Last year the ADHD Foundation recognised a 400% increase in the number of adults seeking a diagnosis for neurodivergent conditions, and – when looking specifically at Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC) – there has been a 787% rise in diagnoses in the past 20 years.
While these numbers are significant, for women in particular such conditions can be more difficult to detect and, as a result, often go undiagnosed – or even misdiagnosed as other conditions.
Autism as an asset
The truth is, women with an Autistic Spectrum Condition can be a huge asset to an organisation, bringing a tendency to hyper-focus, an unparalleled ability to analyse data and problem-solve, a direct and clear approach to communication and a highly productive approach to their work. They like structure, organisation, and routine, have a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, and tend to give 110% to the job at hand.
They can bring vital skills and attributes that are highly valued in the workplace, particularly within certain industries, such as technology and engineering. Just recently, organisations including GCHQ and BAE Systems issued an appeal to attract more women with autism and other neurodivergent conditions to work for them in cybersecurity roles that require “fast pattern recognition, sharper accuracy and greater attention to detail”.
Women with autism can also make brilliant leaders in business, bringing clarity to their communication, a solution-focused approach to their work, attention to detail, focus, productivity and diligence to the role.
So why are so many women with autism undiagnosed, and what can organisations do to best support them to realise their business potential?
Masking and misdiagnoses
One of the main reasons that so many women with autism go undiagnosed is because of how they tend to mask their symptoms and characteristics – often subconsciously – to fit in with societal norms. Feeling like an outsider and misunderstanding social nuances leads them to mirror the behaviours of others and can result in their attachment to one particular individual who makes them feel safe and secure.
At the same time, you often see women diagnosed with a different condition altogether, such as an eating disorder or a personality disorder. But, when you look under the surface, you realise that the root cause of this other condition is, in fact, autism which has been undiagnosed. This can place women at a huge disadvantage and result in them being treated with medication or psychologically rather than through more effective treatment for neurodivergent conditions. The truth is, when that connection is made, everything changes.
Supporting women with autism to realise their business potential
- Regular check-ins
Even if they seem happy and on top of their work, it’s important that business leaders check in regularly with all employees, but arguably none more so than those with a neurodivergent condition, including women with autism. This is to ensure they are not feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, which often results from their hyper-focus and high levels of productivity. Ask them how they are and if they are finding anything challenging, and then work together to find solutions to any challenges.
- Clear communication
We’ve said before that women with an ASC often have strong communication skills, and it’s, therefore, crucial that employers ensure their communication with these employees is clear and direct and avoids nuances, which can be difficult to comprehend by those with autism and are often misconstrued.
- Sensory allowances
Employees with Autistic Spectrum Conditions can be far more sensitive to certain sounds or other sensory outputs, which can overwhelm and add to anxiety and stress levels. Employers should be ready to make adjustments to their ways of working to best support women with autism, which might include giving them their own desk in a quiet space, or the use of a separate room when the office gets too noisy. They might also prefer to work wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Difficulties around sensory processing can also make social events at work more challenging for women with autism, so it’s crucial they don’t feel pressured to join in if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.
- A tailored approach
Above all else, it’s important to recognise that every employee is different. For a female worker with an ASC, it’s crucial that business leaders take the time to understand their individual condition, how it manifests and any particular challenges they may face in the workplace, and then work collaboratively to find the most effective means for supporting them in whichever way they need.
With such valuable skills and attributes to offer the workplace, the business case for supporting women with autism is clear. Organisations that put in place effective support mechanisms will reap the benefits and will turn Autistic Spectrum Conditions into superpowers.
Dr Roz Halari is a clinical psychologist at the private mental health and wellness clinic The Soke.