April is Autism Awareness Month, and with all the enthusiasm about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, we need to call attention to one alarming statistic: There are 5 million adults with autism in the U.S., and just 15 percent of them are employed.
Why is employment so scarce for people with autism?
Autistic Employees Battle Bias
"Autism Doesn't Hold People Back at Work. Discrimination Does." That's the title of a Harvard Business Review article by Ludmila N. Praslova, SHRM-SCP, professor of graduate programs in industrial-organizational psychology at the Vanguard University of Southern California. Praslova is autistic.
Praslova cites a 2020 U.K. study that found 50 percent of hiring managers said they would not hire neurodivergent candidates, with 25 percent ruling out autistic candidates.
Business Benefits of Neurodiversity
Bias against neurodivergent candidates doesn't just affect adults with autism, it also affects businesses. According to Deloitte, "Organizations that make an extra effort to recruit, retain, and nurture neurodivergent workers can gain a competitive edge from increased diversity in skills, ways of thinking, and approaches to problem-solving."
Case in point: JP Morgan Chase launched its Autism at Work program to actively recruit autistic employees in 2015. "Employees on the autism spectrum were as much as 140 percent more productive than their peers," said James Mahoney, head of the program.
Smart Companies Focus on Abilities
It's no wonder that companies like Dell, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and SAP have followed suit in launching initiatives to recruit, train and support neurodivergent employees.
"People on the spectrum often demonstrate trustworthiness, strong memories, reliability, adherence to rules and attention to detail," wrote Taryn Oesch, editor at Training Industry Inc., in an article for SHRM Online. "They are often good at coding—a skill that is in high demand."
It's not just tech companies that are seeing the light. Knee Deep Brewing Company is a craft brewer in Auburn, Calif., that expects to ship 16,000 barrels of its beer throughout the U.S., Australia, China, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand this year. Its packaging team includes three employees with autism.
Knee Deep owner Jerry Moore said it has been hard to find reliable workers amid the labor shortage, and the crew members he brought on have more than delivered. "The first thing that surprised me was how happy they are to be here," he said in an article about the employees. "They show up on time, work hard, are a lot of fun, and have turned out to be a perfect fit." Knee Deep now offers a special beer each April to raise awareness and funds for autism-related organizations.
Hiring people with autism is "not that different from hiring anyone else," Moore said. "It's finding the right person for the right job and giving them the resources to succeed. This job happens to work for these individuals, and they love it."
Think (and Act) Like a Champion
McKinsey has studied diversity and business performance for years. Companies with diverse boards and C-suites outperform homogenous peers. But that research has been focused on gender, ethnic and cultural diversity.
In 2018, Accenture released Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, a report based on a study of 45 companies that actively include people with disabilities. Accenture called these companies "Disability Inclusion Champions."
"Champions are, compared with other companies in the sample, performing above-average financially," Accenture said. "Champions achieved—on average—28 percent higher revenue, double the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins over the four years we analyzed."
Including people with disabilities represents an opportunity for an additional edge for businesses looking to outperform. Here are some tips for getting started:
- Root out bias. Don't make assumptions regarding what people with autism can and cannot do. There is a reason autism is called a spectrum. "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," autism advocate Dr. Stephen Shore is often quoted as having said. Or, as Praslova wrote in her Harvard Business Review article, "I am not an unfeeling robot, a math whiz, or a child. I am a highly independent adult who likes helping people and cherishes a sense of community." If you want to know how autism affects a job candidate, ask them.
- Actively recruit candidates. Ensure that your candidates know your door is open to employees with autism. One way to do this is by encouraging disclosure. The 85 percent unemployment rate is not for candidates' lack of trying. A U.K. study found that just 24 percent of job seekers with autism disclose it on applications. The reason is simple: fear of being rejected.
- Make your application process flexible. Allow for written answers to interview questions. Rethink what it means to "nail the interview." It's important to not confuse soft skills with social skills. Problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability are soft skills that many people with autism demonstrate. Eye contact, a firm handshake and small talk are social skills that can be difficult for people with autism but are often irrelevant to job performance.
- Embrace accommodations. U.S. businesses must, by law, provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to enable them to work. That scares employers because they think it will be expensive. It is not. The Job Accommodation Network, a disability employment consultancy, surveys employers regularly about the cost of accommodations, and the numbers have been consistent over the years. Most accommodations (56 percent) are free, and the rest cost an average of $500. Creating a sensory-friendly break room or giving people extra time to formulate answers to questions is inexpensive.
- Train everyone. "Employing employees on the spectrum also means providing training to support their skills—and training for the organization to create an inclusive culture," wrote Oesch in her SHRM Online article. "For managers and co-workers, awareness training can help them understand their colleagues and how to support them. Supervisors especially should receive training on effective communication strategies."
- Provide ongoing support with employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are DE&I secret weapons. According to a McKinsey study, support groups for workers with common interests and identities improve community, engagement, allyship, connection and career growth. "Effective employee resource groups are key to inclusion at work," the McKinsey researchers wrote. Why? Because while many companies have launched impressive DE&I efforts, "the majority do not have a DEI infrastructure—including ERGs—that is equally innovative and set up to advance the company's overall DEI strategy."
Belonging Benefits Everyone
These recommendations for including people with autism at work are relevant and valuable for all employees. That's because belonging benefits everyone. Researchers at Great Places to Work found that when employees experience belonging at work—not just their own but others', too—they are:
- Three times more likely to look forward to coming to work.
- Three times more likely to say their workplace is fun.
- Nine times more likely to believe everyone is treated fairly.
- Five times more likely to want to stay at their company for a long time.
Fostering belonging for employees with autism will help you create belonging for everyone, and your business will thrive.
Darelyn Pazdel is the acting chief workforce inclusion officer at PRIDE Industries, the nation's leading employer of people with disabilities.