• Learning from a Wider Spectrum

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    Two years ago, international software giant SAP launched their Autism at Work initiative. I learned about this effort a few days ago during a book group discussion after reading NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. His exhaustive history of autism is filled with stories of individuals and our historic understanding – and misunderstanding – of autism. In brief, he describes a world in which autism – and all of its variations – is recognized as part of the diversity of the human condition.

    There is a lot of emotion and learning in this field and I can’t pretend to have a deep understanding of the politics or medical treatment of autism. But in our conversation, I was struck by how many people in our relatively small group had personal experiences with people with autism. Each said some version of “if I’d had this kind of understanding of autism, I would have been a better coworker/travel companion/group leader/friend”

    We talked about the conferences Silberman describes, organized by people with autism, and their environment in which they communicate non-verbally using color-coded name tags, have quiet places where they can reduce their environmental stimulation, and places for group activities that appeal to them, such as sharing meaningful objects.

    As our world welcomes the rising numbers of autistic individuals in our schools, and our workforce, I wonder how we will expand our understanding of diversity to include a broader range of personalities and neurological conditions. We often rely on tools such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQi) to understand our colleagues, and ourselves, but are we limiting our workplace?

    Not everyone with autism today will work at SAP, but as our population expands and autism continues to be present, will we be prepared to bring more people who are different into our workplace? Expanding our systems to accommodate and include more diversity in behaviors and preferences may be difficult but it should also lead to more innovation and creativity.

    We can adopt tools similar to the ones the autistic participants designed for their conferences to engage introverts (a green name tag that indicates “I’m interested in discussion but I’m shy about making the first move”), and to encourage focus and decompression (quiet rooms, no technology). By starting now, we may be ready to follow in the footsteps of others who are including autism in their workforce. Or maybe we’ll take the initiative and work with autistic individuals to design work environments that are welcoming and inclusive now.

    SAP: Shifting the perception of people’s abilities: A conversation about Autism at Work


    Mary Jane grew up in Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Ohio before getting a degree in International Relations at American University in Washington, DC. Her years living abroad as a Rotary scholar led her to graduate studies in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. She's worked for local government, the U.S. Coast Guard, the private sector, and UNC Chapel Hill, all the while focused on making great places and safe places. She's the proud mother of two children in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools and loves to read, bike, and help the people around her excel.

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