Haley Moss has had enough of the “tell me about yourself” question, familiar to just about anyone who’s ever applied for a job.
“If you ask me to tell you about myself, you’re not going to like the answer,” Moss told attendees at the Madison Region Economic Development and Diversity Summit on Wednesday.
“I would probably say, ‘Hi, I’m Haley. I’m an attorney and an author. I’m also very proudly autistic, and something you should know about me is I really enjoy playing video games, and Taylor Swift is going to be in Philadelphia next week, the same time I’m in Philadelphia, and I don’t have Eras tour tickets.’
“That’s probably not what you want to know about me, but that’s probably something I would tell you because that’s something I’m thinking about,” said Moss, an expert on neurodiversity and the first openly autistic lawyer in Florida. She flew to Madison to talk to representatives from local businesses and nonprofits about how to make workplaces better fit people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and other forms of ‘neurodivergence.’
Such efforts were initially popularized in the tech sector, with companies like Microsoft purposefully recruiting “neurodiverse” candidates and creating an interview process tailored to them.
“Neurodivergent individuals strengthen a workforce with innovative thinking and creative solutions,” the company’s website explains. More recently, that attitude has been spreading to other sectors too.
“There is an actual business case for it, even though I don’t feel like there should have to be an actual business case to be good human beings and to make sure that we do our best to value everybody as human beings,” Moss said.
Still, people with autism often don’t find jobs that fit their skills. Autism Speaks, a nonprofit raising awareness about autism, estimates that between 50% and 75% of the 5.6 million U.S. adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. For college graduates with autism, the rate is yet higher, with 85% estimated to be unemployed — around 20 times the national average.
With today’s tight labor market, employers need workers now more than ever, but they’re not likely to hire many more neurodivergent workers unless they change their hiring practices — including ambiguous questions like “tell me about yourself,” which can be a minefield for the literal-minded.
“It’s so vague. I don’t know if you want to know about me outside of my resume… my life history, my work history or if you want some fun facts to see if we get along.
“Having interviewed for things enough times, I always feel like I’m going on a bad first date and I never know how the other person feels about me,” she said. “There are so many ways we can make this better.”
Instead, she suggests, managers should make their questions more specific and consider asking candidates to complete an assignment or submit a writing sample.
“If we actually get to show what we know, a lot of neurodivergent people thrive.”
Do you really need a ‘people person’?
Another way employers can promote neurodiversity, Moss said, is to reconsider what they’re looking for in job applicants. Some job ads say they’re looking for a “people person,” even if the role involves little social interaction.
Moss, whose books include “Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals” and “The Young Autistic Adult’s Independence Handbook,” describes herself as distinctly not a “people person.”
If she had her way at a work meeting, she’d skip the small talk, the introductions and the icebreakers and get right down to business. Eye contact would be optional — it makes her nervous. Knowing that many people use those kinds of social cues to judge whether a person is honest or attentive, she’s learned to stare at noses instead. It’s a bit like learning a second language, she said.
“I have learned enough neurotypical social skills to somehow survive this world,” Moss said. “A lot of times, people don’t know that it feels very unnatural to me. They don’t realize this is a performance of sorts that leaves me exhausted.”
Neurodivergent people are often treated as if they’re a faulty version of their neurotypical (majority) counterparts. To her, it’s more like the difference between iPhone and Android operating systems.
“They each have their own strengths and weaknesses,” Moss said, and people readily accept that an app made for one type of phone might not work on the other. But when dealing with neurodivergent people, Moss said, it seems that many people want to call tech support.
“The thing is, the phone isn’t broken, just like the person’s not broken. It just is different. Sometimes how we treat people is not as kind as we treat inanimate objects.”
Likewise, many people see a person’s disability or difference and jump to conclusions about the person’s abilities. Moss recalled going to lunch with a fellow lawyer who has cerebral palsy. The server asked Moss what her friend wanted to order. She told the server to ask him.
“It was very odd that it was assumed right away that I was (his caregiver), and not just two disabled lawyers trying to do the best they can.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are legally required to make reasonable accommodations to allow an employee or qualified applicants to perform the essential functions of a job, unless that accommodation would cause undue hardship for the employer.
For a worker whose job requires them to answer the phone, that could mean providing a TTY teletypewriter if the worker is deaf or hard of hearing, Moss said. If instead the worker has autism, that might mean providing a script so that the worker doesn’t feel so anxious when the phone rings.
When Moss worked at a law firm, the bright, buzzing fluorescent lights (“the worst neurotypical invention to ever happen”) would give her headaches and distract her all day, so her bosses agreed she could wear headphones, use a lamp or turn off the lights in her office.
Such arrangements, Moss said, allow neurodivergent individuals to work in the way they need to, much as glasses or contact lenses allow others to see their computer screens or their customers.
And they often come at little cost to the employer, according to the Job Accommodation Network, which provides guidance on ADA accommodations. In a survey of around 3,500 employers who contacted the organization for advice, about half said the accommodations they made came at no cost.
Around 43% reported paying a one-time cost for accommodations, with a median cost of $300. About 7% of surveyed employers said the accommodations they made came with ongoing costs, with a median price tag of $3,750 a year.
Here are few more of the tips Moss offered for making workplaces more friendly to neurodivergent workers:
If a person discloses that they’re neurodivergent, avoid saying things like, “I wouldn’t have guessed,” which are based on stereotypes. “What do you think autism looks like?” Moss asks. “There is no one look to neurodiversity.” Instead, she suggests, ask the person how you can support them.
Encourage workers to give others tips on “how to work with me” to avoid miscommunication and put everyone at ease. Moss tells those she works with that she’s not a morning person, unprompted phone calls make her anxious, and she’d appreciate a reminder if she’s neglected to follow up on something.
Assume that your workplace already has staff who are neurodivergent, and look for ways to meet their needs.
Recognize the strengths that neurodivergent individuals bring to a workplace. For example, many people with autism are treated as “oddballs” for knowing a lot about a niche subject, but having specialized knowledge is an asset, or even a requirement, in many fields.
Implement universal design principles, which can make places and practices more accessible to all people, without segregating or stigmatizing.
Employers and individuals looking for confidential, expert advice on accommodations can contact the Job Accommodation Network by visiting askjan.org or calling (800) 526-7234 for voice calls and (877) 781-9403 for TTY.