Caitlyn O'Neil, CPA, wasn't always open about being on the autism spectrum. It took a couple of years before the senior tax accountant at CBIZ MHM in Denver told most of her colleagues she's autistic. "Before that I really struggled trying to explain some of my behaviors. I just called it 'busy season brain,'" she said. "Then I just decided it was too much stress, and just acknowledging this is why I'm different, that lifted a huge weight off my shoulders."
In the last couple of years, she's become outspoken about her experiences in hopes of helping other neurodiverse people in the workplace. "I'm trying to use my privilege and trying to make it easier for other marginalized people," she said. "If I can do something to help, then my journey is all worth it."
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been in the forefront for many firms over the last several years. However, people with disabilities don't always play a central role in related discussions. Autism Awareness Month — which takes place in April — aims to improve understanding and acceptance of people with autism.
Daniel Openden, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC). In a conversation with Crystal Cooke, director–Diversity & Inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, he explained that autism is a developmental disability characterized by deficits in social skills and communication that can range from mild to severe. Openden's organization aims to help communities, including workplaces, become more inclusive of people with autism, who can contribute as much as neurotypical staffers.
Here are some steps that firms can take to create a more comfortable environment for neurodiverse employees:
Understand the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to support individuals who need reasonable accommodations to be successful in the workplace. Even though the ADA has been around more than three decades, it's still a mystery to many people, O'Neil said.
Employees are responsible for suggesting accommodations that might work for them in partnership with their medical providers. However, organizational leaders should understand the law and strive to create an environment where employees with disabilities are comfortable seeking the adaptations they require. In particular, they should see that staff, especially managers, are made aware of the ADA and accommodations through measures such as training, communications, and contact with affinity groups. The Job Accommodation Network maintains a list of accommodations that might be appropriate for certain conditions.
Embrace differences. O'Neil said her firm has made some accommodations based on her needs, like providing written instructions, capping her hours during the busy season, sending PowerPoint slides before meetings, and allowing her to work from home to limit disruptions and stressful social interactions. These modifications have helped her become happier and more successful at work. Experts like Openden agree that many of these modifications can be beneficial for neurotypical employees, too.
Start with the interview process. Autistic individuals face a lot of hurdles before they're anywhere near the workplace, O'Neil said. While she was in college, she did lots of practice interviews to learn to "mask" her disability so she wouldn't appear different. "It was really hard, with all the networking events and interviews," O'Neil said. "Those skills don't come natural to me."
The interview process may further deter people with autism from finding accounting jobs, she said.
While O'Neil understands that interviews are viewed as opportunities to see whether potential employees will fit into an organization's culture, she noted that long hiring processes may also hold firms back from finding neurodivergent employees who could make that culture even richer. She suggests organizations allow candidates to submit written answers rather than requiring multiple rounds of interviews.
The ADA does apply to job candidates. Applicants who require accommodations during the interview process will need to request them. Employers can show that they are open to providing accommodations by including information about how to request them in job postings.
Ask for help. One of the best things firms can do is speak with people with autism to better understand their experiences, O'Neil said. They can also turn to organizations like the Autism Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. As a place to start, Openden recommends working with an agency that helps autistic people find employment.
Firm leaders should understand that neurodivergent individuals don't want to work differently than their neurotypical colleagues, said Amanda Gessner, CPA, audit manager at Schmitz-Holmstrom in Bismarck, N.D., who is neurodiverse. But operating under the same conditions is "physically or mentally not possible at times," she explained.
Gessner believes the timing is right for firms' focus on DEI to include neurodivergent employees. "By being more inclusive and taking steps to accommodate the needs of your team, it can build efficiencies because everyone is working in their best environment," she said. "It can also increase retention, which I think is the biggest benefit at this time."
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.