Embracing workplace neurodiversity: World Autism Awareness Day

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on how to better understand and embrace this form of neurodiversity in the workplace.

MLT Aikins Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) mission statement is “Cultivating an environment that celebrates and promotes diversity, equity and inclusion to attract and retain the best talent, drive innovation and better serve our clients.”

What is autism?

Autism affects one in 50 Canadians. As with other forms of neurodiversity, it stems from a difference in how the brain develops and functions. For those with autism, these differences impact their ease and ability to engage in social communications and interactions, and how information related to the environment and people around them is perceived and processed. Autism is not a homogenous condition. It is a spectrum encompassing a diverse range of strengths, challenges, perspectives and experiences. Each autistic individual has unique skills, aptitudes and abilities.

Autism in the workplace

While the prevalence of autism diagnoses in Canada has been increasing over time, it is still an underestimate of the total number of Canadians who live with this identity. It does not include those who have yet to be diagnosed, especially adults. In particular, women may have a strong suspicion they are different but have learned to mask their symptoms when they work and interact with others.

Barriers to employment

Many people with autism face barriers to employment. In fact, it is estimated that 85% of adults with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. These barriers often relate more to challenges navigating the recruitment, candidate screening and job interview processes than to the actual talents and skills that autistic job seekers can bring to the workplace. Some characteristics seen among people with autism that can provide a competitive advantage in the workplace include a remarkable attention to detail, analytical prowess, logical reasoning and dedication to tasks they find meaningful.

Within the workplace, those with autism may encounter challenges related to day-to-day social interactions with co-workers, sensory sensitivities to light, sound and smell, and difficulty navigating the unspoken nuances of workplace dynamics. As a result, others within the workplace may see their autistic peers as “odd” or out-of-sync with those around them. They may come across as blunt, terse, direct, rule-bound or anti-social when often what is lacking is an understanding of the different ways people with autism may process information, understand and react to the environment, as well as how they handle the pressures of busy working lives.

What can we do?

  • Strive to adapt the work environment to mitigate the effects of sensory overload
  • Focus on clear communication, preferably in writing, as a best practice
  • Recognize and value that we all have different skills and abilities – this diversity contributes to collective innovation and success
  • Learn more about autism and how to embrace workplace neurodiversity

Additional resources

The Canadian Bar Association recently published an article entitled Making room for neurodiversity in law which provides important insights on the education, recruitment and hiring of students and lawyers with autism.

There is a wealth of additional information, advocacy services, training and support networks available from autism-specific agencies and organizations in Canada:

As we strive to build more inclusive workplaces, increasing neurodiversity can make us more innovative, productive and successful. Let’s celebrate the unique strengths and perspectives that individuals with autism bring.

In recognition of the important work done by Level It Up, and their assistance in reviewing this post, MLT Aikins has made a donation to Level It Up Manitoba.