Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that causes social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's called a spectrum disorder because the condition includes a wide range of individuals, from those who need very little help to those who can't speak or live on their own. The cause hasn't been determined, though it is believed to be a combination of environmental, biological and genetic factors.
The CDC says that autism affects between 1 percent and 2 percent of the U.S. population, or anywhere from 3.3 million to 6.6 million people. About 30 percent of autistic individuals also have a mental disability.
Unemployment for people with autism can be as high as 80 percent to 90 percent, advocates for autistic individuals say. While the federal Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against job candidates with a disability, some employers fear accommodations for autistic workers will be difficult and expensive. Advocates also attribute the high jobless rate to a lack of community and corporate resources dedicated to training and hiring. And, autistic individuals tend to lack social skills that are expected in job interviews, such as maintaining eye contact and engaging in small talk.
That's why specialized hiring programs are so important: Managers who understand the traits associated with autism can make accommodations that put people more at ease. Microsoft has a recruiter dedicated to working with autistic people. Instead of the traditional interview process, job candidates spend a week in the office, giving managers an opportunity to see their skills and get acquainted with them in a less traditional setting, according to Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility.
EY has altered its interview process in a similar way, though the modifications don't end there. People with autism often have a sensitivity to light and sound, so they're typically assigned to dimly lit, less-trafficked areas of the office. Many wear noise-cancelling headphones.
Managers are taught to adjust their communication styles when interacting with autistic individuals, who tend to be more literal than the neurotypical. For example, colleagues shouldn't specify "I'll be back in five minutes" to an autistic person because the individual might get upset if the co-worker takes more or less time. If an autistic person is struggling with a task, the manager shouldn't ask a general question such as "How's it going?" Any questions should be specific, such as "It looks like you're having a problem with that assignment. Can I help you?"
While accommodations are necessary, they're manageable, says Hiren Shukla, EY's neurodiversity leader.
"We have to think about the skills we need to run our business," Shukla says. "So much is focused on tech skills, robotics, analytics. We need people with those skills, and individuals on the autism spectrum have math and tech skills."
Stan Hwang has been working at EY for three years, and he appreciates that he can be open about his autism.
"Before I felt if I put [my autism] on an application or said it in an interview, that people would think it was detrimental to my ability to do the job," explains the 31-year-old computer programmer.
Hwang's enthusiasm for his job goes beyond his enjoyment of programming. The company employs a job coach for its autistic employees, who helps them with both professional and personal needs. For example, the coach helped Hwang find a suitable route to work and once gently pointed out that his shirt was too wrinkled for the office.
"There is lots of help for me to reach out to," Hwang says. "It is a safe space."
Chevron's decision to hire a consultant to start a program for hiring autistic individuals for its IT team in Houston stemmed from the success of other companies' efforts. Chevron's leaders learned from other employers that neurodiverse software testing teams are 30 percent more productive than their neurotypical counterparts. Also, individuals on the autism spectrum outperform their nonautistic peers, with productivity increases from 48 percent to 120 percent.
"Other companies found that the neuro-diverse have really high productivity rates and special skills that others don't have," says Erin McGregor, manager of the global office of ombuds at Chevron.
Earlier this year, Chevron started a program to hire autistic individuals to work at its service stations, performing duties such as cleaning and stocking shelves. The jobs can be difficult to fill, and tapping into the autism community offered a new talent pool, McGregor says.
"Autism is a spectrum, and people have a wide range of abilities," McGregor says. "We're trying to match the education to the job."
It's crucial for companies to open a wide range of jobs to autistic individuals, advocates say.
"Not everyone with autism is good at math and science," says David Kearon, director of adult services at Autism Speaks, a New York City-based nonprofit. In fact, most autistic people can't work in tech jobs, he says.
"We worry about people getting pigeon-holed," he adds.
There's also a fear that the initiatives will stop or slow if the job market cools. For now, however, companies are considering expanding their hiring.