"The Seasons or Orchard" tapestry by Morris & Co. 1890. William Morris in the Victorian period sought to create new forms of craft and workplace culture. William Morris Society.
Last week, I was in New York and had the opportunity morning to tour a true “autism-friendly workplace”—one that differs not only from most workplaces today but also from most workplaces that describe themselves as autism-friendly. I think you’ll be interested, whether you have a connection to autism or not.
A little background. The previous afternoon, I had joined 12 autism employment practitioners from throughout the New York area at the Duane Morris LLP offices on Broadway near 46th. In attendance were representatives of Integrate, Job Path, Goodwill NY, Spectrum Designs, Best Buddies, and Extraordinary Ventures NY. David Kearon of Autism Speaks, the person most at the center of autism initiatives nationwide, brought us together.
Our discussion started with the enormous grassroots activity of the past few years, the expanding corporate autism employment initiatives, and the explosion of autism in popular culture. Our focus, though, became workplace culture. Many in our autism community did get jobs, only to lose them shortly thereafter. So much of current workplace culture makes retention of adults on the autism spectrum an uphill struggle.
I left the discussion late and jet-lagged, and fell into a deep sleep soon after I returned to the hotel room. When I next looked at my watch, it was 7:30 the next morning, and I was in front of an office building on 6th Avenue near 48th St. I was greeted by a graying man who looked to be in his seventies, dressed casually, with a peaceful demeanor.
“Please come and tour our autism-friendly workplace” he bid me forward, “I am Hammond”. We entered the building, toured the four floors, in which the company houses its 400 or so employees, and settled in a conference room. Hammond talked of the development of his autism-friendly workplace and its chief elements. Let me summarize his main points.
Origins of Our Autism Friendly Workplace and Its Distinguishing Workplace Culture
“Some years ago, several of our company officials came together to address autism employment”, Hammond began. “Like other companies in which autism employment initiatives have been launched, these officials had ties to the autism community, through children, grandchildren, or neighbors who were on the autism spectrum.
“After investigation, they decided that training adults on the autism spectrum on resume writing or interviewing or soft skills was never going to be sufficient. Nor was it enough to incorporate the physical accommodations, such as dimmer lighting, or quiet spaces to decompress, or separate cubicles for privacy. These have a role, but they are the more minor elements.
“They concluded that the meaning of an autism-friendly workplace was rooted in a different workplace culture, one infused by an ethos of flexibility and patience, and maintained by structures of worker support. The effort would need to be undertaken, at least at the start, with a high degree of intentionality: that is with its own hiring process, identified jobs, and coaching/retention.
The Intentionality, Ethos and Support Structures that Make an Autism Friendly Workplace Culture
Hammond spoke about building on previous and existing employment initiatives. “In developing our workplace, we started with the workplace culture models of earlier times, such as Milt Wright’s Windmills training of the 1980s, aimed at integrating workers with developmental differences into mainstream workplaces. We still have much to learn from these early approaches.
“We next turned to SAP, one of the first major companies worldwide to have an explicit ‘autism at work’ effort targeted at hiring and taking pro-active measures to ensure retention. We continue to be in touch with SAP, as it evolves, as well as with the newer efforts at Microsoft, DXC Technologies, EY Consulting, JP Morgan Chase, Ford Motor Company, and Cintas, just to name a few. In fact, we now count over 20 major nationwide companies that have an explicit autism employment programs, with another more than 30 programs in various stages of development. Our workplace draws from a number of these companies.
“We don’t believe that an explicit and structured autism employment program will be needed forever; but it does have a role today. This is a transitional period, during which it is hoped the targeted programs will influence the workplace cultures in companies far beyond.”
Hammond next set out five distinguishing characteristics of his autism-friendly workplace.
A range of jobs, not only tech: “Autism at work is often thought of in terms of tech jobs. In our company, the jobs are a range of positions in tech, data entry, secretarial support, reception, and office set-up.”
Buy-in at all levels, and training for managers and supervisors: “Buy in at all levels is central to our approach, from the top officials at the company to the managers and line supervisors. It is made clear to managers and line supervisors that this is important to the company, and they will be measured, in part, by the program results.”
“We accompany this message with training in autism and the broader neurodiversity concepts, for our managers and line supervisors. We show them how often behavior is misconstrued, as not caring, or not being a team player, or acting entitled, when it is not meant to be such.”
Job coaching and retention: “Many of our initiative participants are enrolled with government agencies, especially state departments of rehabilitation. We draw on the job coaching available through these departments. We also assign each participant an in-house mentor to complement the job coach.”
Patience and flexibility: “Most of all we counsel patience and flexibility. There are behaviors that can be annoying—persons who laugh out loud, or talk to themselves, or repeat phrases from television shows, or do a hundred different other things. We ask our managers to consider whether they and all of us might have behaviors that can be considered annoying, but are usually overlooked. As part of patience, we also ask them to give people time to learn skills and adapt, to avoid rushing to a decision that someone cannot contribute.
Don’t just focus on the negative: “Further, we ask our managers and supervisors to avoid focusing on the negative, which is so often the case when adults on the autism spectrum are hired. We ask them to recognize positive contributions that workers on the autism spectrum often bring: perfect or near-perfect attendance, gratitude for the job, not constantly looking for something else.”
Our Autism-Friendly Workplace Addresses the Fears of Human Resources Staff
I asked Hammond about the concerns of his human resources staff, for I knew from experience that companies can be reluctant to hire because of fear of lawsuits over discipline of workers with developmental differences.
“Yes, of course, when we started there were many concerns by our human resources staff, that we were setting ourselves up for legal problems. They worried that the federal and state laws relating to disability employment would make it costly for them to discipline or terminate the employment of any of these workers.
“But we addressed these concerns directly and early on, with the assistance of legal counsel. Counsel showed us how we needed to structure our hiring and retention structures, what is meant by ‘reasonable accommodations’, how our supervisors need to document performance, as with all workers. Our human resources staff gradually relaxed, as they saw that if properly approached, the legal guidelines for workers with developmental differences need not be onerous.
“Our autism-friendly workplace does not ignore the claims of the great majority of non-autistic workers to a fair workplace. In fact, as the principles of patience and flexibility are extended across the workplace, the autism-friendly workplace benefits other workers. We all need some time to adapt, without worrying about being fired, and to have our positive traits recognized, not only shortcomings."
Before I realized it, the noon hour had arrived. I did not want to take up any more of Hammond’s time, and thanking him, returned to my hotel. Yet, when I got back to the hotel, a curious series of events unfolded. I found that I had lost Hammond’s card and when I looked up the company name he gave me, could not find a listing. Further, when I returned to the building, no one knew of the company or had ever seen a Mr. Hammond.
Could it have been an active imagination? Was I only bringing news from nowhere? Back in San Francisco, I’m still not sure: though I do believe I soon will find my way back to Hammond and his company on 6th Avenue and 48th.