People on the autistic spectrum are starting to be directed towards jobs in the technology field because of their ability to focus and their highly astute attention to details. The question is, do leaders have the skills to manage individuals who are on the spectrum? I have some life lessons from a career in technology and as the mother of a child on the spectrum.
In 2018, 1 out of 59 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States. Why is this relevant? Let me share a quick story with you.
In the summer of 2019, I sponsored a vendor table at a women’s business conference. I was very excited to share information about an entrepreneurial summit that I was hosting in the fall. I met so many wonderful women at the event from all different industries and places in their career and entrepreneurial journey. But there were two encounters that touched me the most because they provided a semblance of hope not for me specifically in my professional life, but for my personal life, specifically my child. My child is in the third grade and is on the autism spectrum. He has struggled in school not because of his aptitude but because of his lack of understanding of social situations and queueing.
The first woman I met owned a business that helped other small businesses prepare and help manage the policies, procedures, and accommodations required for people with disabilities. The second woman I met was from Best Buddies, and international organization dedicated to ending social, physical, and economic isolation for those individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Both of these women shared the same insight with me without knowing that my son is on the spectrum. They both indicated that many technology companies and organizations are directing young adults who fall on the autism spectrum to careers in technology. Leaders in Fortune 500 companies view this as an untapped labor market from a population of people with a unique skill set that can lend well to jobs within the technology discipline.
Many organizations are directing young adults who fall on the autism spectrum to careers in technology.
The fallacy in this concept is that a pipeline of technical resources is being groomed. However, the leaders of this untapped labor pool are not being trained to adapt to people with mental disorders, and therefore will be underprepared to manage, mentor, and grow these resources. What also makes this a complicated issue is that unlike physical disabilities that are visible to the eye, mental disabilities can go unseen and sometimes are unknown/undetected in various situations. And if you approach someone (who has not volunteered any information about their disorder) and ask them directly about any mental disabilities they may potentially have, well I am sure there is someone in HR right now sighing. The reality of this situation is that the gap is growing of skillful and prepared leaders that can manage and lead individuals with mental disorders.
I am a mother of four sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. The best lesson I learned from him is that you can’t measure everyone using the same ruler. My autistic son reacts harshly to loud noises, raised voices, and aggression. He does not fully understand social queueing and currently lacks the ability to “read the room.” He often says exactly how he feels without any consideration of how the other person may react or respond to his comments. He lives freely and unashamed but often is judged and criticized harshly for doing that. It wasn’t until I had my son that I actually started to question how many people I have worked with or interacted with who have a mental disorder or suffered from mental health issues. I can only name the individuals that have had some kind of breakdown or “episode” at work which made me more conscious of how I could better interact with them. But I am most certainly sure there are people who deal with their mental disorders in silence.
While there is no silver bullet to address the skill gap present in leaders of resources with mental disorders, there are definitely a few things that we all can do.
- There are thousands of resources about mental illness in the workplace, but not many on mental disorders in professional settings. Educate yourself about various mental disorders and common visible queues as well as methods to improve communications and interactions with people with mental disorders.
- Open our eyes and be more present and recognize that we cannot measure everyone with the same criteria. There is a great saying…If we measure how well a fish could climb a tree, he will always think he is a failure.
- Talk to each person to understand how they are motivated and what methods they respond to best. Understand their challenges and areas where they want to grow. The less we assume to know what people need and want, the more we are open and receptive to understanding their actual truth.
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Don’t miss Alma’s session on Value-Driven Service Management at SupportWorld Live!
Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, and educator with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. Dr. Miller considers herself a relationship counselor between development and IT operations teams. Her consulting company,
AC Miller Consulting
, provides services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. Connect with her on
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