Supporting neurodiversity in the workforce is a relatively new concept for many employers. Yet neurodiverse people – including people with autism, intellectual disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, etc. – who enter the workforce want the same sense of purpose, connection and autonomy as most jobseekers. Unfortunately, uncertainty around whether or how to disclose their diagnosis to employers can create barriers for neurodiverse individuals.
A jobseeker may choose to disclose for a variety of reasons – for instance, to be more transparent at work, to discuss accommodations or to explain certain traits. It is important for career professionals to acknowledge that their clients are the rightful owners of their disclosure information and the choice they make should be supported. As such, when clients decide to disclose, the best practice is to help them prepare effective strategies in advance without any judgment or preconceived notions.
What can career professionals do?
Information gathering. First, a career practitioner can talk to their client about the requirements of their current or desired job. It is important to gather information regarding the various responsibilities, tasks and expectations of the role. The client will probably already be familiar with their job requirements, but if this is not clear, the career practitioner and the client can refer to the job description or use a resource such as Alberta’s ALIS or the Canadian JobBank to find information about the occupation. The practitioner can then assess the client’s strengths and areas to work on, while analyzing strategies to better support their challenges. Having a better understanding how the expectations of the individual’s role align with their challenges and strengths can help the practitioner support the client in their disclosure.
Supporting the disclosure. Another point to consider is the amount of information to disclose; often a simple, straightforward approach is effective. Practitioners can help the client determine what the most important information is that they want to share with the employer. A proactive approach that details the challenges the client may face paired with the strategies that are helpful to them is often perceived positively by employers.
Although clients can share this information with or without revealing their diagnostic label, Sasson and Morrison (2017) found that disclosing the diagnostic label of autism resulted in higher trustworthiness and likeability from employers and colleagues compared to when no diagnostic label was provided. Another study indicated that adults who disclose their autism diagnosis to their employers are three times more likely to be employed compared to those who did not disclose (Ohl et al., 2017).
The practitioner can help the client understand accommodations available in the workplace and collaboratively determine an appropriate way to communicate the need for this support with their employer if the client desires. A simple explanation could look like: “I have a learning disability that affects how I see some numbers. Could I get someone to check my data after I am done?” Or, “I have been diagnosed with autism and speaking with clients can be a challenge for me on some days. For those days, can I delegate someone to help with client-specific tasks and I will assist them with their other roles in exchange?” This helps the employer understand the employee’s challenges while also seeing that the individual is still able to perform the essential functions of their jobs.
Taking the client through practice scenarios can also be helpful to help build familiarity with a sometimes-nerve-wracking situation. Neurodiverse individuals with autism tend to feel heightened anxiety to uncertain situations and events (Jenkinson et al., 2020). To help make the process of disclosure easier, the practitioner can provide a few scripts or “communication stories” (a tool to support workplace communication for neurodiverse individuals) to the client, engage them in role-playing exercises to practise the disclosure conversation and suggest coping mechanisms for anxiety (Pouliot et al., 2016).
Centring the client’s needs
The goal of this process is to ensure that the client feels supported going into the disclosure. The practitioner is not there to make assumptions or attempt to sway the client’s decision, but rather to assist them in information gathering and disclosure-preparation activities to ensure that the client feels more comfortable with the process.
The most effective way to make use of these strategies is for practitioners to familiarize themselves with neurodevelopmental conditions before working with the client. The following resources can get you started:
- Canadian Association for Supported Employment: an organization that works with various employment and community providers for people experiencing disability.
- SpectrumWorks: an annual job fair that includes various employers, workshops and service providers that either are looking to hire people on the spectrum or for anyone looking to learn about autism.
- The Government of Canada’s social development page discusses various research, provincial resources and inclusive workplace tools.
Of course, the strategies shared in this article may not apply to all individuals within the spectrum of neurodiversity. It is always best practice to refer to the client’s needs and preferences. The important thing is to ensure that the client is heard and trusted to make autonomous decisions with the support of the practitioner.