demands and some of the environmental sensitivities” that autistic people struggle with.

But according to advocacy groups, getting ahead in the job market remains a challenge for autistic people, who are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. And autistic job candidates who hope to make a good first impression may be reluctant to disclose their diagnosis or ask for accommodations upfront.

“You don't want them to see your flaws,” said haley mossThe 29-year-old lawyer and disability activist, who has autism, compares the interview process to a first date.

When Natalie Worden-Covey, 32, was a professional musician, she struggled with the networking side of the business, which is crucial to finding work. When she decided to change careers a few years ago and become a software engineer, she had trouble acing job interviews. Her professional life changed when she discovered that Microsoft's Neurodiversity Hiring ProgramWhich was established in 2015.

The company's program was modeled after one created by German software firm SAP, and has since been adopted in some form by companies such as Dell and Ford. So far, the initiative has brought about 300 full-time neurodivergent employees to Microsoft, said Neil Barnett, the company's director of inclusive hiring and outreach.

“They just needed this different, more inclusive process, and once they were integrated into the company, they began to thrive,” Mr. Barnett said.

Mrs. Worden-Covey, who was diagnosed at age 29, noticed a difference at Microsoft during the interview process: She was given extra time to answer questions and time in between meetings with company employees.

“Neurodiverse people sometimes need more processing time, or they may need to ask questions in writing,” Mrs Worden-Covey said.

After coming on board, she was given a job coach to help her with time management and prioritization. Microsoft also connected her with a mentor who showed her around the company's campus in Redmond, Washington. Perhaps more importantly, she works with managers who have received neurodiversity training.

The Microsoft campus also has “focus rooms,” where lights can be dimmed and desk heights can be changed to suit sensory preferences. Employees sitting in open offices can also request to sit away from busy corridors or get noise-canceling headphones.

“Agendas are sent out in advance,” Mr. Barnett said. “Everyone's communication style and preferences are taken into account.”

Mr Barnett dismissed the misconception that such facilities impact companies' revenue, efficiency or productivity. Instead, he said they improve workplace culture and the overall well-being of employees.

Wendy Safstrom, President Human Resource Management SocietyOne nonprofit said more employers should try to recruit neurodivergent people and educate their staff about them. “If they're not willing to change with the times, they'll be left behind,” Ms. Safstrom said. “The war on talent is real.”

Ms. Moss, the lawyer, said human resources departments have shown a willingness to change. “In most cases, they already have autistic employees who have not disclosed it,” she said. And yet, she said of autistic employees, “a lot of us don’t get promoted.”

Ms. Moss said more employers should hire neurodivergent people in leadership roles – in essence, to redefine the image of a boss. “You can be someone who communicates outside of what's considered normal and be a brilliant executive,” she said.

Communicating at work has never been a problem for Murphy Monroe. Mr. Monroe, 50, was extremely articulate, and excelled at quickly recalling statistics about the organization he worked for and its competitors.

He had been told since childhood by doctors that he was probably on the autism spectrum, but was never tested, so Mr. Monroe tried to brush the issue aside. As a teenager, he knew he was different and was “very afraid of not being able to hold a job,” he said.

She studied theater in college and pursued a career in education, working as an admissions officer and executive for 17 years. Columbia College ChicagoLike Ms. Potts, the Miami University administrator, Mr. Monroe also employed strategies for coping in the workplace, including working under the supervision of a trusted colleague who helped him pick up on social cues he might have missed.

Mr. Monroe would ask after meetings, “Do I have to apologize to anyone?” “What just happened?”

“I chew my fingers,” he said, referring to a type of exercise he does. VoteBehaviors that help some autistic people manage sensory overload. “I sit in a meeting with the president of the college or in front of the board and can’t stop myself from bleeding. These are times when it’s nice to have someone in the room with me, telling me to let go.”

Once, Mr. Monroe told a human resources manager that he thought he might have a form of autism that caused him to be overwhelmed by sensory input, particularly light. “She looked straight at me and said, ‘You are No “I'm autistic. From that moment on, for many years, I didn't think about it,” Mr. Monroe recalls.

But after he saw videos on TikTok of people talking about their experience with autism, Mr Monroe visited a psychologist in 2021 and got confirmation of what he had long suspected.

That self-knowledge has changed his approach to his current job as executive director. Actors' GymnasiumA circus school in Evanston, Illinois. “I had a great desire to be open at work,” Mr. Monroe said. “I just tried my hand at it. I bought a gold autism pin from Etsy and started wearing it all the time.”

He also gives himself accommodations, such as taking a few days away from the workplace to recharge and installing dark curtains in his office. He said he also tries to be sensitive to his co-workers, allowing them to adjust their schedules or duties to suit them, whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical.

In essence, he's trying to create the environment he wanted when he was running errands while wearing a mask. It's a workplace that many autism activists hope will become more common.

“I am able to be completely my true self while running a joyful enterprise, which makes me feel like the luckiest person ever,” Mr. Monroe said.



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