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Autism in the Workplace: How to Overcome Barriers
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Workforce Management

Autism in the Workplace: How to Overcome Barriers

One Minute Takeaway

  • Today, 1 in 36 children is identified with autism spectrum disorder. And in the next decade, more than a million people with autism are expected to turn 18, but the unemployment rate among them remains at 80% or more.
  • Take a close look at job descriptions and requirements. Are all the items listed necessary? People with autism may not have the required college degree or years of experience, but their unique way of processing the world gives them an advantage in certain job positions.
  • When neurodiverse people are put in working environments where it’s designed for them to succeed, it can bring extraordinary results. And they’ll stay longer with employers that have accommodations to make them feel safe.

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how the brain works. Some people with autism have a known cause, like a genetic condition, but we still have lots to learn about the causes and how they impact people with autism. People with autism might act, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. And there’s usually nothing about how they look that sets them apart. The abilities of people with autism can be really different too – some are great conversationalists, while others may be nonverbal. Some people with autism need a lot of help in their daily lives, and others are self-sufficient.

People with autism process the world differently than others, which means they have different ways of interacting, understanding, learning, and focusing. Autism can cause a wide range of symptoms, like repetitive behaviors and social anxiety. People with autism often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. They may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.

No two people with autism are the same.

What do all tall people have in common? Many will have stories about an uncomfortable plane ride where they had to squeeze into a seat not meant for a 6’4’’ frame. At parties, people will often ask a tall human if they played basketball in high school. Sometimes, height makes a tall person feel confident; but it could just as easily make them feel awkward. When writing their resumes, tall people don’t mention their height because they don’t see it as a defining feature of their value as workers or human beings.

Like tall humans, and all humans, no two people with autism are exactly alike. That’s commonsense but it’s worth remembering because when we talk about a condition, it’s easy to get too focused on the details of a diagnosis and forget that we’re talking about a unique human being who will bring their own life experiences, strengths, and weaknesses to the workplace.

Take another look at strengths and weaknesses.

People with autism are no different in that sometimes our strengths can be weaknesses and vice versa. This can be a positive when it comes to finding the right person for the right job.

“When neurodiverse people are placed in working environments that are designed for them to succeed, it brings extraordinary results – both for the company and the individual,” says Sammie Kelly, Senior Marketing Strategist at Strategic HR Business Advisors. “The employee finds a space where they are comfortable, confident, and can lean into their strengths like they would at home, and the organization benefits from the focus, productivity, brand advocacy, and success of some of their potentially best employees.”

In 2015, JP Morgan started their Autism at Work program to fill a talent gap in quality assurance and software engineering. Within six months, the employees hired in the program were 48% more productive than employees who had worked those same job for three to 10 years. Today, the program employs more than 220 individuals worldwide.

“These individuals are going to stay longer with employers who have happily built in accommodations to make them feel safe – something that all employers could benefit from considering the tight labor market we’ll continue to see in the future,” says Kelly.

Are you overlooking neurodiverse candidates?

Today, 1 in 36 children is identified with autism spectrum disorder according to the CDC. And in the next decade, more than a million people with autism are expected to turn 18, but the unemployment rate among them remains at 80% or more (Stanford Neurodiversity).

What an opportunity to find the ideal talent. Which is why many companies are removing historical constraints that shrink the pool of available job candidates. Is it necessary that everyone who interviews for a job at your company have a college degree? Many companies are saying not if the job seeker has skills and talents from life experiences beyond academia. The same thinking can apply in the case of job seekers who are neurodiverse. Put another way: what talent are you overlooking by requiring a college degree? Or 10 years of Java experience? What talent are you missing by assuming that a candidate with autism is automatically not a “culture fit?”

The bottom-line benefits of hiring people with autism.

For our finance and CFO friends, here’s what you need to know. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) gives a tax credit of up to $9,600 per employee for businesses that hire individuals from certain target groups, including people with disabilities. Your company can also claim a tax deduction for the cost of accommodations, as well as for the expenses related to making the workspace accessible. (Check out IRS’s Deductions Guide for Businesses for information on how to deduct disability-related expenses.)

