Ideas are the lifeblood of innovation. Without new ideas, development in all areas stagnates, be it new products, services, ways of doing things, or new solutions to old problems. The appetite in society for the new, for the next big thing, is insatiable; hence the long queues outside shops selling the latest model. A business that can keep coming up with new ideas, that can keep one step ahead of the competition, is likely to do well.
So, how can a business improve the quantity and quality of ideas it brings to market? Spending a fortune on research and development is certainly one way and speaking to customers and potential customers is another. Innovation can also be promoted by allowing and encouraging diversity of thought in the workplace.
The problem is, many workplaces are designed to be as easy as possible to manage to get the results required from the workforce. This leads to many employers looking to hire some mystical vision of the ideal corporate employee or turn their people into clones. But those same employers often then want the staff they have been trying to shoehorn into a standard template to be innovative and generate new ideas. There is a major contradiction here that frequently goes unidentified. Freedom of thought is not something that can be turned on and off with ease. Forcing people to comply with a highly regimented regime, no matter how well intentioned or kindly implemented, in my experience, suppresses new thinking. Our brains get used to thinking in certain ways and curbing other activity. You cannot expect people to stay “inside the box” most of the time and then think “outside the box” when it suits you.
Autistic people can struggle in the workplace, with some estimates putting only around 20% in employment. My own 30-year career has been no walk in the park. I am in no way suited to being put in any kind of box, being told how to think, or what is not up for discussion. This causes huge problems. I have lost count of the number of times I have been admonished for not enthusiastically supporting some great new initiative that does not make sense to me, about which no one is willing to answer reasonable questions. Too often, I have been rebuked for challenging the way things are done when I feel there is a better way.
Watching things go wrong at work has always felt to me like watching a car crash about to happen. It seems sensible, in that situation, to do what one can to avert the accident. But, in another context, when the impending accident is less apparent to others, the intervention is often less welcome.
Of course, we all make mistakes and misread situations. In social settings, autistic people may do this more often than others. But, making mistakes is also the way that we learn. Management of the way new ideas are trialled can be used to reduce the potential damage of a mistake. If the traditional or conventional way of doing things has been thought through, then new ideas, questions and challenges should be able to be confidently and convincingly taken on board.
Nothing feels worse, or causes employees more upset, than a change or policy without an explanation, or proper answers to questions and challenges.
Autistic staff will frequently challenge the accepted norms and way of doing things. The social skills many of us with autism struggle with may make us seem difficult to work with but, what we can give you, is a completely new way of thinking about and addressing problems.
Autistic brains simply do not shut off. This can be a problem for many of us (particularly at 2 o’clock in the morning!) but it has huge potential benefits for businesses of all kinds. I cannot tell you how many times a potential solution to a problem at work has come to me in the middle of the night, or in the shower, when I was not consciously thinking about the issue. Now, I know that this happens to everyone from time to time – autistic people certainly do not have a monopoly on innovation – but synapses in the brains of autistic babies have been shown to fire more than in comparable brains of non-autistic children and autistic people frequently generate ideas and potential solutions at an accelerated rate.
The more ideas and thoughts you have, the better chance there is that one of them is a big step forward or a breakthrough. Why else would businesses spend a fortune on focus groups?
Of course, hiring autistic staff does not guarantee anything, all autistic people are unique and different, though many share similar traits. The great shame is that the perceived lack of social and interviewing skills and the unconventionality of many autistic people, puts employers off hiring what could be prized assets in creative and problem-solving roles. We just need a little encouragement to play to our strengths and support in what seem to many to be the “easier” parts of the job, like meetings and dealing with other people!
Social difficulties and awkwardness are much easier to see in a 30-minute interview than the abundance of ideas that a candidate could bring to your company.
Just as we are now moving to a world where many of us work hard to see past physical disabilities as our first and lasting impression of a person, so we also need to look to the benefits of wider diversity of thought, where autistic people deserve a chance given the huge amount they have to offer.
Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity.
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