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Workers with Autism: Using Strengths and Accommodating Limitations

Microsoft's hiring of employees with autism raises management questions

Will he be on time? Is she accident-prone? How will he interact with customers?

Those are among the questions that managers typically ask when they discover they’ll be supervising an employee with autism.

When Microsoft in April 2015 announced a new program to hire people with autism for full-time positions, the company’s corporate vice president for worldwide operations, Mary Ellen Smith, wrote on the company's website that she is the parent of 19-year-old Shawn, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 4. Upon first learning of her son’s diagnosis, she wrote, she and her husband left the doctor’s office, “walked to the car, pulled onto the road, drove 15 miles to our home and entered the house. All in silence. We did not know what to say.”

Smith’s initial unfamiliarity with her son’s condition—how to accommodate it, understand it and help her child thrive in spite of it—is something many managers might relate to when they first supervise employees with autism.

Autism refers to a group of disorders in brain development that can be characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with socializing, as well as with verbal and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks, which funds research on earlier diagnosis and therapy for autism. Many people on the autism spectrum have exceptional visual, musical and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Others have significant disabilities and can’t live independently.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 68 American children is on the autism spectrum, which represents a 10-fold increase in 40 years that research indicates is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness.

A 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 35 percent of young adults with autism were not employed or attending college or technical school within six years of graduating from high school.

The Autistic Worker

Walgreens, the drugstore-chain giant based in Deerfield, Ill., was an early adopter of hiring workers with autism. The company piloted a program for autistic workers in 2007 at its distribution center in Anderson, S.C.

What Walgreens has learned since then is that many characteristics associated with autism translate into highly desirable work traits.

“[Autism] characteristics include limited understanding or noticing of subtle social cues, a tendency to be very literal, a better understanding of information presented visually versus the other learning modalities, and a higher level of comfort with concrete versus abstract thinking processes,” said Deb Russell, former manager of outreach and employment services at Walgreens and now a managing partner with Global Disability Inclusion, based in St. Augustine, Fla. Global Disability Inclusion works with companies that hire people with autism, and its clients represent the IT, sales, agriculture, distribution, retail, manufacturing and professional services industries.

Those with autism may have trouble improvising and can be subject to sensory overload, but tend to thrive when paying close attention to detail and following rules, she said. They tend to be extremely reliable and have a strong work ethic.

Leslie Long, vice president of adult services for Autism Speaks, said autistic employees tend to be punctual, have low rates of absenteeism and excel at following rules.

“Recently, we have seen an increase in their success within the science, technology, engineering and math career fields,” she said. “Others have excelled in manufacturing, food service, health care and hospitality careers.”

Getting Managers On Board

Managers who haven’t worked with autistic employees, however, may worry that they’ll say something wrong, not be effective in communicating or understanding, or be unable to discipline or terminate a person with autism.

“Most people have a level of discomfort in interacting with people who are different,” Russell said. “Managers who have good people skills, who are able to treat each employee as an individual and who use effective communication are also good managers of those … on the autism spectrum. Managers who treat everyone the same, and do not invest time in knowing their employees’ strengths and development opportunities, do struggle in being effective managers of those in their workforce with disabilities.”

For Walgreens’ pilot program, managers were asked to write down their concerns—such as worries over how autistic employees would deal with customers, or whether they might be more accident-prone than others—and then the managers discussed them.

Training Managers

In many cases, managers just need permission to treat employees with disabilities, especially those on the autism spectrum, the same way that they treat all employees, Long said. Performance issues for employees with disabilities, including those with autism, should be addressed as they are for employees without disabilities.

To deal with sensory overload among workers with autism, Walgreens created a break space at its Anderson facility with bean bag chairs and puzzles. Walgreens managers were taught to avoid using metaphors when speaking with autistic workers and to instead be exact and direct. Walgreens also created visual aids—with both words and pictures—to help the workers understand how to do their jobs.

“It is very unlikely that once managers see the benefit to their bottom line by hiring workers on the autism spectrum that they won’t get on board,” Long said. “But there are always a few managers who, no matter the facts, won’t be comfortable with staff who learn and process information differently than typical peers.”

For employers unfamiliar with hiring people with autism, it can also help to partner with an organization that can guide them in recruitment and training. Local vocational rehabilitation programs can help with recruiting. Job coaches from vocational programs can help to train autistic employees.

Microsoft is working with Specialisterne, a Denmark-based company that helps people with autism find meaningful employment in software testing, programming and data entry, to launch its pilot program.

Autism Speaks has a number of resources to ensure appropriate information is available for both the employer and employee.

The U.S. Department of Labor has a page with facts, figures, success stories and resources for all employees with disabilities, as well as their employers.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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