Interviewing, Hiring and Managing Autistic Employees
This is a guide for recruiters, managers and HR professionals who want to better understand how to interview, hire and manage Autistic individuals. A lot of Autistic needs tend to run counter to established paradigms of professionalism, and a lot of work environments can end up being hostile to Autistic sensory experiences.
Many hiring teams won’t read this, because many hiring teams will throw away resumes that mention autism. This happened to me — I am accustomed to regularly being called back based on the strength of my resume, but when I added autism to it I suddenly stopped receiving calls back. That makes me sad, and is a sad reflection of the state of our professional landscape for Autistic people.
The fact is, everything we know about autism has evolved significantly in the past few years. If you’d like to better understand
You may or may not want to seek out Autistic employees for your place of business. Autistic people make excellent workers in the right context and as long as their needs are met. We are diligent, attentive to detail and loyal to a fault. Our excellent pattern detection skills means we spot systemic problems long before they become issues. When we get interested in a problem we focus on it — sometimes to the detriment of other things in our lives — until it’s resolved. We’re excellent researchers, programmers, scientists and chefs — but plenty of us also really enjoy socializing and do can well in service-oriented positions as well.
Unfortunately, many of us (up to 87% of diagnosed Autistics!) do not participate in the workforce since our needs are often antithetical to what’s expected of us in a professional context.
If you want to hire Autistic people, or if you just want to expand your hiring pool to include Autistic people, then you need to find them where they are. This often means looking online — Autistic people are all over social media, for instance, using the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic. (Note: that tag is only for Autistic people to use — but you can search it to find people!)
One way to notify a large number of Autistic people that your company is hiring and is explicitly Autistic-friendly is to ask an Autistic colleague to publish your recruiting material into Autistic spaces on social media. Even then, though, there’s going to be a lot of skepticism — many of us have been burned many times. People will ask you “What does Autistic-friendly mean in concrete terms?” and if you don’t have a good answer then you’re wasting everyone’s time.
What Does an “Autistic-Friendly” Workplace Look Like?
If you’ve decided that you want to make your company inclusive towards Autistic people, then thank you and congratulations, you’re about to grow in directions you’ve never thought about before!
But to attract that talent, you’re going to have to do the work of showing them that you can be trusted to understand and accommodate their needs, and that means earning trust. The rest of this document is going to be oriented around giving you the answer to the question “What does Autistic-friendly mean at your company?” While you may not choose to adapt all of these practices, you’ll at least better understand what an Autistic-friendly workplace really looks like.
But understand: autism is not a single presentation of traits, it’s a convoluted, poorly defined mess containing a number of contradictions. Each Autistic person is going to have a unique profile of skills and needs, and the key to being an Autistic-friendly workplace is being a human-friendly workplace that takes the individual needs of its employees seriously.
I’m offering some example accommodations below, but these are not blanket policies that will work well for every Autistic person; these are examples of the kinds of things that many Autistic people may find helpful. But because we’re not a monolith, the number one thing to remember is this: just ask if you can do anything to make things easier for them, and then actually listen to the answer.
Many Autistic people struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder. This can manifest in a number of ways — maybe fluorescent lights are physically painful, maybe they can’t process audio information as quickly as their peers and need subtitles on zoom calls, maybe they are always hot or always cold in the office. The key thing to understand here is that peoples’ bodies don’t all react to the same stimuli the same way — an ideal work environment for one person may very well be a sensory hell for another, and nobody would ever realize that unless the person suffering spoke up.
Speaking up takes courage. Autistic people spend a lifetime being told their sensitivities are all in their heads, and it’s traumatic to bring up a need and have your request rebuffed over and again.
Autistics Survive When...
We have a degree of control over our environments, and can avoid overwhelming stimulus as necessary.
We are believed and respected when we state our (admittedly sometimes unusual) needs.
We are not forced to participate in activities that we find overwhelming.
