Grilled Cheese, Hair Dryers & Autism
April is filled with some interesting holidays and observations…Ramadan begins on the 3rd, Arbor Day is on the 5th, and I will undoubtedly be celebrating Grilled Cheese Day on the 12th. April is also Autism Acceptance month.
I remember Dr. Miller, our pediatrician of 19 years, cautioning us not to compare our children’s development, whether to friends’ kids or between our own two children, because each child develops at their own pace. He said it doesn’t matter how quickly they get to some milestone, just whether they are progressing through each one. Although I tried desperately to heed the doctor’s advice, I couldn’t help but think something must be wrong with my daughter. Sure, she scooted, crawled, and then pulled herself up, but why on earth was this child not walking?! As for our family, we are not little people, and she was no exception; hauling her around on my hip day after day became exhausting, both mentally and physically. However, lo and behold, she finally determined it was her time to walk….at 18 months old.
Our son, Eli, had a keen fascination with anything that had wheels. This could be his stroller, bikes, trucks, and especially toy cars. Kids at his age typically engaged in pretend play; maybe creating a make-believe city with Matchbox cars and a storyline of a car chase traveling along the backside of the couch. Eli, however, preferred to meticulously sort his extensive car collection by make, color, or type of vehicle, lining them up on each of the steps winding upstairs. The steps allowed him to be precisely at eye level to intently study how the wheels moved back and forth. It was often difficult to get his attention when he was in a zone; calling his name repeatedly and more loudly didn’t work, so a gentle touch on the shoulder was sometimes needed. Parents of toddlers might groan at yet another “why” inquiry from their 3-year-old; Eli was content to take in the world on his own accord, not necessarily requiring Mom and Dad’s explanations or our participation in whatever he was engrossed in. Communication was difficult to decipher and would often consist of unrelated statements; for example, when asked how his day was at pre-school, he might respond with something more important on his mind, like “I have a red truck”. When we joined various play groups, kids would happily join in on the activity at hand, while I watched my son drift away from the chaos and noise to revel in some peaceful space.
“Don’t compare him to others” kept creeping into my mind, but motherly intuition finally took over and we had him evaluated when he was 3. “Autism Spectrum Disorder”, they told us. What did this mean? Is there a cure? Did we do something to cause this? What can we expect for his future? As any parent would do, we immersed ourselves in research and met with numerous therapists, teachers, counselors, doctors, wellness experts, and many others to find answers.
Over the 13 years since then, we’ve learned a lot – some helpful and some not so much. According to the CDC, 1:44 children are diagnosed with Autism, so it’s likely you know someone with Autism. But as the saying goes, “When you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism,” which essentially highlights the fact that this neurodevelopmental disorder is incredibly diverse. How Autism affects and displays in my son is very different from how it impacts someone else. Loud noises can be too much sensory input for Eli; however, some kids may find pleasure in creating noise by banging pots and pans or screaming. Some Autistics dislike hugging or touching; Eli, on the other hand, is quick to show affection with a hug or snuggle in to watch a movie but may not know who it’s appropriate to do this with. Some people with Autism are unable to speak and may use a voice assisted device to convey their thoughts; Eli would love to tell you as much as you’re willing to listen to about his favorite video games, memes, or his thoughts for the future (and may need you to politely tell him when you’ve heard enough, as he may not pick up on the non-verbal cues you’re giving him).
Eli has learned a lot over the years to do his best to adjust to a “neurotypical” world, but we have learned a tremendous amount as well. Trying to fit in can be exhausting for anyone, so I remind myself often how it must feel for someone with an invisible disability and instead try focusing on what works best for him. Rather than correcting him when he used to flap his arms wildly or walk on his tippy toes, we learned that he expressed his excitement or stress through his body, called stimming, sometimes better than words. Instead of trying to force him to play games at recess, we learned that pacing around the perimeter of the playground gave him time to decompress from a long day of holding it together. Instead of being frustrated that he couldn’t complete the 3 simple things we’d ask him to do, we learned that visual schedules (pictures/words) helped him with his executive functioning skills to stay focused.
In my role as a consultant helping companies become more empathetic and human-centered, it has me thinking more about Eli’s future and what the world of work will look like for him. Fewer than half of autistic adults are employed.
