In the article, Microsoft Wants Autistic Coders. Can It Find Them And Keep Them?” Vauhini Vara reported:
“ . . . millions of adults with autism often find themselves in a difficult bind. They struggle to get and keep jobs because of the disability, but if they disclose it so they can seek accommodations while applying or working—just as someone in a wheelchair, for instance, might request a ramp—they risk facing discrimination from managers or colleagues who mistakenly believe autism, because it affects the brain, must make them less able workers.”
The Virginia Commonwealth University website states: disclosing “may be a major cause of anxiety or concern for people with disabilities as well as those who assist them when looking for a job.”
It’s important to understand the sensitive subject matter of disclosure.
In a recent phone conversation I had with Adam Glass, the Career Path Coordinator at The Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), Glass noted that some students state something along these lines:
I don’t want to be treated differently. I don’t want to be associated with autism . . . I don’t want to be seen for my weakness.
Despite the college students’ justifiable trepidation, as part of the AIM program at Mercyhurst University, Glass encourages the students to disclose their disability. He explains they don’t have to necessarily disclose autism upfront but can choose to disclose a symptomology disclosure. In other words, to disclose a coexisting condition such as sensory integration challenges or a subset of a condition such as over sensitivity to specific uniform fabrics. Glass takes time throughout the year to explain what disclosing a diagnosis of autism can and cannot do, and poses all options, including what happens if you do and what happens if you don’t. He asks each pupil to choose what feels right for you and advices to follow your dreams not stay in a bubble. He informs students of their legal rights and advices if you don’t disclose, you won’t know what options and accommodations you might have access to. He helps students to interpret the law and to understand their employment rights. When Glass and his colleagues travel to meet with employers, who have autism hiring initiatives, they bring some of their students along. And quite often, meeting face-to-face, the potential employees ask the autistic students, “What do you need from us?”
What Glass is doing is inspiring, and something that ought to be implemented on high school campuses and college campuses nationwide. His primary goal is to empower and encourage. And part of this goal is achieved through teaching the basics of disclosing. He teaches autism is an integrate part of you, but it’s never you. He emphasizes the divide between individuals who push onward and those that don’t. What I would call resilience. And what autistics can offer that others cannot.
When an individual is considering whether or not to disclose a diagnosis of autism several factors come into play:
- How self-confident and knowledgeable about autism is the individual?
- Does the individual have a mentor or support person?
- Is the individual aware of disability rights?
- Is the individual able to ask for reasonable accommodations, if needed?
- Is the individual resilient and able to face probable stereotyping, assumptions, and misinterpretations?
- Is the individual self-empowered?
Before setting any person, whether young or old, on the path of disclosing in the workplace, we must be realistic. Most autistics, after disclosing on the job, face some form of discrimination, myself included. Take for example what an audiologist from the UK wrote:
“If I choose to disclose my AS (Aspergers) at work, management is initially understanding but then put me in difficult environments due to my experience and end up refusing to make any environmental or procedural adaptations for me. This leads to increased absence, anxiety, rigid thinking, inflexibility and ultimately meltdown (which occurs outside of the workplace, negatively affecting friends, family and romantic relationships). I usually resign before I meltdown at work. I am concerned that I will become unemployable, if I develop a reputation for unreliability in such a small industry . . . We don’t ask for ‘special’ treatment. We ask for certain conditions to allow us to function at the same level as the rest of the workforce. Once these conditions are met, you will find you have the hardest working, most loyal employees around.”
A day trader with Asperger’s Syndrome had this to say, “I don’t know what’s worse, being judged because no one knows you have autism or knowing that if you tell people you have autism that action alone is going to come off as extremely strange. In theory, I won’t only be judged for my autism, but for the mere action of disclosing.”
A 30-year old autistic man, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote:
“I deeply regret sharing my diagnosis. My coworker thought Aspergers was an extremely awful disability that makes people uncomfortable. He had no reference point. And nothing was ever the same again. It resulted in the end of our working relationship. If I was ever to go into another job, the last thing I would ever do is tell them I was autistic . . . because they are just going to misinterpret it. I mean it’s a deal breaker for all NTs (neurotypical/non-autistic); they are never going to look at you the same. It’s not that I am afraid of what they think. I just know that once I tell them that it can never be undone. That’s not just in the workplace. It’s with doctors, family members, even my own parents . . .”
That’s the thing about an invisible condition: sometimes we have a choice of whether or not we want others to know. And for good reason, some of us choose not to disclose at all. There is still a lot of misinformation out there surrounding the autism spectrum condition, still a high likelihood of facing the wallop of discrimination, once an autism diagnosis is mentioned. Ironically, today’s business and university leaders often denote autism with an aura of less than, using the words ‘they’ and ‘help them,’ and implying, and even stating, workers on the autism spectrum are incapable of leadership and management—even as large numbers of autistics are the very ones entrusted to educate our children as teaching assistances, general education and special education teachers, and college professors. Furthermore, some of us ‘with autism’ are in highly influential positions, serving as civil servants, defense lawyers, oncology doctors, and pediatric nurses. Whether we publicly admit our autism/Aspergers or not, we are out there in much larger numbers than currently reported. And it’s common knowledge that Silicon Valley and Bellevue, WA hubs, and other technology city centers, are overtaken by professionals with autistic attributes and traits—but maybe by another name—gifted, geek, nerd, genius.