We are allowed to dress in clothing we find comfortable.
Autistics Thrive When...
We’re allowed to work remotely. We love working from home, as a general rule. If we can do our jobs remotely then for god’s sake let us do our jobs remotely, where we can work from an environment over which we have complete control and which we’ve fine-tuned to our needs.
Our sensory needs are considered and met. We love being asked if the lights are too bright or if the temperature is okay or if the volume is too loud. It’s difficult to be the one who speaks up over and over, and so many Autistic people learn to suffer in silence. Proactively seeking out ways to alleviate that suffering is a huge win for everyone.
Meetings, either in-person or online, are kept to a minimum and only used when really necessary. Most communication can and should be written so that people can go back and re-read it to make sure they understood it, and so that socializing is not required in order to gain necessary information.
There’s no dress code.
Look, some of us can navigate complex social situations fluidly but many of us can’t. We fidget, we say things people don’t understand, we misunderstand the joke or laugh at the thing nobody else found funny. We can be too loud or too quiet, we can communicate in ways that neurotypical people misunderstand, we may miss social cues or unspoken communication.
All of this is legitimately problematic when trying to collaborate with other people towards a shared goal. We know you’re frustrated with us, we know you hate it when we ask just one more question, we know you find us abrasive and unpleasant. We didn’t want to go to that after-work social event but an invitation would have been nice, you know?
So, what can you do as an employer to accommodate this need? A couple of things.
Autistics Survive When...
Our tone, facial expressions and body language are not policed. We often have to control these things manually, and unlike neurotypical people, it’s counterintuitive for us to use them for communication. Mostly my face just does what it wants, you know?
De-escalation in moments of conflict. Autism is a communication disability, and problems with communication can lead to conflict. It’s important to understand that the conflict is almost never intentional, and that colleagues understand how to step back from a misunderstanding that led to heightened emotions.
We’re included! Invite us, even if we say no a lot. It’s nice to feel wanted.
We are granted interpretive generosity. Did it sound, based on a combination of the words I used and my tone of voice, like I was insulting you? That is likely a misunderstanding, and I will apologize if I realize it.
Social roles are made explicit. Do you need me to not speak so casually to the CEO on the company slack? No problem, please tell me that.
). What this means is that it’s simply not always possible to “do the thing”. The mechanism that turns intention into action is complex and can break down, and when that happens we’re in trouble.
Autistic employees can be highly variable, able to focus on a hard problem for days at a time one week and unable to carry out basic tasks the next. Generally we’ll prioritize showing up for our professional obligations at the cost of our personal lives, so when the executive function starts to go, work is the last place to suffer — but it does suffer, and so we have to be open and honest about that.
Autistics Survive When...
It’s understood that our productivity can be uneven, and nobody looks too closely at the day-to-day output as long as the overall output is on target.
There is an established routine. Executive function problems often manifest when we’re faced with a new task that has a lot of steps, even if they’re minor or easy steps. Try to create contexts where the day-to-day routine can handle any upcoming challenges with a minimum of steps.
We have the freedom to take time off when we need it for our capacity to function.
We are reassured that we are doing a good job and nobody hates us for our uneven output.
We are protected from novelty or surprise in our work lives, which can cause us to freeze up.
Autistics Thrive When...
Nobody is looking at the clock, nobody is expecting 40 hours a week. We have our tasks and we are expected to complete them by some deadline and the rest is up to us.
Things are automated. This won’t apply at every job, but the more you can automate, the easier it becomes for people with executive function to do stuff. Running a single command to execute a whole 20-step process is always a win, right?
We have unlimited time off with explicit permission to use it as necessary (when possible and appropriate).
We receive regular feedback that explicitly considers our executive function challenges and accounts for them in an overall summary of performance. Hearing “I know you took a lot of time off this quarter but your work was fantastic, keep doing what you’re doing!” will keep me going for months.
