Society is going through major changes when it comes to mental illnesses. For decades, even centuries, individuals with any form of mental illness have been thrust to the edges of society, and any discussion of therapy, treatment or inclusion is an almost taboo subject. Consider the fear and outrage that happened when it was claimed that vaccines caused autism. The issue was less about the now false link and more that people didn’t want their children to have the stigma that comes with autism.
However, the recent global pandemic combined with the explosion of individual voices in popular social media platforms means that people are talking about autism, unlike at any other time in history. There are now multiple platforms where you can listen to autistic people discussing their experiences directly, as well as autism experts sharing their opinions and ideas about society in general, and the workplace, in particular, can become more autism friendly.
Busting Autism Myths
A large barrier to this inclusive utopia is the negative stereotypes about neurodiversity and autism held by swathes of the population. To become more autism-friendly, commonly held myths about autism need to be busted, and new thought processes introduced. Before looking at the most common misunderstandings, it’s important to recognize the rationale behind talking about the autism spectrum, rather than just autism. No two autistic people will present with exactly the same set of symptoms, and there is a wide variety of how autism affects their ability to engage in neurotypical environments. With that in mind, it’s time to bust some autism myths:
Myth 1: Autistic people can’t interact socially
The idea of acceptable social interactions is firmly rooted in neurotypical, Western patterns of behavior. It’s expected from a young age that people engage in small talk conversations with each other (think about how many times you’ll have the short “how are you?” conversation during one day!), and expect high levels of eye contact with each other. Add into this mix the use of abstract linguistic tools like innuendo, metaphors, and sarcasm, and you have a recipe for disaster for an autistic worker trying to navigate a neurotypical workplace.
However, it’s a vast overgeneralization that autistic people aren’t able to socialize with others. Many autistic people have learned to follow certain social norms and expectations that help them function. You’ll also find that autistic people are fun and engaging conversationalists, especially when you’re talking with them about something that they’re passionate about. To help truly bust this myth, however, it falls to neurotypical individuals to meet them halfway by using more concrete linguistic tools and being good listeners to validate and affirm neurodiverse thinking patterns.
Myth 2: Autistic people are only good at maths
It’s unfortunate that the only way that autistic people get represented in TV and movies is by being really good at maths and science-related fields. Consider how autism comes across in The Rain Man as someone who only has one particular skill or the quirky and brusque Dr. Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. These fictional representations create negative stereotypes about autism and maths for many neurotypical people.
The truth is very much more nuanced. While it’s true that there are plenty of autistic workers who have a high level of logical functioning that helps them excel in fields involving maths and science, there are even more who find maths a struggle and who show strengths in other areas. For example, many autistic workers have a keen eye for detail which helps them to succeed in areas like graphic design or architectural design. Autistic employees can be successful in just about any field and will bring other unexpected but wonderful traits to the job.
Myth 3: Autistic people need too many accommodations
The employment statistics for autistic adults in British Columbia make for somber reading. It’s estimated that around 80% of the 50,000 adults with an autism spectrum diagnosis are either out of work or underemployed, where they are in jobs that don’t use their unique skills, talents, and experiences. A large reason for this is the common misconception that it’s too “hard” to hire autistic workers as they will require major changes and support that will go beyond what most companies can provide.
Again, this negative stereotype is founded on ignorance. Autistic people talk about themselves in terms of the amount of support they need to function in a neurotypical world. Low support needs individuals will be able to assimilate easily into the workplace with staff training and empathy from their colleagues. High support needs workers will often come with a plan of action in place and will be dedicated to building their own independence. They along with their advocates are aware of the burden of their accommodations and will work with the hiring team to find the right balance to allow them to take their rightful place in society.