Please note that my answers are definitely not exhaustive, but are rather a combination of what is true to me, and what answers I find to be least given by other people.
- What does inclusiveness and accessibility mean to you in the workplace?
Autism is a social and behavioral disability. Therefore, to me, inclusiveness and accessibility in the workplace means a kind, understanding staff. It also means office social situations that I can easily become acclimated to. I recognize that some autistic people have a harder time becoming acclimated than others, but I also understand that some are unwilling. In my opinion, being willing to acclimate to certain social situations as much is comfortably possible can help one in business tremendously. There are meetings to go to, presentations to give, and coworkers to get along with.
- What are some of the challenges facing autistic people who are in traditional workplaces, particularly due to a lack of accommodations or accessibility?
Interestingly, the least accessible workplace I have ever been in was an independent living center in Buffalo, New York. This is highly ironic, given that independent living centers are disability-run, and are supposed to be the most accommodating workplaces in the country. This was definitely not true of this business. My immediate boss yelled at me and belittled me every single day—often until I cried, one of the receptionists repeatedly told me I did not work there, the IT staffer told me to “fuck off” repeatedly, and the entire place was run by three members of the same immediate family, in the most glaringly obvious ethics violation I have ever encountered. Sadly, the autistic community often encounters staff members with bad attitudes or lack of understanding.
- What can employers, coworkers, hiring managers, HR departments, etc. do to better support autistic employees?
As a contrast, my current employer, the Executive Vice President of Diversity at BBDO Worldwide, a large advertising firm, recognizes that I have my own idiosyncrasies, odd behaviors, and needs for accommodation. In terms of the odd behaviors, he actually encourages them! He is the nicest boss I could ever imagine! He understands that a large part of inclusion is a good attitude and being tolerant of people who are mentally and emotionally different. He and I love to tell jokes, talk about our personal lives and our work experience, and get all geeky and nerdy together! HR departments need to recognize that not everybody is going to fit the same behavioral mold, and that just because someone is goofy, geeky, or “weird”, does not mean that they are necessarily a bad employee or job candidate.
- What stereotypes or myths have you come across about autistic people that affect how autistic people are treated in the workplace?
One stereotype is that we are all into things like math and computer science. That is absolute hogwash. While it is true that autistic people tend to fixate on specific issues, there is nothing about the autistic population that guarantees that we will all be mathematicians or scientists. I, for example, am interested in things like history, political science, and architecture. Another stereotype is that we are, by and large, completely socially inept. In reality, social experience can often lead to us being quite savvy to the moods and emotions of others. It has for me.
- Can you give me a specific example of different things that help you succeed in the workplace? Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had to ask for your workplace to be made more accessible to you?
This plays into another stereotype, which says that sensory issues are inherently severe for the autistic population. First off, the sensory diagnosis is actually separate from autism, and has gone by various names such as Sensory Integration Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder. This is often quite severe in many autistics, but that is not always the case. In addition, our tolerance for sensory overload can be grown and expanded with experience. As I mentioned earlier, many of us in the activism world are not interested in growing that tolerance. I respectfully disagree, as growing my tolerance for sensory exposure has allowed me to become a better worker, a better friend, a more integrated member of society, and a more independent adult. That said, I have asked that my workplaces be aware of my sensory issues and be more accommodating. The abusive workplace I was in earlier demanded medical documentation, when all I wanted was for the break room lights to be off for five minutes. My job for BBDO Worldwide actually has a dark study room/library built specifically so that the bright lights of the office do not overwhelm the workers all the time.
- Are there any common workplace trends that you feel employers need to re-think in order to make the workplace/office more inclusive? (For example, Skype interviews or open office plans)
My biggest suggestion is actually not for the workplaces, but for the training of potential employees. Throughout school, throughout social skills classes, throughout job training seminars (of which there were plenty), throughout vocational rehab, throughout job counseling (which was seemingly endless in my case), a clear majority of the training involved putting together a resume and filling out an application. Although it is sometimes a relatively recent development, workplaces no longer rely solely on resumes and applications when hiring people. Networking, networking, networking is the skill that gets at least half of America their jobs in today’s society. This is actually not as new as it seems. Back in the day, giving your friend a job was not a big deal. The difference between then and now is that now employers are looking to hire qualified employees because they know them well, and they know that they are right for the job. In Buffalo, New York, I applied for at least one hundred and fifty jobs in a row without even hearing back. It’s not like I was declined, but I never even heard back! Three days after I moved to Washington, DC, I was invited to the mother of all networking events at the Obama White House and met my current boss. We Skyped, talked by phone, and one day he offered me a job that I didn’t even apply for. Not just that, but it is a well-paying job, with lots of benefits. And, it is terrifically fun to work at! This is a perfect example of how training those entering the workforce needs to stop focusing entirely on resumes and applications and start focusing on networking!
- Have you ever worked remotely, or do you have anything to say about the benefits of working remotely or flexible working hours for autistic employees?
In fact, I am working remotely right now. What I do is not like telework. Instead, I set aside some time to do my job, which involves creating written content, and editing other people’s written content. A large part of my job also involves traveling and experiencing things so that I may write about them and attending conferences and meetings in various localities such as New York City and Boston. My hours are up to my discretion, and the location where I do my work—often at my laptop—is also up to my discretion. I do realize that not everybody can have a job this flexible, but it has proven extremely beneficial. Many of the experiences I have for my work are extremely fun, and I get compensated for writing about them. It also allows me to set my own leisure time.
- How would you like to be quoted: Name, pronouns, and a very brief one-sentence bio
Alec Frazier is an editor and disability rights advocate from Washington, DC.
This blog posting is both the personal opinion of Alec Frazier, and the professional policy of his advocacy firm, Autistic Reality. If you oppose it, please screen grab it! We are very proud of this opinion!