We are given questions in advance of interviews. When interviewing Autistic candidates, I hear time and again that people would love to receive the questions in advance so that they can prepare. Surprise questions can lead to freezing in interviews. This isn’t possible with every company’s hiring practices, but it may be worth considering whether it can be made possible.
Autistic people can struggle with attention. Being Autistic makes you more likely to have ADHD, and having ADHD makes you more likely to be Autistic, turns out. So accommodating attentional needs in Autistic employees will also help anyone else who struggles with attention or memory.
Autistic people, like ADHD people, often “hyper focus” or focus heavily on a given topic for an extended period of time. The opposite end of this is a complete inability to focus on anything. It’s not uncommon for folks to oscillate between the two extremes. So the key to successful Autistic participation in work life is harnessing the hyper focus while minimizing the damage caused by any lack of focus.
Autistic People Survive When...
There’s a company culture of writing things down and preserving them. Keep a Coda document with current practices, have someone take meeting notes and publish them after the meeting, use an issue tracking system so that tasks don’t get forgotten, etc.
Asynchronous workflows that allow Autistic employees to be productive when their attention is toggled on, rather than trying to force productivity when attention is toggled off.
We receive support around focus — mid-sprint deadlines can help with this, daily check-ins from supportive colleagues, or general accountability practices around deliverables can all help to alleviate the problems caused by attentional drift.
Autistic People Thrive When...
Not only past events but future events are represented digitally in an accessible way. Put everything on a calendar and make that calendar canonical, we’ll check it! Update calendar events with links to notes or summaries of the event, too, to make it easier to look up what happened after the fact.
We’re given tasks we’re interested in. Autistic/ADHD attention is curiosity based, not achievement based. That means we tend to focus easily on things we’re curious about, and struggle to do even simple stuff that bores us even if it leads to a reward. As a result, the best way to give your Autistic employee a great work experience is to work closely with them to find tasks that are most aligned with their interests. This is seriously going to get you a significantly better performance from your employee, as well as making them much happier and more loyal to your company.
People are explicit around deadlines, including which deadlines are real and which are just to keep things on track, what kind of progress reports are expected, etc. Some of us were the people who got through college writing our papers the night before, and we all hated doing that; work with us to help us break down our work into more manageable chunks and scope them out appropriately.
A second overlap with ADHD is that a lot of Autistic people struggle with emotional dysregulation. This can look like anything from getting visibly upset at perceived minor frustrations, to getting really fixated on a given task, to having a major meltdown in a public space.
Listen: as uncomfortable as it may be for you to witness an adult experiencing an emotional meltdown, I promise it’s worse for the Autistic person. We can’t control meltdowns; they’re not tantrums, they’re what happens when our nervous system gets overloaded through some kind of stimulus.
This can be sensory (the lights are too bright), this can be emotional (I received some critical feedback that I don’t know how to address), or it can be more generally related to stress (I am late on this deliverable and I’m making tons of mistakes because I’m panicking and can’t think straight).
Melting down is embarrassing, but more importantly it’s physically debilitating. The rest of the day is shot after a meltdown. We need time and space to recover and subsequent meltdowns become more likely.
Autistic People Survive When...
We are given the time and space to recover from a traumatic emotional event.
People understand that things may be traumatic for us that are not traumatic to anyone else, and don’t judge us for that.
We receive collaboration in avoiding major triggers.
Critical feedback is delivered kindly.
Autistic People Thrive When...
Our boundaries around sensory, emotional and stress-related activities are respected without question.
Our reactions are seen as valid and natural, even when they are far removed from the way a neurotypical person would react to the same stimulus.
The workspace takes trigger warnings seriously, understanding that to be triggered is a horrific experience that can derail an individual for a day, a week, or more.
Critical feedback explicitly includes instructions for how to address the problem, and it’s communicated that as long as the problem is addressed, there’s no issue.
