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Autism Awareness Month: Workplace Invisible Disabilities

April is Autism Awareness Month, which makes it the perfect time to discuss invisible disabilities in the workplace. Invisible disabilities are, by their nature, often overlooked and misunderstood—but when employers hire and develop employees with invisible disabilities, their workplace is richer for it. 

What Are Invisible Disabilities?

According to the Invisible Disabilities® Association, an invisible disability is “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”

Some examples of invisible disabilities include diabetes, arthritis, and chronic fatigue. However, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, let’s focus on invisible disabilities related to neurodiversity. Or more specifically, neurodivergence—i.e., differences in brain function from “neurotypical” thinkers. Common forms of neurodivergence are Autism Spectrum Disorder (including Asperger’s syndrome), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other mental health disorders.

Individuals with autism and similar invisible disabilities have long faced major barriers to employment. However, because they think differently, they have traits that employers increasingly value—innovative thinking, problem-solving, and technical abilities—which is why more employers are starting to see them. 

A Fresh Take on Autism in the Workplace 

Over the last decade, a handful of forward-thinking employers have begun actively recruiting candidates with autism to tap into their unique skill sets, like creative thinking, hyperfocus, and attention to detail. JPMorgan Chase, SAP, and Hewlett Packard all have developed such programs.

In fact, the Israeli army routinely relies on young adults with autism to perform military intelligence research and analysis, finding they far outperform their neurotypical peers.

That holds true in U.S. business offices, too. For example, JPMorgan Chase reports that employees in its Autism at Work program are 90–140% more productive than their neurotypical workers and make fewer errors.

For many employers, this represents a largely untapped talent pool—and some intriguing possibilities. 

Embracing Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace 

It is essential to research state and federal laws governing paid and unpaid internships. While some unpaid internships are compliant (about 40% of internships are unpaid), they can be risky, as recent lawsuits have proven.

Ask your legal counsel for input. Chances are, you’ll conclude that the safest course is to compensate interns—and you’ll attract more qualified candidates that way, too. According to Indeed, the average wage for interns is $18.04 per hour, although some tech companies pay much more. 

1. Educate Your Workforce

It’s important that throughout your organization—leaders, managers, team members—understand what invisible disabilities are and how they may impact a coworker’s behavior and performance.

For example, employees with autism often misinterpret social cues, make poor eye contact, and are hypersensitive to noisy, busy environments—all which can lead to misunderstandings and even conflict. In order to maintain a harmonious workplace, coworkers need to understand the reasons behind what may seem like odd or antisocial behavior.

2. Provide Reasonable Accommodations

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Common autism workplace accommodations include providing noise-canceling headsets and lighting adjustments to minimize sensory overload and task management apps and tools to help workers stay on point.

Providing flexible work arrangements—including flexible hours or remote and hybrid work options—may also be helpful to employees with invisible disabilities. The best approach is to work with the employee to identify and implement accommodations for their needs.  

3. Create a Culture of Workplace Inclusion

Individuals with invisible disabilities—especially those who are neurodivergent—often face a lifetime of bullying, ostracization, stigma, and discrimination. Sadly, this happens in the workplace, too. Chances are, your anti-discrimination policy prohibits such behavior, but because neurodivergent employees are exceptionally vulnerable, it’s critical to be vigilant in guarding against it.

Creating a culture of workplace inclusion is beneficial on so many levels. In this case, it might mean creating opportunities for neurodivergent employees to work and socialize with their coworkers, but in carefully-structured environments that won’t overwhelm them. Or, consider matching neurodivergent employees with neurotypical buddies or mentors who can help them navigate the complexities of workplace relationships.

The possibilities are unlimited, and your employees—neurodivergent and neurotypical alike—may have some great ideas.

No doubt about it: employees with autism and other invisible disabilities have much to offer employers who wish to broaden their talent base. Learn how emphasizing disability representation in your DEI initiatives can further enrich your culture and workplace.

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