Autism at work ‒ A success factor

One way of attracting employees in today's fierce competition for talented people is to adapt the workplace for people with mental health diagnoses. For instance, our highly regarded IT manager Dennis is on the autism spectrum. With just a few simple adjustments, we have together made him happy at Screen Interaction.

Many of you have probably already met our IT manager, Dennis. In the office, he’s known as the guy who fixes all the annoying IT-related problems that make all the rest of us go crazy with frustration. Something that most people in the office know, but that customers probably don’t know, is that Dennis has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Features of these diagnoses may include social deficits and communication difficulties, stereotyped or repetitive behaviors and interests and sensory issues.

ASD is a broad diagnosis that varies a lot between individuals. On top of that, it’s an oft-misunderstood collection of disorders, not least because of movies like Rain Man, that over the years have reproduced the misleading notion that people with autism are likely to be savants with incredible memory skills (the vast majority of them are not). Mental health diagnoses such as autism, depression, social phobia, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often, but not always, involve problems with maintaining a job. I know, because I myself suffered from both depression and panic disorder a couple of years ago.

However, there is much to gain for both the employer and the employee who suffer from mental illness of any kind, by adapting the work for the person's own conditions. Just being able to talk openly and without prejudice about mental illness at the office often make a major difference, for instance. In other cases, you need to make practical adjustments to get the maximum out of an employee's potential.

“They don’t understand what they say”

When I myself applied for the job as a copywriter at Screen Interaction back in 2013, I immediately told them about what were then my recent problems with depression and panic disorder, and I got the job anyway. It was no big deal, and Dennis’s story is a similar one.

‒ I was headhunted by Martin, one of the founders and owners of the company (who also suffered from both depression and panic disorder), and I really only talked to him throughout the recruitment process. I told him early on about my diagnosis and the fact that it might be tricky to work with me. He told me that my diagnosis and my personal characteristics were not a problem at all. On the contrary, he saw it as more of a strength than a weakness, says Dennis.

What adjustments are needed depend on both the diagnosis and the employee's individual preferences. For Dennis, it's important to be left alone when he is working, and that colleagues are patient if he does not understand undertones and social codes.

‒ The most important thing for me is to sit as remotely or secluded as possible. In a somewhat exaggerated way, one can say that I most of all would like to sit in a dark corner somewhere with a closed door. It’s also important that people have patience when I don’t understand what they mean, or as I like to say ‒ they don’t understand what they say, Dennis says with a wide smile.

Since Dennis joined us as IT manager in December, he has made a number of adjustments in order to feel comfortable working with us and to avoid distractions. One of the adjustments is a rather unconventional solution of his own.

‒ I've got my own corner of the office landscape, which makes my job a little easier, but I also have the opportunity to work from home sometimes, through my “virtual presence device” (an office chair at his regular office space, wearing the same clothes as Dennis wears every day, and with a livestreamed screen from his workplace at home). It has helped me considerably. I have trouble concentrating in the office, where it can be noisy and distracting, and I have huge problems with travel time. Inefficiency is something that stresses me a lot, so sitting in a traffic jam for two hours on my way to work could ruin my whole day.

Companies lack adaptation strategies

Dennis concurs that both management and employees have respected his autism since he joined Screen Interaction. Sure, some people seem to have become a bit envious of his custom work situation, but in general, he feels that people are understanding.

‒ Besides Stockholms Stadsmission (a nonprofit organization that provides Stockholm’s homeless with shelter and food), this is the only job where I had this kind of support and understanding of social deviations.

When I ask him if he has any suggestions on how we can work even better at taking care of people with mental health diagnoses, he has a number of interesting ideas.

‒ Make it easier for staff to be flexible with working hours, and also to have technical solutions that enable them to work in the environment they themselves prefer. Personally, I am extremely dependent on having a mentor, someone I can always turn to in order to explain something I don’t understand or to get help to interpret a particular situation. I often discuss things with my mentor Rikard if I feel that an interaction with a colleague has gone wrong or if I find it hard to get someone to understand what I mean. Find a caring colleague who knows a little about the diagnosis, says Dennis.

Dennis is a talented and hardworking guy (he responded to my interview request at 2:18 AM on a tuesday) who always delivers beyond our expectations. Whether it’s in spite of his autism or thanks to it (or neither), we’re very happy to have him as our IT manager.

It’s a shame that many companies lack strategies to employ different types of people, like those of us who have or have had a mental health diagnosis. At Screen Interaction, we care about people, diversity and innovation. Perhaps that makes employees at Screen Interaction a little more quirky than average. But we certainly are a little funnier and smarter, too.

We’re also open about our mental health:

Samuel Wejeus, Technical Lead at Screen Interaction

“Having a history of depression myself as well I know how hard it is to talk about when you are down. This is a great initiative, you deserve all honors and respect starting this work.”

Rickard Linder, Visual Designer at Screen Interaction

“I have experienced several downfalls, especially around this time of year. I guess all in all, I find myself alone and paranoid at times. In regard to how I grew up, as I was bullied almost all my days in school, I think this casts a long shadow on my self-awareness and self-image. If we do not talk about what we think about, we might become more alienated from each other. Especially since we spend more time at work when we are awake than at home with our families.”

Marie Gullander Koch, Service Designer at Screen Interaction

"Most of all I’ve been affected by close family members who have had hard times mentally over the years. However, this has certainly affected myself and the rest of my family too. My experience is that it’s very important to talk about it openly. Talking makes people less isolated and takes away the feeling of loneliness. Just talk about how life is – in good times and in bad!"

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