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Diversity of Autism Offers HR Challenges

Since autism affects individuals in a wide variety of ways, it's important for employers to respond with individualized approaches, when necessary. It's also important, experts say, to focus on the quality of work by the employee instead of his or her social skills.

Friday, February 3, 2012
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The effects of autism vary widely and can include everything from significant intellectual impairment to subtle challenges with social interactions. Because individuals with autism are so diverse, employers should treat autistic employees on a case-by-case basis, according to experts.

"We have a saying that when you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person," said Ari Ne'eman, who is a cofounder and the president of the Washington-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network, during a recent Job Accommodation Network webinar.

Because autism often goes undiagnosed, providing accommodations can be challenging for employers, especially when the effects of autism aren't particularly visible.

"It's relatively easy to conceptualize the accommodation, for example, to allow wheelchair access into a building," Ne'eman said. "When you talk, however, about barriers and social architecture as opposed to the barriers of physical architecture ... that's more complex."

Quality of Work

When it comes to "social architecture," Ne'eman cautioned that employers should be careful not to judge employees with autism on their sociability while overlooking how well they work.

"People should have the right to be assessed based on the quality of their work product," Ne'eman said, "and not how well they are integrating into water-cooler conversations."

Ne'eman, who was appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Obama, also advised that because autism can impact different skills in different ways, it's important for employers to focus on employees' strengths and talents to create a more inclusive workplace.

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"Another issue that comes up is a certain degree of cognitive dissonance when people are faced with uneven skill sets," Ne'eman said. "For example, people may be confused why someone can have a college degree and be exceedingly competent in their job, but may have anxiety and other challenges such as not being able to use the phone."

Because of this, Ne'eman recommended that employers adopt "customized employment strategies" whenever possible.

"What that means is essentially starting from the premise that you are going to try to craft a job description around an individual's skill sets rather than simply having a boilerplate job description and trying to fit an individual within that," Ne'eman said.

This can help provide clear expectations to employees and ensure that objectives are clearly communicated.

"Some of this is just good management practice," Ne'eman said. "But it's important enough and essential enough to some individuals to qualify as a reasonable accommodation."

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