interview with an employee at a majority-autistic company

Symone is a regular reader here, and she works for a majority-autistic company and is autistic herself. I asked if she’d let me interview her about what working there is like, in advance of Autism Awareness Month (which starts tomorrow), and she generously agreed to talk with me.

Some quick background: Her employer is auticon, a technology consulting firm that specializes in hiring people who are on the autism spectrum to work as consultants. They offer what they call an autistic-friendly working environment, and they provide job coaches who work with the consultants and their clients. Here’s a New York Times piece if you’d like to learn more about them. (Note: this post is not intended as promotion for auticon; I don’t know enough to endorse them in that way. What I was interested in was Symone’s experience working there.)

Here’s our conversation.

Hi! Tell me a little about the type of work you do.

I do a lot of organizational work behind the scenes, such as triaging new applicants and records management. I started here shortly into COVID and one of my first projects was getting on top of all of these job applications from people who probably hadn’t even read the posting. While this is normal for big job sites, it’s even worse for us as maybe only half a percent would be autistic. Recruiting can be a challenge as a lot of people in tech (like me) were only diagnosed as adults, or can’t get a formal diagnosis.

Speaking of recruiting, your company has an interview process designed to be friendlier to autistic people. What was the interview process like for you? In what ways did you find the process different from other jobs you’ve interviewed for? 

Job interviews tend to involve a variety of barriers for autistic people (sensory issues such as lighting or background noise, being put on the spot, having to read between the lines, etc.). auticon’s recruitment process is longer, in order to give our job coaches a good understanding of someone’s strengths and support needs. Things are more typical when consultants interview for positions with our partner organizations, but a job coach will help them prepare and sometimes attend the interview. We also do a lot of advance work to match consultants with jobs technically and culturally.

I didn’t go through the full process myself, as I ended up being able to start under an internship – I had a lengthy application form and multiple interviews. I’ve done a lot of work to improve my interviewing skills thanks to AAM, but the stakes felt much lower in my interviews.

You mentioned sensory issues like lighting and background noise, and being put on the spot or having to read between the lines — what do they do differently in those regards?

I can’t really comment on in-person specifics since I interviewed remotely (what strange times we live in!). I would say that the difference here is an awareness and understanding of those sensory and language processing differences, and how they manifest. The job coaches I work with prioritize motivation levels, interest in the field and openness to learning over facial expressions, eye contact or body language. We try to make interviews lower-stress by explaining why we do things, providing some questions in advance, and suggesting supports for people who don’t make it through our recruitment process. I specifically remember talking to the CEO for the first time, which is often a pretty intimidating experience, and he made me feel very at ease.

That makes sense. What it’s like working for a majority-autistic company? What are some of the things that are different from other places you’ve worked?  

Disclosing autism can be detrimental, which I’ve experienced firsthand. There’s a lot of stigma and unconscious bias that leads well-intending people to do harmful things, and it can be a huge challenge to get others to understand my way of thinking. By contrast, my perspective is welcomed and encouraged at auticon. Things aren’t perfect – we’re all human, and the autism spectrum encompasses many traits that can sometimes clash – but there’s an awareness and an openness that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

There’s also a lot more flexibility – working from home has certainly helped there, but there’s also a culture that prioritizes health and wellbeing. Earlier this week my CEO told everyone to make sure they take their full vacation this year, for instance.

Is there anything specific your company has done that has communicated that your perspective is more welcomed and encouraged — things that were different than what you’ve encountered at other companies?

I like organizing things, so I came along at a good time in the sense that I had a big organizational challenge! auticon has been much more open to the tips I’ve picked up elsewhere – I’d often see the status quo defended in the past. Some of this is a startup thing of course, and some is due to COVID. On that last point, there’s some bitterness in the disability community as many things we’ve been asking for (remote work, flex hours, etc.) has been implemented en masse over the past year, but I’m hopeful that we collectively find a new normal now that we can be flexible and still productive.

