Remote Work Could Revolutionize Jobs for Autistic People

I’ve long worried about how my autistic son will fare when he enters the workforce. He’s got the sort of autism that used to be known as Asperger’s syndrome: On the one hand, he’s extraordinarily brilliant, incredibly friendly and can do anything he sets his mind to.

Yet his sensory challenges and unique style of social interactions mean that the traditional workplace could be difficult for him. From the overload caused by ambient noise and fluorescent lights to the anxiety of constant conversation, there is a lot about conventional offices that can be challenging for people on the autism spectrum.

It always seemed my son would be more comfortable working on his own, in an environment and on a schedule he could control—but those are options that many people don’t get.

Covid, though, has rewritten the possibilities. By normalizing remote work for everybody, the pandemic has made it easier for people who don’t adapt well to office environments to thrive. The longtime resistance to supporting remote accommodations for disabled employees evaporated when neurotypical (i.e., not autistic) people had to work from home.

At the same time, the growing awareness of neurodiversity—the idea that humans aren’t all wired the same way, and that differences like autism and ADHD also come with unique strengths—means there is more appreciation for what neurodivergent employees can contribute.

A decade spent navigating the medical and educational system with an autistic child has immersed me in the world of autism advocates and researchers, and driven my own work on the interaction between neurodiversity and technology. That is why the shift to remote work has made me newly hopeful: It is not only a positive change in itself, but it has sparked a revolution in remote-collaboration technology that could transform the long-term opportunities for neurodiverse workers like my son.

The shift to remote work has changed the kinds of technologies we use in our working lives; it has changed how readily we embrace and adapt new gadgets and applications; and it has changed the nature and structure of work itself. All of these dimensions bode well for neurodiverse workers—and for the many organizations that stand to benefit from their talents.

A new wave of tech

Just think about all the tech that has blossomed in the past year, thanks to the mainstreaming of remote work. For instance, as messaging platforms like Slack and Teams replace hallway conversations or office drop-ins, they remove a major obstacle for people who struggle with distraction or social interaction.

“Being autistic, there’s no such thing as a welcome surprise,” says Hunter Hansen, a business analyst who is autistic. When he was working in an office, he says, “I had to keep myself from bristling: I couldn’t triage the interruption if someone sneaked up behind me. It really did affect my ability to lock in and focus.”

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In the 12 years in which he’s worked remotely, his home office has become his “sanctum sanctorum”: the fortress in which he can sequester himself from his wife and children and create the sensory environment he needs to work effectively.

Some autistic people experience a similar benefit from the shift to video meetings.

When people are physically sitting around a boardroom table, there are all kinds of nonverbal cues, like the way people shift in their seats, that constitute an important part of the meeting. That nonverbal communication can be hard for autistic people to parse, so it can end up shutting them out of the dynamic or leaving them confused about how decisions are reached.

When meetings move online, we all lose access to most of those nonverbal cues. What leads to “Zoom fatigue” for neurotypical people—who often find the loss of nonverbal communication disorienting and exhausting—can actually be liberating for neurodivergent workers.

“People can be in their own spaces, meeting virtually, but still be at the table,” says David Worling, a psychologist who specializes in autism and a director of Spectrum Works, a consulting firm that specializes in workplace inclusion. “You don’t necessarily have to spend all your time around people; you can still get work done and not have to have intense social contact.”

The rise of remote, often audio-only networking is another boon. Conferences and cocktail parties may work great for people with strong social skills, but they can be a nightmare for people who can be overwhelmed by all the sensory input in a crowded room, struggle with eye contact or are simply introverted. In an audio-only meetup, participants can curate their own physical environments. If you like to do your networking while seated in a quiet room, you can. And for autistic workers who use physical movement as a way of managing anxiety or overload, audio networking provides useful freedom of movement.

Indeed, this shift to a self-curated environment may be the single biggest benefit of remote work—not only for neuroatypical people, but for all of us. I recently interviewed Soren Hamby, a user-experience designer and accessibility advocate.

“If it’s a day where things are overwhelming,” the designer told me, “I can turn down the volume of a conference call—but I can’t do that in a live meeting.”

Learning to learn

The overnight increase in digital collaboration offers another benefit for neurodiverse workers: Not only are lots of new tools available for remote work, but they are becoming the norm.

