About a year ago I interviewed a young autistic adult for a position with our company. We were barely into the first question when I suspected he had autism. I can’t say specifically what it was about him. Maybe it was the way he made eye contact without ever seeming to really see me.
Maybe it was the answers he gave to my questions. They were good answers, and yet slightly off. Perhaps it was the way he carried himself, or his attire which was proper, neat and clean and yet slightly disheveled. I think mostly it was because in talking to him, I saw my boy. An autistic boy who will someday become an autistic adult. He never said he had autism during the interview…. I never asked.
A few days after our interview, I made a job offer to this young man (we’ll name him Tom) and he accepted. To be clear, I did not hire Tom because of, nor despite my suspicion he had autism. Admittedly I was happy for the opportunity to employ someone on the spectrum, but Tom got in on his own merits.
Not everyone at my work knows I have a son with autism. Oh, they can know; I don’t keep it a secret, but I don’t go around telling everyone and talking about it all the time either. I was happy about this with Tom there. If he decided to reveal his autism I didn’t want everyone feeling like they had to treat him special just because the boss’s son has autism, and then resenting him for it behind my back. I wanted them to accept (or reject) him for who he was.
As Tom became more comfortable at work and around his new peers, he became more himself. In the first couple of weeks, I wouldn’t say he “masked” his autism, but he was certainly on his best behavior. He spoke enough to be polite and cordial, but didn’t express his thoughts much beyond that. He was friendly, but didn’t try to joke with his fellow employees.
It didn’t take long for Tom to reveal that he has Aspergers. I’d say it was in the first week or so. The team had already noticed he was just a little bit different, but the girls at work thought it was cute and funny and so he was beginning to click with everyone. This only went so far though, as his differences were on the verge of going from “cute and funny” to “the weird autistic guy”, and that’s where we come to the point of this article.
As Tom’s differences became more pronounced and obvious, his fellow employees began to talk. I should note here that my team is very diverse. I create a positive environment at work, and lead a team of respectful individuals who are for the most part nonjudgmental, and always willing to give new people a chance. That being said, not everyone fits in. And whereas my team will still be respectful to those who don’t fit in, they won’t necessarily include them. This was a crucial moment.
If you follow me at all, and have read anything I have written or watched any of my videos then you know that I advocate for more than just autism awareness. I want for everyone to understand autism as much as possible because I believe that it is people’s perceptions that shape their world. Instead of being aware of autism, I want society to accept autistics for who they are, not what you expect them to be. By understanding their literal understanding, their black and white thinking, their ego centrism and all of the other behaviors associated with autism, I believe society will accept people with autism rather than judge them.
This is exactly what I was able to provide for Tom. As the employees began to talk about some of his behaviors or odd comments, I was able to provide them with information as to why he was doing certain things.
Our company does not have a set time that you are off. We leave when the job is finished for that day. There’s an “average” time, but sometimes your days are longer, sometimes shorter. People began to notice that Tom wasn’t himself near the end of a long work day. If the day ran longer than average, his productivity began to drop considerably and sometimes he even began to get moody.
I was able to explain to the team about his need for routine. I told them about his need to know what was going to happen ahead of time so that he could have control over his world. I spoke with the other managers, and we began telling Tom at the beginning of his shift what time he could expect to be off. We were careful to make sure that the expected time was later than what we truly thought it would be since Tom had no problems leaving early so that he could go home and play his video games.
It completely solved the problem! The team would have had serious issue with someone getting lazy at the end of their shift, and no one likes someone who is moody or complains a lot. By explaining this one simple concept the crew understood and were able to talk him through shifts that ran longer than anticipated. In fact they were HAPPY to help Tom, and felt good about themselves when they were able to motivate him! And by making one small change in how we as managers approached Tom, we kept these instances to a minimum and continued to create a positive environment for everyone.
How much effort did it really take? We didn’t change the rules. We didn’t make exceptions for one employee that we wouldn’t make for others. Tom’s work days were the same number of hours as the other employees, and our expectations for his productivity was the same as well. All it took was a little understanding of his needs. His very real needs as an autistic.
Tom’s jokes don’t always sound right. In fact they almost never do. Taken as they are, they usually aren’t funny and sometimes they’re on the offensive side. Many times they don’t really make sense. When I’m able to interpret for him though, people begin to see his sense of humor. When they look at things through HIS EYES, they’re able to see where he’s coming from and what he intends, and they understand the humor he’s attempting to portray.
When his jokes are offensive, as they can sometimes be, it’s typically due to him hearing other employees telling risque jokes that are borderline acceptable, and then trying to put his spin on it as best he can. I explain it to the employees like this. If you hear someone speaking in a foreign language, can you imitate it? Take Chinese for example. Can you sound as if you’re speaking Chinese? Of course you can! But since you have no idea what someone is saying in Chinese, you’ll be speaking gibberish! He understands your words, but he has no frame of reference to understand the joke, therefore he says things that may relate to the topic at hand, but which are nowhere near relevant to the conversation.
I have much more to say regarding having an autistic adult as an employee, but for the point of this article I want to leave you with this. Tom is an integral and accepted part of our team. As an employee, his autism does not benefit him, nor does it hinder him WHEN his fellow employees have the insight to see him as the person he truly is.
Simply taking the time to learn about and understand some of the behaviors associated with autism, has allowed Tom’s coworkers to get to know him for who he is as a person. This in turn has led to Tom being a happy and productive member of our society, as well as a valuable asset to our company. So much for so little. I hope others do the same.