Will he find a career that’s interesting to him and uses his strengths? Few of us work in roles designed to our personal specifications. In the book “Personalization at Work: How HR Can Use Job Crafting to Drive Performance, Engagement, and Wellbeing”, Rob Baker finds that employees thrive when allowed to design roles to fit their strengths instead of an archaic one-size fits all approach. Maybe it’s time to rethink the way jobs are created.
Will the hiring process prove to be extra challenging? Yes, candidates can request specific accommodation; however, designing better hiring practices to be more inclusive could make it a better experience that anyone would appreciate. Companies such as Microsoft, SAP, EY, Freddie Mac, to name a few, have formed an Employer Roundtable to share best practices when hiring neurodiverse (ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, etc.) employees. These best practices can include:
Providing interview topics beforehand. (Is “surprising” candidates and seeing who responds best under pressure really the best indicator of how they will perform in the role?)
Incorporating activities (with plenty of preparation) to show certain skills, like problem-solving, versus talking about it. (Just because someone is a great talker, does that mean they can perform better?)
Communicate exactly what to expect during interviews, preferably in writing. (Wouldn’t everyone appreciate knowing what to wear, how lunch is being handled, or who you’re meeting with?)
Limiting the number and length of interviews. (Who performs their best after 5 back-to-back interviews answering essentially the same questions?) Maybe it’s time to create a better hiring experience.
Will he feel welcomed? Sure, an organization might have the “right” policies, procedures, or mission statement in place, but it’s important to understand how work really gets done and how people are treated in subtle ways. We ALL have unconscious biases and make assumptions about people, but what we do about it is a choice. Do we assume the loudest person has the most important thing to say? Do we assume that the person who consistently declines team happy hours or wears headphones at their desk is being rude and not a “team player”? Maybe it’s time we find out from individuals how THEY work best.
Read on to learn a little bit about Eli (and this mom’s two cents) …
What are 5 things to know about Eli? 1) I have braces. 2) I like gaming. 3) I don’t like making art. 4) I am a good worker and had a job at Target. 5) I have a cat named Cheddar who’s a lovable jerk.
How would you describe Autism? Being able to think, not worse than others, but differently. I find this explanation about the “hair dryer kid” to be the best I’ve ever read.
What type of accommodations help you at school (or work)? Having someone to ask questions, written instructions, quiet spaces.
Do you think those are expensive for school/work to do? I don’t think so. Darn right! It’s a common misconception that hiring people with disabilities will be cost prohibitive; most are free or very inexpensive.
When you think about the type of company you’d like to work for someday, what’s important to you (in other words, what would make that company a good fit for you)? Pay, hours, size, and people who are helpful when I need it. Culture and the ability to be your authentic self are key!
Why does Mom love you so much? Because I’m her son. He’s compassionate, helpful, smart, loving, positive, and can always make me laugh. 😊
As for Eli’s future, we’re still figuring that out, but I’m determined to make sure he’s not part of that unemployment statistic.
Thanks for reading. If you are interested in learning more about Autism, disability hiring practices, or my favorite grilled cheese recipe, check out the embedded links or feel free to reach out!
Cave Tubing together in Belize over Christmas. Sadly, no pictures of his Matchbox cars, but he did the same thing with Halloween candy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peggy Roos is a Consultant in the Leapgen Digital HR practice who brings deep HR experience in both corporate HR and outsourcing roles.
Peggy started her career in traditional HR Business Partner roles in healthcare, retail, and software technology companies. She then transitioned into HR outsourcing where she shifted to more of an operational focus within HR, specializing in large Talent & HR outsourcing initiatives. In these roles, she focused on identifying best practices, evaluating emerging innovative trends/tools in the marketplace, and assessed industry benchmarks to drive continuous improvement. Additionally, she implemented process re-engineering, tool transformation and HR shared service implementation strategies along with designing analytics and digital solutions to create improvements in candidate and employee experiences, employment branding, performance, and retention.
Additionally, she served as lead for global experimentation projects to test new concepts and identify leading practices in employee performance, culture, and career development with a lens on diversity and inclusion.
Leapgen is a global digital transformation company shaping the NOW of work. Highly respected as a visionary partner to organizations looking to design and deliver a digital workforce experience that will produce valued outcomes to the business, Leapgen helps enterprise leaders rethink how to better design and deliver workforce services and architect HR technology solutions that meet the expectations of workers and the needs of the business.