People with Autism Can Be an 'Untapped Reservoir of Talent'

Exercise and other simple accommodations can help people with autism focus and excel at work

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 20, 2018

Employees at Hart Schaffner Marx in Des Plaines, Ill., start their workday with a
30-minute exercise routine, which can help people on the autism spectrum better focus on their work tasks. 
(Photos: Courtesy of Autism Workforce)

Hopping on an exercise bike, performing jumping jacks or striking a yoga pose with a coach at the beginning of their work shift helps the nine employees with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at Hart Schaffner Marx (HSM) be more successful in their work. The 131-year-old manufacturer of men's suits in Des Plaines, Ill., has made a concerted effort since 2015 to hire individuals with autism.

The exercise component is part of HSM's overall strategy to accommodate people with ASD. Those part-time employees working in customer service, IT, the special orders department and the distribution center are among the more than 3.5 million Americans living with the disorder, according to the Autism Society of America.

ASD is a developmental disability that can be treated but not cured. Behaviors associated with it include difficulty making eye contact; anxiety about speaking in front of others; a need for structure and step-by-step instruction; sensory sensitivity, such as to light and noise; and poor motor skills. The prevalence of the disorder has increased 6 percent to 15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Autism is the world's fastest-growing developmental disability," said David S. Geslak. He is founder and president of Autism Workforce, a national organization headquartered in Chicago that helped HSM adopt more inclusive policies and procedures to accommodate people with autism.

"Most [Society for Human Resource Management] members—in some way—are dealing with autism whether they know it or not," Geslak pointed out. They may have an employee with ASD or a family member or friend with autism. A company may have customers who are autistic or who know someone who is.

HSM's CEO, Doug Williams, whose adult son has ASD but does not work at HSM, said the company's efforts are not about charity. He thinks it just makes good business sense.

"A substantial number" of people with ASD "are employable in an economy where we're all desperate for additional labor," he told SHRM Online. "To exclude people with special needs from the labor base of the U.S. is not a very good economic" practice.

He knew he needed buy-in from his managers before any ASD strategies were implemented at the plant, which employs 500 people.

"Just because the boss wants something done, if you don't get your whole organization around it, it's not going to be successful—especially working with special-needs adults," he said. In a meeting with managers, he asked who knew someone with ASD. More than half raised their hands.

"All of a sudden the managers saw the breadth of the need" for the initiative, he said.

'Compelling Deliverables'

HSM's efforts are indicative of a growing trend toward neurodiversity in the workplace—recognizing and respecting neurological differences that include dyslexia, Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette's syndrome, as well as ASD.  

"In HR we talk about ethnicity and skin color, we talk about gender, sexual orientation and, of course … physical disabilities" under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion, said Mike Civello, vice president, employer services division, at Rethink Benefits in New York City. "There's very little that's practiced or discussed for nonvisible disabilities. That's where neurodiversity comes in."

The company provides best-practice treatment tools to support employees caring for people with special needs. It is opening a neurodiversity inclusion center, available to employers on a subscription basis, that will offer online training and other resources for HR professionals on hiring and working with people who are neurodiverse.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Cognitive Disabilities]

"There are some really compelling deliverables" to hiring people with ASD, Civello pointed out. "Adults with autism have some fairly amazing gifts," such as pattern recognition and attention to detail, "that can outpace those who do not have autism."

People with autism are "an untapped reservoir of talent" according to An Employer's Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017). While the range and severity of autism symptoms can vary widely, people with the disorder often are "highly analytical, very focused and very task-oriented," authors Marcia Scheiner and Joan Bogden wrote.

SAP, a Germany-based multinational software corporation, has an Autism at Work program, begun in 2013 as part of its corporate goal to employ 650 people who are on the autism spectrum. Job applicants included people with master's degrees and some with dual college degrees. One of its employees was a major contributor to two SAP patents, said David Hu, vice president of development USA, in an SAP video.

JPMorgan Chase launched Autism at Work in July 2015 as a four-person pilot program that now has 85 people in 20-plus roles representing 10 lines of business in six countries.

Some of the world's best-known IT companies have begun hiring these individuals, HR Magazine reported in 2016. Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program, launched in 2015, is part of that company's inclusive hiring initiative. Fifty full-time workers—software engineers, data scientists and content writers—with ASD have been hired at the Redmond, Wash., location.

Most companies looking to be neurodiverse need "to adjust their recruitment, selection and career development policies," the Harvard Business Review reported in 2017. That may include providing accommodations such as headphones to cut down on noise.

HSM replaced harsh fluorescent lightbulbs with LEDs. It painted yellow lines on the floor to make it easier for employees to find their way around the large factory, where the constant hum of 300 sewing machines is among the sensory distractions. It rewrote job descriptions to indicate which positions were in noisy environments or required fine motor skills. It added small pictures to job applications as visual cues. It educated 150 employees who would have contact with people with autism to know how to interact with them. Training included how to hire and work with—and possibly fire—those individuals.

And HSM added the morning exercise period because, Geslak said in a YouTube video, it "has been proven to help individuals with autism to stay better on task, focused and even [to] calm maladaptive behaviors." He is the author of the Autism Fitness Handbook (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014). 

HSM painted its exercise room a calming blue, added AstroTurf to one wall to make it "sensory friendly," and hired a coach knowledgeable about adults with special needs to oversee a 30-minute exercise schedule. Employees follow a structured routine in the morning. The instructor, visual aids and an app called the Exercise Buddy that Geslak developed help them learn proper form.

"We recognize that the business needs have to come first for any CEO, any president, any business owner," Geslak says in the video. "What we did [at HSM] were really simple tweaks to now make these individuals a valuable part of Hart Schaffner Marx or any workforce." 

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