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Ever since researchers began using the word "autism" in the 1940s to describe certain patterns of behavior in children, it's been an often misunderstood diagnosis. Now, we know that it continues throughout the lifespan, and we know it involves a spectrum of symptoms. In fact, the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders united autistic disorder and Asperger's syndrome into one disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Because of the prevalence of ASD (about one to two percent globally, and higher—and increasing—in the U.S.) and due to its existence as a spectrum, it's important for organizations to understand the disorder and its impact on work and training. Employment options exist on a spectrum (from separate workplaces to supported and competitive employment). Many major corporations, such as Microsoft, SAP and HP Enterprise/DXC Technology (HPE/DXC), have begun specifically recruiting and training employees with autism. In fact, HPE/DXC employs 58 people with autism through its Dandelion Program, which offers internships and jobs in cybersecurity, data analytics and software testing.
Symptoms and Challenges in the Workplace
People with ASD often have difficulties with social communication and interactions—verbal and nonverbal—in multiple contexts; repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities; difficulties finding and keeping a job; and difficulties developing and maintaining social relationships.
ASD can be accompanied by an intellectual impairment, but about 60 percent of people with autism have average or above-average intelligence. In fact, Gary P. Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in a 2016 Harvard case study that "their intellectual horsepower is quite high." As a result, many adults with autism go to college and have skills that are in high demand by employers.
Despite that fact, about 85 percent of college-educated adults with autism are unemployed, according to Amy Conn, marketing director of Integrate in San Francisco, an organization that helps companies recruit and retain professionals on the autism spectrum. Experts say this high unemployment rate is at least partially because many adults with ASD don't make it through the interview process or may not even apply for a job because they think they won't get hired.
Once they are hired, most organizational cultures rely so heavily on social and communication skills that it can be hard for a person with autism to break through without support. Other symptoms, such as sensory sensitivities, difficulty adapting to change and difficulties with executive functioning, can also make work difficult.
The Benefits of Neurodiversity
Research shows that there can be business benefits to hiring employees with autism. People on the spectrum often demonstrate trustworthiness, strong memories, reliability, adherence to rules and attention to detail. They are often good at coding – a skill that is in high demand. In fact, Austen Weinhart, COO of Coding Autism in Los Angeles, a coding bootcamp for people with autism, says that "the traits that are usually … associate[d] with people on the spectrum correlate really strongly with those of a successful coder." Those skills include "pattern recognition, strong attention to detail" and a "very direct" communication style.
Beyond specific job skills, however, organizations increasingly recognize the importance of diversity to innovation. Neurodiversity, broadly defined as a diversity of thinking styles and abilities, is arguably especially important for innovative decision-making. Michael Fieldhouse, Dandelion Program executive at HPE/DXC in Canberra, Australia, says that neurodiversity "drives diversity of thinking and innovation." Conn says that people with autism often "have a propensity to think outside the box and can be extremely creative."
It's a win-win, according to Tracy Powell-Rudy, director of corporate engagement in New York for Integrate. "We're saying we can help you find the talent that meet your requirements [and] the position's needs, and they will also bring with them some additional strengths." Employee engagement also increases when employees can see that their organizations care about this type of diversity. She says that more organizations are becoming "truly inclusive in this way" and seeing success.
Employing employees on the spectrum also means providing training to support their skills—and training for the organization to create an inclusive culture.
For managers and coworkers, awareness training can help them understand their colleagues and how to support them. Supervisors especially should receive training on effective communication strategies. The Dandelion Program provides a four-hour management training session that uses role-plays to help managers practice "issues and challenges that they may not have faced before," according to Fieldhouse. Finding an executive champion whose life is impacted by autism in some way—perhaps the person who instigated the hiring initiative—can help engage employees in training.
For employees on the spectrum, on-the-job training for communication and other interpersonal skills is vital. The Dandelion Program provides technical training for the employee's job, training in executive functioning skills such as organization and memory skills, and adaptive/life skills training on topics like financial management and nutrition. Offering training in the actual work setting—or in a simulation that approximates that setting—can help employees adjust to their new environment. Research indicates that behavioral training strategies such as rewards and modeling can be especially successful with employees with ASD. Coaches can also help provide individualized support.
Oliver Thornton, CEO of Coding Autism in Westlake Village, Calif., who has Asperger's syndrome, says that a lot of people on the spectrum "operate best when they have a structured environment." He says that Coding Autism is structured to "break up the day," focusing "learning in shorter bursts." This format can benefit a wide range of employees, as seen in the recent popularity of microlearning.
Thornton also recommends matching "team buddies and other employees who are neurotypical" with employees on the spectrum. He says that SAP uses this method as part of its autism hiring initiative, and buddies can "ensure that they're on pace with everything … that they have coworkers and colleagues that they can get along with" – so that they know they are accepted.
With the right supports in place, hiring employees with autism can provide real benefits by increasing diversity and filling skills gaps with an almost untapped group of employees. As Austen says, "for companies who are looking to really seriously innovate … it's only a win-win."
Taryn Oesch is the award-winning managing editor of digital content at Training Industry Inc., and co-host of The Business of Learning, the Training Industry podcast.
This article is adapted from TrainingIndustry.com with permission © 2019. All rights reserved.