When we all sat side-by-side in a physical office, it was still possible to opt out of virtual collaboration. In a distributed team, it is a lot harder to wriggle out of collaborating via Google Docs. The assumption that face-to-face interaction is the norm created a power imbalance that worked in favor of people who were more comfortable with in-person, real-time conversation, and disadvantaged people who were more comfortable online or who need time to think and process before responding.

“I don’t like to be asked questions on a whim, or have people pop into my office,” says Joy F. Johnson, a behavior analyst who works with autistic families, and is herself autistic. “Now, because I’m working remotely, most questions come via email, and I can take 24 hours to process and respond. I don’t have to worry about the way instructions are delivered to me vocally or verbally.”

Remote work means that neurodivergent people no longer have to justify or even disclose their communications preferences: Digital is now the default. People who are more comfortable online, and more adept at learning new technology, now enjoy the opportunity to shape the terms of team collaboration.

For many years, I worried that my son’s fondness for all things tech, and his frequent struggles with the give-and-take of in-person social interaction, would limit his professional opportunities. Covid has revealed the opposite: His comfort working, playing and existing online has spared him the stress that many other people have experienced during this period of relative social isolation. And his ability to not only learn but teach new technologies will make him a valuable colleague for people who struggle to adapt to new tools.

Changing the nature of work

The rise of remote, digitally enabled collaboration will mostly profoundly affect the prospects of many neurodiverse or disabled workers through its transformation of the nature of work. That is because it will move us away from the 9-to-5, centrally organized model of employment and toward new types of hybrid workplaces and flexible employment.

“Coming from a neurotypical point of view, we have the assumption that work needs to be a social place, and that is how things get done,” says Dr. Worling. “In the past year, we’re proving otherwise: There are a lot of people going crazy at home, who can’t wait to go back to the office. But if you’re really happy at home, stay there!”

As long as work was something that had to be done at a specific time and place, employment options were limited for anyone who couldn’t sustain a 40-hour workweek in a central office. But as soon as you move to a distributed team, or even a hybrid model in which only some portion of your workforce is in the office on any given day, you open up other possibilities.

Since remote work makes it harder to work together in real time, but easier to get stuff done separately (without the interruptions or distractions of the office), it can and should shift us away from teamwork as the default, and toward what my co-author and I call punctuated collaboration: working solo for long stretches, and then checking in with the group. For people who thrive when working solo but struggle with team dynamics, that shift makes it a lot easier to contribute and deliver value.

The rise of the distributed team also blurs the line between employee and contractor in ways that make work more accessible to people who may not succeed in the conventional employment model.

Now that everyone is meeting by phone or video, there is very little difference between an employee who’s calling in from across town and a contractor who’s calling in from across the country.

While that shift has worrying implications for job security and income inequality, it may be good news for people who can thrive as freelancers in ways they might not as full-time employees.

Good news for everyone?

No doubt my optimism about the impact of remote work stems from the fact that my son is a tech enthusiast, like me. But I wonder if I’m being a bit too sanguine.

Ms. Johnson, the behavioral analyst, offers an alternative scenario: that instead of creating more options, the rise of remote work could roll back hard-won accommodations for disabled and neurodivergent employees. “Pre-corona, people were at least attempting” to accommodate neurodivergent employees, she says. “But now we can solve that problem by banishing them to their homes.”

That scenario is worrying precisely because not every autistic child or adult is like my son, who has blossomed through remote learning. Rather, autistic people vary in their social drives, just like neurotypical people. “If you’re the kind of person who needs more stimulation, or struggles with routine and executive function,” then going into the office may be a much better option than remote work, Dr. Worling says. A world that treats remote work as the default option may be great for some autistic people, and harmful to others—if it reduces accommodations for those who would prefer to be at the office, excludes neurodivergent people from face-to-face contexts in which key decisions (still) get made or pre-empts the opportunity for younger workers to get acculturated into the workplace.

The best way to avoid that? Ms. Johnson suggests hiring autistic experts to identify and address considerations that can exclude neurodivergent employees.

A workplace that reduces sensory stressors and embraces the neurodiversity of its workforce is a friendlier place not just for autistic employees, but for all of us. As we look ahead to the moment when employers and employees will be able to make choices about whether and how to combine office work and remote work, I hope we can create workplaces in which neurodivergent and neurotypical people can make their own choices about where and how they work best.

Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and the co-author of the forthcoming book “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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