Some Notes On Interviewing Autistic Candidates
Provide extremely detailed information about the day of the interview. Where to park if they’re driving, what the building looks like, where to be and at what time and who to say hi to, and who will be interviewing them and what the sessions will look like, etc.
If at all possible, provide interview questions in advance. If it’s not possible, provide as much context as possible as to the nature of the interview questions. If you have any open-ended questions, consider making just those public in advance.
Make it clear that the candidate has as much time as they need to arrive at an answer, and that asking many questions is fine (and potentially even a strong positive signal!).
Make it clear from the outset that you understand that interviewing is stressful, and so masking behaviors like controlling for tone of voice and facial expressions are optional given that not all Autistic people can maintain them under stress if at all. BUT: train your interviewing team to handle this gracefully. They should independently affirm at the start of the interview that they’ll be do their best to ignore facial expressions, tone and body language if the candidate would prefer that.
If the interview is in person, ask the candidate if they have any sensory issues with the space. You may not realize what kind of noise a light can make, but they do and it’ll distract them.
Make it explicit in your hiring team that there’s a difference between a neurodivergent unmasking their tone and facial expressions and someone being a jerk. Nobody who is unmasking should be calling names, venting frustration, or failing to take accountability for how they impact other people. Those behaviors are not okay regardless of neurodiversity.
There is a cognitive bias in neurotypical people that makes them instantly dislike Autistic people. Many of us just vibe wrong for many of them, and we’re not imagining it when they seem like they’re uncomfortable around us. This is a real problem when hiring — and the solution, as with any other bias, is to be aware of it and to work consciously to mitigate it.
Some Notes on Managing Autistic Employees
Your Autistic employees may take things more literally than your neurotypical employees. This frequently looks like filling all 8 hours in a day with actual work instead of
, putting the wants of others before their own needs, or prioritizing things according to the urgency with which they’re presented.
Make sure your Autistic employees are taking care of their own health. Let them know that they are expected to use their vacation days, that it may never feel like a good time but that they can trust the team to keep the ship afloat while they’re gone.
Anything that you expect from your Autistic employees should be communicated explicitly, preferably in writing, and preferably more than once. If you do not explicitly request something, then you are not likely to receive it — this is a function of how we process information. We struggle to extrapolate to what may seem “obvious” to you — but for what it’s worth, this goes both ways and you struggle to extrapolate what may seem obvious to us. This is the root of the Autistic experience, I think — different things are obvious to us.
), which can make professional life needlessly difficult as feedback can be misinterpreted as criticism or attack. Talk to your Autistic employees about how they prefer to receive feedback, and try to tailor your feedback to those preferences when possible.
Regular check ins are helpful. Being Autistic means being used to suffering in silence when something is bugging you, because to be honest a lot of things may annoy an Autistic person, and it’s not reasonable to expect the world to accommodate all of them. This can make us reluctant to come to you with issues. Please be proactive and tell us explicitly that you’d welcome feedback, wouldn’t consider it an attack, and would be delighted to try to help them resolve whatever issue they’re dealing with.
Let us know if something went over our heads, help us to finesse our company-wide communication, and generally support us in our communication challenges. Ideally you’ll build a relationship and a personal rapport with your Autistic employees so you’ll be in a position to see when something is going wrong.
Many of us have learned that leadership or management is really not for us, and so have resigned ourselves to achieving less in our careers than our non-Autistic peers. The most supportive manager I ever had learned this and refused to accept it — he told me we’d find a path for me to advance in ways that work for me, and then he did it. I have, with his support, received several promotions and now have a small team answering to me, with prospects for continued growth.
Stand up for your Autistic employees behind closed doors and with leadership. People can and will get frustrated with us. If you hear them speaking about us in ways that suggest that we’re responsible for their frustration, maybe chime in to point out that we’re doing our best and that we deal with a lot of frustration too, quietly. Bonus points if you can educate them a bit about the Autistic experience! :)