There’s a scene in Moneyball when Billy Beane says to his head baseball scout: “Adapt or die!” A key to workplace survival, right? If you want to be a great employee, you have to deal with change, learn new techniques, adapt to ever-changing co-workers, supervisors and processes. As employers, we have the expectation that our employees will adapt to the processes, environments and staffing changes that we implement. This is a reasonable expectation. And if they don’t adapt? What do we do then?
My husband, Luke, has Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism. Because he has Asperger’s, Luke has a hard time adapting to changes in his routine. It’s not because he doesn’t want to. It’s because unexpected changes physically and mentally throw him off, especially those involving interactions with other people or sensory issues. Over the years, I’ve watched him be frustrated as he has tried to adapt to various workplaces, supervisors and processes. Supervisors and managers have also been frustrated with his inability to adapt. This frustration often overshadows his almost flawless memory, impeccable attention to detail, and striking ability to identify patterns and anomalies.
Although it’s difficult to measure, the unemployment rate for people with Asperger’s Syndrome has been stated as high as 85%. Just like every other person, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have strengths and weaknesses in employment. It’s just that their strengths and weaknesses are different than what we are used to. People with Asperger’s often bring unusual strengths and skill sets with them that aren’t found in your typical employees. We have a whole group of talented individuals who are being overlooked and discounted because they don’t fit in our “normal” box.
What if we, as employers, start using our resources to focus on the strengths of our employees, regardless of any diagnosis, and start adapting our workplaces to shine a light on these strengths? What if we toss out our definition of “normal” and start embracing unusual talents? What if we start appreciating differences and celebrate neurodiversity in the workplace, inviting different ways of thinking and processing information? What if we as employers, let our employees thrive in their talents?
Sound a bit idealistic? Maybe. But I happen to think that it’s just good business. As well as good for the world. And I’m not alone. Companies like Microsoft, Walgreens and SAP have started programs for autistic employees, focusing on their talents, and more companies are following suit. The good news is that you don’t have to be a big employer to appreciate the strengths of your neurodiverse employees. Small, medium or large, you can be an employer of choice for the brightest stars in your industry by embracing a diverse range of strengths and enabling employees to use their strengths for the benefit of your company, as well as for the benefit of your employees.
Contributed by: Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR