Neurodivergence And Accommodations On The Job

My experience as a student in the Smart Living Learning And Earning With Autism (SLLEA) program has been tied not just to me as an individual on the spectrum, but to my integration into the working world. When I applied for the program I was intrigued by the idea of preparing young adults for jobs and bill paying, both of which seemed to be the most pertinent of skills to work on. Yet in the past few years I have found the most memorable challenges I’ve faced as someone on the spectrum are navigating the way the world around me is constructed from the perspective of a neurotypical mindset, and how jarring it can be when the people who represent institutions of work call on me to fit into their world rather than working with me to create an optimal situation.

            The example that comes to mind was during my employment at a grocery store chain where I was having difficulty assessing the tasks to be done and what order to do them. After six months of integrating into the work routine I still felt a gnawing uncertainty about how to proceed throughout my day, and when I asked my coworkers what task to start on next they’d often tell me to just look around and see what needs to be done. I included this difficulty in the itemized list my job coach and me drew up with the aim of helping my workplace understand my struggle and propose some solutions. When I spoke with HR I brought this list to help me lay out my case, which would be the first time I had applied for accommodations on the job since I started work. I considered these requests to be minor, but more to the point I believed that HR’s primary goal was to work together with me so that even if they weren’t familiar with the requests I was making, we could still work together to solve my issues.

            While our conversation was amiable, and the HR representative was very forthcoming, I found their approach to the problem to be different than I’d anticipated. They wanted me to speak plainly, rather then present my list of issues, which seemed like a good idea in theory except that as someone on the spectrum my ability to articulate specifics can falter. Nonetheless they listened as I read from my prepared list, and seemed to take what I had to say into consideration. They asked me “what kind of autism do you have?” and while they’d stated their past work with employees on the spectrum, I was put off by framing my condition as a category that would define my strengths and weaknesses when what I’d been hoping for was a person who would ask me about how my diagnosis relates to my particular challenges at work.

             After I explained that my difficulty with executive functioning made it hard to prioritize tasks and caused me stress, as well as dealing with criticism from superiors who added to this by starting the day with a list of tasks that I’d been unsatisfactory at, I was hoping my HR person would advocate on my behalf to others who could take an interest in helping me feel more sure of myself. What I had not expected was for them to offer to move me to a different department even though I’d indicated that I was perfectly willing to work on my struggles and quite enjoyed where I was. Though I understood how to a member of a company, shifting around workers was a logical way to quickly solve an issue, I was put off the impetus was on fitting me into a position, and not how they could work with me to overcome some difficulties I had.

            I felt in that moment like I was trying to navigate a workplace that expected everyone to either deal with their stress by powering through it, or giving up and moving on. Despite how important to me it was to be good at my job and develop skills, the prevailing notion seemed to be I needed to achieve the work skills of a neurotypical individual or else I was wasting company time. I had viewed the accommodations meeting as a time where I could work with the person rather than demanding they change their entire policy, but what they suggested made me realize that policy, whether reasonable or not, was made from the mindset of a person who believed people who did not fit in should be relocated rather than given the tools to improve.

            Looking back after I left that job, I can’t help but notice the underlying philosophy that governed that HR department, and how the idea of accommodations for them meant fitting me into the workplace, while to me they meant helping me become the person they needed. In my time with SLLEA the focus has been on how I can grow into a stable and functioning adult, and I’ve had countless people assist me and provide a framework where I know people are familiar with struggles of individuals on the spectrum and encourage me to get better rather than treat me like my shortcomings make me insufficient for certain tasks.

            SLLEA was founded on the idea that people like me can make contributions to society if we are only allowed to develop in a framework that emphasizes our strengths and doesn’t punish us for not fitting in. When done successfully an individual will in time feel greater loyalty and identification with a mission statement apart from what it does for us personally, and inspires us to go above and beyond. Companies exist to provide products and grow their businesses, but surely it is a net positive to have a workforce who feels accepted and identifies with their mission statement rather than one who resents and feels isolated? And if all it takes is educating and training the HR to recognize how to make neurotypical employees feel a part of the mission rather than luggage, how can we say no?       

Sherry Sandeth