Autism Accommodations: Interviewing

Job interviews can be a challenging experience for everyone, but for individuals with autism, they can be even more overwhelming. Here are some ideas to make the process a win/win.

  • No surprises: Candidates with autism may feel more comfortable if they know what to expect during the interview. In some cases, you may want to share the interview questions ahead of time. It can also be helpful to provide the candidate with a written outline of the questions for them to refer to throughout the conversation.
  • Be flexible and patient: If you can pick up on the vibe of the candidate, you’re going to have a much more successful interaction. If a candidate needs more time to answer a question, take a deep breath and relax. Allow them the time they need to gather their thoughts. And if they need a question rephrased or repeated, that’s totally okay.
  • Be direct, err on the side of being literal: Being direct in your questioning style can also be a good move. Rather than asking open-ended or abstract questions, ask questions that are specific and literal. For example, you might ask how the candidate would solve a specific problem that could arise in the workplace.
  • Change up the format: Consider using a mix of assessment methods, such as written tests, face-to-face interviews, and phone interviews, to get a better picture of the candidate’s abilities. (Best to avoid personality and IQ tests, as most assessments are not made for people with autism.) Depending on the job requirements, you might want to use an observational assessment instead of a formal interview. For instance, if the job requires hands-on tasks, ask the candidate to perform a sample task while you observe.

Autism Accommodations: Onboarding

The goals of onboarding an employee with autism are the same as a typical onboarding experience, but with some accommodations. By now, you know the drill—take this advice with a grain of salt, customize it to your organization, and most importantly, to the actual real live human you’re onboarding.

  • Ask them (or a caregiver) what they need to be successful. For example, let’s start with their work environment. You might want to adjust lighting, be mindful of sound and noise levels, or proximity to distracting areas such as kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Assign a mentoring buddy. This is a no brainer. An onboarding buddy can answer questions, provide context, and help the new employee feel more confident in their new role. This can be especially helpful for those small but crucial questions that may not be easily answered by a line manager. An onboarding buddy can also help with strategies to remember people and navigate the workplace, alleviating anxiety and embarrassment. It’s not just about practical help, but also emotional support and helping the new employee understand the organizational culture.
  • Educate your staff but maintain privacy. Don’t disclose that your new employee has a disability without their consent. That said, your team should be aware that your company is interviewing neurodiverse candidates. Encouraging a culture of respect is crucial to building diversity in your company. Sensitivity training can be helpful.

Autism Accommodations: Management

Like everyone else, people with autism are going to flourish if they have a healthy, productive, and psychologically safe relationship with their boss. Here are some ideas on how to effectively manage an employee with autism.

  • It’s important to understand that employees with autism are not being intentionally difficult or rude. They may come across as insensitive or awkward, but that’s a perception, not reality. Keep this in mind as you learn to communicate with your new hire.
  • As a rule of thumb (again, this is going to vary a lot in the real world) avoid jokes, irony, and exaggerations. In general, clear, transparent, and literal communication is going to be more effective. It can also be helpful to avoid using too much emotion in your speech and body language.
  • Consider using emails or mobile apps to communicate with people with autism, as these remove confusing social cues.
  • Many people with autism will perform better at job tasks when they have a degree of solitude and quiet and in some cases dim lighting. Private or remote workspaces can make a big difference.
  • Granted, this can feel like threading a needle, but as a manager, you want to make sure a neurodivergent employee feels included in group activities, but at the same time, you don’t want to unintentionally pressure them to “fit in” in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.

Individuals with autism possess unique strengths that can contribute significantly to workplace success. By leveraging their innate abilities, such as keen attention to detail, strong focus, and exceptional pattern recognition, autistic employees can excel in various roles and industries. Employers who facilitate their success by fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment stand to benefit from the diverse perspectives, talents, and innovative thinking they bring to the table.

For more free resources and tools that promote DE&I best practices in the workplace, visit Perspectives+. It’s Paycor’s online knowledge library designed to help you drive change, empower colleagues, and foster new leaders.