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Autism at work: achieving inclusion for a spectrum of needs

The autistic community represents a wealth of un- and under-utilized skills. It’s in everyone’s interest to change that — making workplaces across the world more inclusive for those with autism.

Inclusion and autism — are you doing enough?

Autism is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ACA). According to this legislature, a qualified applicant or employee is someone who: “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question”.

If you think back to interviews you’ve done in recent years, you may have found yourself in violation of the ACA. Why? Because when (not “if”) our bias kicks in, we tend to favor those who can perform without reasonable accommodation — even if we don’t know we’re doing it. 

It’s all too easy to discriminate against applicants who have additional needs. And it’s that discrimination that’s resulted in a lack of representation, and inclusion, for those with autism.

Autism and the challenges of finding a job

We know that disability makes it harder to find a job, but people with autism seem disproportionately impacted. In fact, they are starting on the back foot from before their careers even take shape.

Almost 99% of all high school graduates spend at least some time in paid employment, between the ages of 19 and 25. For people with autism, that number falls to just 58%. Fast forward to college graduation, and a staggering 85% of early talent with autism experiences unemployment — that’s compared to the national unemployment rate of just 4.5%.

These missed opportunities can lead to a lifetime’s struggle to find work. Or, in many cases, an autistic person will end up settling for a job that demands way less than they could deliver. 

In her TEDx talk, ‘Why Austitic Unemployment Is So High’, Claire Barnett — who has, herself, been diagnosed with autism — says that when college grads end up working minimum wage jobs, we should be asking “why?”. 

Autism as a label

There’s a dilemma to resolve here. Autism is underrepresented in the average workplace — the above employment stats make that much clear. But if our employees, managers, and leadership teams never work alongside someone with autism, that’s when hidden biases go unchallenged.

Truth be told, people with autism are not held back professionally by their own inadequacies — it’s our perceptions that undermine inclusion.

Below are three mistakes that short-sighted employers make about autism at work

Judging how autistic people will manage in the workplace

Employers often underestimate an autistic worker’s ability to “cope” in a professional environment. 

Having a separate workstation in a quieter part of the office may be helpful, but not every autistic employee will want that. To some, that may feel like they’re being cast off to the side. 

Instead, we need to open up the conversation — asking employees what they need to succeed, rather than either excluding them from the workplace or making them live in fear of standing out. 

“My fear is that if I don’t mask, push through, and show how capable I am, I won’t be offered opportunities in the future or be valued the same”

Emily Swiatek

We need to make sure that autistic employees feel confident enough to ask for the accommodations that will help them, without being labeled as “awkward” or different. That’s one of the very first steps toward greater inclusion.

Living with limited autism awareness (in and out of work)

People with autism aren’t well represented in popular media. And the few representations that do exist are typically slated for their inaccurate depictions: Rain Man is a perfect example.

Take ownership of your own education on autism. Combat the general lack of awareness our society seems content with. But, most importantly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that reading this (or any!) written content will get you up to speed.

It’s only by spending time with people from the autistic community that those unconscious discriminations can be dismantled.

autism inclusion - hr insights - young women confidentally looks at the camera

“[Autism] is not a Google search, it’s searching for and learning from autistic people themselves”

– Invisible I: Autism Advocate

Using recruitment processes that favor neurotypical applicants

Many of the skills that people with autism bring to your company are hard to test for during a standard interview process. These include loyalty, attention to detail, technical articulacy, excellent memory, and proactive problem-solving. 

“If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley”

Temple Grandin

A hiring process that’s accessible and fair to neurodiverse groups helps widen your talent pool. It simultaneously demonstrates to people with autism that you’ll prioritize their inclusion, too.

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Autism as a competitive advantage

One of the biggest concerns for both people with autism — and the people considering them for a role — is that they won’t “fit in”. Either to the corporate environment or to the way their role has traditionally been conceived. 

Fortunately, “fitting in” isn’t always necessary — or beneficial.

Autism in tech: where neurodiversity thrives

The tech sector has traditionally led the way in creating a workplace that’s geared towards the needs of autistic talent. Ultranauts (a software and data quality engineering service) has focused heavily on this opportunity and, as a result, has a workforce where 75% of its staff is on the spectrum.

Ultranauts’ hiring practices play a crucial role. All potential candidates take a competency test and are evaluated against clear criteria, based on actual task performance, rather than assumption. If successful, they are given a week-long trial period — fully paid and with the option to work from home. Staff can then choose their own hours, using a DTE (desired time equivalent) timetable. This ensures that anyone who is unsure about working full-time can do as many or as few hours as suits them.

The power of neurodiversity in action

Ultranauts’ founder, Rajesh Anandan, argues that he’s built a successful company because of his workforce’s neurodiversity — not in spite of it. He’s committed himself to recovering talent that’s been “overlooked for all the wrong reasons”. And that commitment is paying off.

“We have a talent screening process to take someone who has never done this job and at the end of that process have a 95% degree of confidence […] We’ve shown over and over… that we’ve delivered results better because of the diversity of our team.”

— Rajesh Anandan, founder of Ultranauts

A spectrum of skills, for a spectrum of sectors

Tech may be the current poster-child for accommodating autism in the workplace, but many other sectors would benefit from this neurodiversity as well.

Autism is typically associated with strong visuospatial skills and better-than-average mathematics, perfect for careers in accountancy or architecture. Sectors where facts and accuracy are essential could also be an ideal fit — science, research, for example, and even journalism or proof-reading.

Autism is an extremely diverse condition, though. It would be remiss of us to put an entire community into a few small brackets. Each autistic person will have their own interests, preferences, and skills, and it’s our role as hiring and HR managers to be agents of business success — matching the right candidate to the right role, always.

4 lessons for boosting inclusion across the spectrum

So what are the changes required to better include autistic employees in the workplace? You may need to reevaluate and redesign, your practices from the ground up. 

Here’s how to get started:

1.

Remember, you don’t have all the answers

The most important take-home message is this: never rely on your assumptions. You can’t speak for someone else’s skills, abilities, and potential — not without assessing them properly. That’s true for any candidate, but it’s especially true when it comes to neurodiversity.

Even if you have autism yourself, a colleague’s experience could be (will be!) very different to your own. Interview the person in front of you — not your idea of them.

2.

Call in specialist recruiters

It can be tricky to fairly and accurately evaluate people with autism. You may not be the best person for the job.

Microsoft understood this when it launched the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program — the brainchild of an A-Team of specialists, including PROVAIL and Specialisterne. Left to their own internal practices and processes, Microsoft may never have reached its goal of hiring 20+ autistic employees for full-time roles. They may never have rolled this Program out to other global markets either.

3.

Give specific direction and set watertight goals 

People with autism benefit from clear, explicit expectations. They value highly-specific feedback, too. 

Managers may find that being (somewhat) blunt is effective and appreciated; the clearer your goals are, the less anxiety many autistic people feel.

4.

Help autistic employees create the environment they need

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again: no two employees are ever the same. Some autistic employees will want to work somewhere with low light. Others will need somewhere quiet, preferring to work from home. 

Take the time to listen to and understand their needs, then make the accommodations necessary.

Embracing autism and other neurodiversity can be a game-changer in business. Click through to our blog, ‘Neurodiversity At Work And Its Untapped Commercial Potential’ to learn more.

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