Guest Blog Post by Keedra Cotton, Pre-Analytical Supervisor at Quest Diagnostics in Tucker, GA.

What I Learned From Managing People With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Jordan dreamed of finding a career that would allow her to excel using her skills and talents. Though her dream is one that she shares with many, Jordan is a person living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Stereotypes, the misperceptions of others, and some challenges associated with autism can make it hard for some individuals with ASD to find a job, let alone establish a career.

Quest Diagnostics has always been committed to a diverse workplace, but in recent years, we have extended that commitment to creating an inclusive workplace. A truly inclusive workplace is a working environment that values the individual and group differences within its workforce. In the spirit of inclusivity, in 2017 Quest hired Jordan and helped fulfill her dream when it launched its DiverseAbilities Employee Business Network program, partnering with a team of national disability consultants recruited and supported by Autism Speaks and NEXT for AUTISM.

Fast forward one year and Jordan’s contributions and those of others like her with ASD are clearly apparent. I know this because I am Jordan’s manager, and have witnessed these benefits firsthand. Jordan works in a medical diagnostic setting preparing samples for further analysis.

As part of the DiverseAbilities program, we are regularly identifying ways to improve workflow as more employees with ASD join the company. We are also identifying personnel management approaches, so-called ‘soft skills,’ such as extra patience, that are helping us more successfully interact.

Quest is using these insights to explore changes that will enhance how we interact with our entire workforce. As Jordan maintains her reputation as a dependable and hardworking employee, our personal perspectives, team communication and work functions have improved in no small measure because of insights from Jordan and other employees like her.

Perhaps this is no more evident than the way in which employees integrate into their new jobs. Onboarding employees are a necessary but resource-intensive process. New employees must receive security clearances, learn IT capabilities, review company policies, complete insurance forms and fulfill many other startup tasks.

Through the onboarding program Quest implemented to bring on workers with ASD, the company added time to enable learning work routines and skills needed to perform the job. In the process, we discovered this extra time resulted in greater skill retention and reduced errors. As a result, the company is reviewing all new-employee training to follow a similar protocol with longer orientation times.

Entering a new workplace is exciting and employees naturally want to familiarize themselves with their surroundings. However, too few organizations recognize that employees are curious about where they work. On the first day, employees with ASD receive a tour of the entire plant – bathrooms, cafeteria, work stations, offices, parking lot, outside areas and even areas that require secured clearance. We realized that all employees would benefit from a more comprehensive view of the company’s operations and are regularly conducting tours for new staff in our location.

The first few days at work can be an anxious and sometimes confusing time for new employees. We aimed to make sure new employees with autism have someone to talk to in the first weeks of the job. For simple questions and for socialization, the buddy system enables employees to feel more comfortable in their surroundings and be more effective in completing tasks. Why weren’t we doing this for everyone? Now the company is exploring how to implement a buddy system for all new employees.

Finally, working with employees with ASD sheds light on workflow improvement opportunities.   I have witnessed firsthand how working with employees with ASD who rigorously follow rules and guidelines helps improve efficiency and reduce errors. Jordan prepares specimens to be stored by the instrument, if the specimens are not carefully placed in the rack it can cause jams on the instrument. Since Jordan has been performing the task we have seen improvements in how the instrument performs as well as improved completion time. As a result, we are proactively encouraging all employees to self-identify ways to improve how we organize tasks and manage people.

Given recent declines in unemployment, companies are increasingly considering candidates who have been overlooked in the past. Quest and a number of other large companies are working with a team of national, disability consultants recruited and supported by Autism Speaks and NEXT for AUTISM to help employers develop autism hiring initiatives to diversify and strengthen the labor pool. There is a projected lack of workers specifically in processing medical diagnostics, so we are especially thankful for the relationship with Autism Speaks and NEXT for AUTISM. On a personal level, I have learned a great deal from working with Jordan. She has proven tenacity, focus and determination are powerful assets for any employer, and that inclusion makes us stronger in the workplace and marketplace.

I am confident that what we have learned and the changes we have implemented through DiverseAbilities will pay dividends for years to come. I also believe positive effects will be evident in other non-work contexts, such as how people interact and socialize with people with ASD. As Jordan becomes a veteran worker, I am excited to see what opportunities are in store for her. At the same time, I am constantly alert to insights that could produce outsized benefits for the company.

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