Consider hiring workers with autism

With an unemployment rate of 85%, college-educated autistic adults are an untapped resource for filling the labor gap.
Feature Autism Panel

The unemployment rate may once again be low, but that didn’t stop U.S. job openings from reaching a near-record level in January as a worker shortage continues.

While a daunting number of vacant jobs wait to be filled, a talent-rich pool of applicants who want to work but aren’t being hired is sitting on the sidelines: individuals with autism and related disorders.

Individuals on the autism spectrum are bright, motivated, and want a chance to demonstrate the skills they have learned in college or other educational institutions. These individuals may not interview well, or may learn differently compared to their colleagues, and because of this their talents may be overlooked. Per the Autism Society, 85% of college-educated autistic adults are unemployed — 85% who bring knowledge, passion, and skills to contribute to a company, but can’t get past the first level of interview process to show they can and will be employees who contribute to the success and missions of the companies.

Progress has been made in hiring people with disabilities, but it remains slow. According to Disability Labor Force Statistics from the Department of Labor, there were modest gains in the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities when comparing 2020 numbers with 2021.

However, in “The State of Autism Employment in 2021,” published in Forbes, several worrying points are made. Among them:

  • Autism employment initiatives with major employers continue to grow in number, but combined they impact a very small percentage of the autism adult population.
  • Universities, major nonprofits, and foundations have lagged the private sector in hiring autistic adults, even though, with their missions, they should be at the lead.

Still, organizations that proactively seek to hire candidates on the autism spectrum can find some unique benefits. For one, it increases positive perception of your brand. According to a national survey of consumer attitudes toward companies that hire people with disabilities, published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation:

  • 92% of consumers felt more favorable toward those brands that hire individuals with disabilities; and
  • 87% specifically agreed that they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities.

According to numerous other sources, people on the autistic spectrum tend to be more loyal and industrious compared to non-disabled workers.

David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks, says much of the activity in hiring so far has been in the tech sector, where those with autism often thrive in coding, programming, software testing, and analytics. However, he says it is important to create opportunities for those across the spectrum, not just for those who are less impacted.

“There are jobs available in all industries, which I think is important to note,” Kearon explains. “We are concerned that some may be pigeonholing people with autism into a very narrow career path in tech that simply is not going to work for most individuals on the spectrum.

“Like the population as a whole, only a small minority of people with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] would say that they enjoy or want to code software or run analytics all day,” Kearon continues. “The reasons why tech environments seem like such a good fit for people with autism — they tend to be predictable, systematic, and rule-based — also apply to many other occupations as well.”

For employers, a reevaluation of job descriptions may be necessary to capture more neurodiverse applicants.

“The behaviors of many people with autism may not fit perfectly to the common ideas of what makes a good employee,” says Kearon. “And the terms we include in almost every job description — strong communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network — are criteria that can screen out people with autism, and they often have very little to do with the actual job requirements.”

Kearon says businesses should be more thoughtful and specific about job descriptions and be more willing to consider someone who doesn’t necessarily fit every part of the description. Shifting expectations during the interview process is also imperative.

“We know that the traditional job interview is a major barrier to employment for many autistic job seekers,” notes Kearon. “Assessing a person with autism in a traditional face-to-face interview is simply not a good way to assess his or her true abilities.

“Asking someone on the spectrum to sit across the table from someone, develop a friendly banter with a complete stranger, maintain eye contact (but not too much!), brag about himself (but not too much!), etc. is setting him up to fail in many cases,” Kearon says.

Kearon suggests that companies can benefit from using alternative screening and assessment methods, such as giving the candidate a sample job task or a trial work period.

“It’s made them more aware of the shortcomings in their traditional screening and interview processes. They’ve realized that they are missing very talented people by assessing candidates with traditional interviews, rather than by giving them a more applicable opportunity to show what they are capable of.

“On a larger scale, many employers tell us that including people with autism has improved the companies’ overall corporate cultures,” adds Kearon. “Learning how to most effectively manage people with autism has made them better managers overall, for all of their employees.”

For companies looking to develop a more neurodiverse workforce, Kearon recommends some common practices:

  • Make very clear that they are targeting autistic candidates for recruitment;
  • Invest in training and educating their staff and hiring managers about autism;
  • Use innovative, alternative methods to assess the talent of autistic candidates beyond the traditional job interview;
  • Speak publicly about the business case for hiring people with autism, and help other businesses to learn from their practices;
  • Publish success stories of autistic employees thriving when given the proper supports;
  • Partner with local or regional nonprofit service provider organizations for ongoing support as needed;
  • Develop relationships with autism support programs at universities, community colleges, and local community organizations;
  • Pay autistic employees the same salaries as neurotypical employees; and
  • Encourage and empower autistic colleagues to support one another through employee resource groups, affinity groups, group outings, or other activities.

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