There’s also a real focus on working to suit everyone’s strengths. For me, I get a lot of positive feedback and my colleagues have a good understanding of how to give constructive feedback effectively. For our consultants, everyone works hard to find strong fits technically and culturally – these pieces are both important, but cultural fit is where I really find auticon is different. Presentations are held with interested companies on autism before putting anyone forward (to work with them), and the job coaches work both with consultants and a single point of contact at those companies. Neurodiversity in the workforce is a powerful tool of adaptability – not every autistic person is going to be suited for the IT industry, but the work auticon has pioneered has a ripple effect and I am proud to be part of a much bigger movement through it.

You’d mentioned flexibility earlier. Will you say more about what that looks like?

I’m much better writing than talking, so calls are infrequent and people typically ask for permission before calling. Our default in meetings is camera off. There’s a lot of flexibility around hours as well – childcare, medical appointments, productivity at different times, etc. 

Are there specific ways that interpersonal interaction feels different there? Are there behaviors/ways of being that feel discouraged at other workplaces that are fine/welcome there? Or the opposite — things that were fine/welcome in other jobs that are discouraged there?

I’d find a lot went assumed or unspoken in previous workplaces, and impatience was a common reaction when I didn’t pick up on these things the way others were used to. Asking a lot of questions can come off as insubordination, but I do so to make sure I really understand things and can run with them. My colleagues understanding this makes me a better decision maker as I don’t have to second guess myself. Similarly, I explain my perspective to help people understand it, which can come off as egotistical. At auticon my level of self-awareness is refreshing, and it helps to build a safe environment for others like me.

auticon strives for diversity, inclusion, and acceptance from an intersectional perspective as well. Stereotypes against autism in gender or racial minorities are still quite prevalent, so there’s some equity in accepting applicants without a formal diagnosis, for instance. I’m really inspired by BLM, neurodiversity, and the disability rights movement, and I’m grateful for a job where I can contribute to advocacy just by being my authentic self.

Let’s talk physical space! What’s your personal workspace like? Is there anything about the physical set-up there that’s better for you than in other workplaces?

I am 100% remote, but in the office I’ve benefited from a quiet, organized workspace, the ability to wear headphones, and limited interruptions. auticon does have offices in Canada, Los Angeles, and in Europe where the space is designed for people with sensitivity to noise, bright lights, and awkward social situations. There are quiet spaces for privacy. Additionally, job coaches are available for support and help in managing on-the-job stresses.

How has all this affected your relationship to your job / feelings about work overall? Has it changed your quality of life?

Autistic life is often exhausting — we process things differently and the world is not designed for us, plus it’s a constant struggle to convince others that our perspectives are valid. People don’t understand that they don’t understand. This is referred to as the Double Empathy Problem: our traits and methods aren’t wrong, they’re just very different.

Working as an autistic person has meant I needed to accommodate a lot of teaching/explanation and internal bias. That’s a job in itself, and it demands a lot of vulnerability — people take that for granted. At auticon this is recognized, so I have much less stress/anxiety to manage and more capacity to focus on my job.

Further Reading

Symone was kind enough to suggest the following for further reading.

Job Accommodation Network: Autism Spectrum

I Self‑Diagnosed My Autism Because Nobody Else Would. Here’s Why That Needs to Change.

50 Ways Society Gaslights and Stonewalls Autistic People

Lost in Translation: The Social Language Theory of Neurodivergence

Me and Monotropism: A Unified Theory of Autism

Autistic Burnout: An Often-Misunderstood Element of Autism

She also suggests these more general articles, noting “they’re good viewpoints on the internal biases that keep people like me from thriving in many workplaces”:

Validation Is Key: “I Understand Why You’re So Stressed Out”

Laziness Does Not Exist

There’s No Such Thing as Behavior

‘It’s OK not to be OK’: Minnesota psychologists push back on ‘toxic positivity’

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