One in 68 Americans is autistic. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so many individuals only slightly differ from a "neurotypical" person. Many autistic adults have significant skills that could benefit many jobs and industries. So why hasn't this untapped group of possible employees been utilized to the best of their potential?
Some studies have shown that at least 80 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. This is despite the fact that autistic people often have well-above average intelligence. Only 14 percent of adults with autism hold paid jobs according to a report by Drexel University’s Autism Institute. Another study found that 35 percent of people ages 19-23 diagnosed with autism are not employed or seeking higher education.
Reasons and Ways to Recruit and Employ Autistic Adults
It is never a good idea to paint a group of people with broad strokes. Yet there are some common traits and skills associated with many autistic people. Pattern recognition and attention to detail are some, along with a good memory, advanced problem-solving skills, and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks.
Despite these strengths, some autistic adults have found that good skills are not enough to get and keep a job. The ever-important soft skills could be problematic since some people with autism have problems with nonverbal communication. For example, he or she might have difficulty maintaining eye contact or reading facial expressions and body language.
Other challenges stem from a difficulty processing and understanding someone else's feelings. An autistic person might think he or she is being straightforward, only to be seen as rude and inappropriate. Some may be perceived as lacking interest in sharing experiences, jokes, or celebrations with others. People might say that this person isn’t a team player or has a poor sense of humor.
Within any industry, there are jobs where many autistic adults can thrive. Some common industries where adults with autism work include:
- Administrative and support services. Good attention to detail and repetitive tasks are benefits in these roles.
- Health care, including animal-related. Animals are calming and don't need to read nonverbal communication.
- High-tech jobs like programming and cyber security. The ability to detect patterns and again, good attention to detail make autistic people sought after in the tech world.
- Scientific or research positions. An ordered environment with set rules and structure is helpful for many autistic adults.
- Autistic people can be helpful when presenting facts without mixing in emotions or opinions.
- Assembly-line manufacturing. Again, repetitive movements and an ordered environment may provide the right workplace.
Creating Space in the Workforce for Neurodiverse Employees
As awareness increases, companies are developing programs to tap into autistic adults' potential. Software company SAP specifically employs autistic adults to test software. Over the past three years, more than 70 autistic employees have been hired at JPMorgan Chase. Ernst and Young developed a neurodiversity program for autistic adults. Even the Israeli army has a special intelligence unit with recruits on the autism spectrum. These troops evaluate satellite images and identify security threats.
Autism in the workplace is something all HR departments should consider. Companies should make sure that all job descriptions offer specifics of the job's key functions. Then autistic candidates can feel confident in applying for jobs matching their strengths. If the autistic candidate can perform the key job functions, he or she should be evaluated based on the same criteria that apply to every candidate.
Interviews can be challenging for candidates who answer questions abruptly or avoid eye contact. These candidates may not "sell" themselves to a recruiter the same way others do. To help level the playing field during interviews, make sure you are asking questions that are clear and unambiguous. Consider that someone who may be lacking in soft skills could be a perfect fit for the position at hand. At Microsoft, the typical interview process includes a day-long marathon of interviews. But for autistic applicants, the company uses a group interview program where 10 candidates meet with hiring teams over four days.
Companies should (of course) hire the most qualified candidate regardless of any disability. The HR department—by law—should be prepared to make any reasonable accommodations necessary. (For example, managers could easily accommodate someone who needs a strict schedule in the workplace.
Once hired, autistic employees want acceptance and inclusion as part of the team. Most don't want special treatment, such as a one-to-one work partner. In a trial program, many people felt like this singled them out rather than providing support. Some of the companies above have established management training on how to work with autistic employees. The tips include being literal and concise in descriptions and instructions. They also suggest taking a direct approach: “Good job. Next time, do this instead of that.”