Most workers with autism are comfortable talking about their condition with colleagues, but far fewer are open about it with someone in HR.
About 70 percent of autistic employees have discussed their condition with someone outside of HR, such as their manager or a trusted colleague, but just 30 percent disclosed their autism to HR, according to a survey of 985 workers with autism across eight countries conducted by consultant company auticon in Berlin.
Louise Stone, head of recruitment and community partnerships at auticon's Los Angeles office, wasn't surprised to learn that these employees do not formally tell their employers that they have autism.
"They feel like [disclosing their autism to HR] will negatively impact their employment," said Stone, who has autism. "Bringing HR into the conversation is scary because HR is who controls hiring and firing."
Stone explained that employees' decision to inform HR about their autism can be complicated. Many workers with this condition deal with social stigmas and fear being judged, misunderstood or fired for having it, despite the third outcome being illegal in the U.S.
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Some people with autism may want to disclose this information when applying for a job because they need specific accommodations during the application process, such as receiving interview questions in writing, or once hired, such as a quiet environment at work.
But many accommodations for workers with autism can easily be implemented without the need for HR's involvement, Stone noted. For example, providing agendas for meetings, written follow-ups and clear deadlines for assignments can be arranged by managers or co-workers—or even the employees themselves.
"If [autistic workers] can disclose to non-HR people and get these informal accommodations, there is less stress and all needs are still met," she said.
Finding the Right Job Is Key
Reports have shown that autistic professionals can be up to 140 percent more productive than employees who don't have autism—when they are properly matched to jobs.
However, finding the appropriate job can be stressful for these individuals. According to the auticon report:
- 42 percent of employed autistic professionals said finding the right job has been the most challenging part of their career. This rises to 48 percent among 18-to-24-year-old workers—many of whom have not yet found their career path.
- 35 percent said settling into a new organization has been the most challenging aspect of working life for them.
- 31 percent found the traditional corporate recruitment process to be the most demanding.
"The traditional recruitment process and typical workplace environment are not set up for the success of neurodivergent adults," Stone said.
She explained that key pillars of the recruitment process and an employee's success post-hire are often based on social skills, such as picking up on social cues and connecting with colleagues and managers. A lack of education among employers has caused many autistic individuals to be viewed as too direct, too literal or not engaged enough in the workplace to be hired or maintain employment.
As a result, many autistic people are unemployed—with some analysts estimating the unemployment rate of those with autism is as high as 85 percent in the U.S.
Eric Ascher, who has autism, struggled to land a job after graduating from college in 2016. He spent 18 months applying for jobs before he found an internship with RespectAbility, a fully remote nonprofit, that is open to hiring people with autism. This role eventually led to full-time employment with the organization.
"Those 18 months were the hardest of my life," Ascher said. "Luckily, I had parents who could financially support me while I looked for an opportunity that would be a good fit. I can only imagine how hard this situation is for lower-income autistic people."
Autistic Workers 'Mask' Their True Selves
The auticon survey also revealed that 85 percent of autistic workers enjoy their jobs, yet only 44 percent feel they can be their authentic selves at work.
"It is critically important that all people, including autistic people, can show up as their full authentic selves to work," Ascher said. "Having to alter yourself to conform is emotionally draining."
Many autistic workers feel the need to hide or disguise parts of themselves to better fit in with co-workers—a practice called masking. But masking can be physically and mentally exhausting, and it often leads to serious health consequences, such as depression, anxiety and autistic burnout.
Employers can help by informally asking employees if they need any accommodations early in the employment process. This can increase autistic workers' sense of belonging without making them feel pressured to formally inform HR about their condition, Stone said.
"Just like you would ask a new employee if they would prefer a Mac or a PC, or if they need a keyboard or ergonomic mouse," she said. "It would be best to have a list of things you can and typically offer, which could include options like standing desks, AI note-taking software, recording meetings or flexible work hours."
Ascher added that employers should want to do their best to create a comfortable environment for all workers, regardless of disability, "because less-stressed-out employees are more productive and will stay at your company longer."