To this day, five years after my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, I ponder the pros and cons of being out of the “autistic closet.” In considering whether someone should disclose they are on the autism spectrum, a marching band of pros and cons arise. Anyone who is autistic can easily venture into the feasible benefits and risks of disclosing on the job. We all know, and some have lived at some level, the risk of backlash from supervisors and co-workers. And some of us are fortunate enough to know the benefits of an inclusive and accepting work environment.
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to disclosing autism or Aspergers on the job. Still there is a potential threat—it’s always there. And there are ramifications, regardless of any precautionary measures taken.
In reality, autism is a baby in the realm of marginalized minorities. Swarming is false, outdated, and unsubstantiated information about autism spectrum disorders. Beginning to fly, queries of whether or not autism is even a disorder. And false information certainly abounds. When paid professionals in the field of psychology are mistaking sustained eye contact, empathy, imagination, and ability to make friends as markers against feasibly having autism, how can we expect that the average non-autistic will get it? When “sensitivity” trainings and conventions about autism are saturated by educators and presenters who are non-autistics, how are we heard? And how many immediately box us into constricting conclusions of less than, needs special treatment, fragile, or a charity case? How many think us to be like the one autistic they already know or have heard about?
How many of us lose who we are and become something we are not, in the eyes of another, with the mention of autism?
“Disclosure provides opportunities to educate and inform other people about autism, and to advocate on behalf of those within our community who may not be in as good a position to do so for themselves,” stated Maura Campbell, a senior manager in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and former board member of Specialisterne. “It allows you to challenge head-on the myths and misconceptions that abound about autism, partly due to its stereotypical portrayal in the media and popular culture. When people express surprise that I have Asperger’s (which is generally the case), I have an opening to correct some of the inaccurate impressions they may have about autism . . . ” But she is also a realist. “When I ‘came out’, I was asked a couple of times what treatment I was receiving. No matter how hard I tried to tell people that the diagnosis was a positive event, a confirmation of who I already was, they behaved as though I was conveying bad news. What I learned from this was that people do not always receive information in the same way as you present it to them. They often apply their own filters, overlaying what you have said with their own preconceptions and assumptions.” (source: Spectrum Women Magazine)
It is true disclosure during the hiring process or on the job can unintentionally lead to unfavorable consequences. Particularly, if a place of employment is not neurodiverse friendly or is not well educated in autistic culture, history, traits, and attributes. Whether or not to disclose is very much a personal choice.
Alternatives to not disclosing autism at a place of work:
- State subtle needs
- Work to blend in
- Establish a support network outside of work
- Find a trusted coworker to help interpret unspoken rules and workplace culture
- Reevaluate disclosing at a later point
- Establish own accommodations
- Practice self-care on the job
As a general rule, when weighing the pros and cons of job place disclosing, for either yourself or someone you know, keep in mind that the act of disclosing has the potential to lead to direct opportunities for employment success.
When an employee discloses on the job:
- Employers have opportunity to consider workplace adjustments and supports (reasonable accommodations, peer mentors, the establishment of a disability resource group).
- Job candidate can ask for reasonable accommodation during the job screening process (list of topics that will be asked during interview, an interview over the phone, an overview of the hiring practice, an alternative to resume, a portfolio or video that showcases skills)
- Springboard for other possible work opportunities within the company (customized job description, creating a new job role, being a neurodiversity trainer or peer-support person)
- Opportunity to present past workplace supports and how the employee previously excelled
- Working with a vocational counselor or other employment specialist to establish support measures
- Protected under ADA
- Platform to state needs and educate about disability or condition
- Lead to policy change and open new doors for others
- Avoid the possibility of an employer feeling mislead or misinformed
Yes, there are multiple ways that the act of disclosing a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome can assist a job seeker or an employee. I would definitely recommend disclosing at work (on my good days). Even so, as previously mentioned, the idea is very subjective and dependent upon multiple variables, including the workplace culture, one’s ability to state workplace needs and to stick up for one’s self, the individual’s own understanding of autism, and whether or not there is a support person available.
When in doubt about workplace disclosure, I suggest that those on the autism spectrum ask other autistics that have been in the same situation, research into the pros and cons, and make a personal decision that best fits the individual.
About the Author
Founder & President of Spectrum Suite, Marcelle Ciampi (aka Samantha Craft) M.Ed. is the lead job recruiter for ULTRA Testing, an autism educator, the author of the blog and book Everyday Aspergers, Selection Committee Chair at the ANCA World Autism Festival and active in autism groups locally and globally. She serves as a guest speaker, workshop presenter, and neurodiversity recruitment specialist.
This disclosure article is an excerpt from Ciampi’s manuscript, Autism in a Briefcase, written to provide insight to employers and agencies about the neurodiverse talent pool. A former schoolteacher and advocate for children with special needs, she appreciates the skills and talents of autistics. You can reach her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and at firstname.lastname@example.org