Because of their attention to detail, ability to concentrate, and creative thinking skills, people with autism can be a valuable asset to any workplace. They excel at completing repetitive tasks and doing research, and typically stick with a job once they’re hired. However, some employers are hesitant to hire (or even interview) job candidates who have autism.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder as “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” There are a variety of subtypes of autism, and each person has their own set of challenges and strengths.
Autism can be diagnosed when a child is as young as 18 months, and symptoms typically appear by age 2-3. While early intervention can lead to positive outcomes later on, autism is typically a lifelong condition.
Why Do Adults with Autism Struggle to Find Employment?
Adults with autism are less likely than other disability groups to find employment after graduation. Studies show that as many as 90% of adults with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. Many employers don’t fully understand ASD and aren’t aware of the benefits employees with autism can bring to their company workplace.
Here are a few reasons why adults with autism often have trouble finding meaningful, long-term employment.
People with Autism May Lack “Soft Skills”
Many individuals with autism lack soft skills, which include things like:
- People skills
- Social skills
- Communication skills
- Emotional intelligence
- Social graces
- Time management skills
Because they don’t have some or all of these soft skills, adults with autism can be overlooked during job interviews. Employers may not understand the underlying issues behind the person’s lack of soft skills, and instead write them off as uncaring or disrespectful.
Types of Employment for Adults with Autism
There are three main types of employment for adults with autism: competitive, supported, and secure/sheltered. Here’s a quick overview of each type and how it handles autism in the workplace:
- Competitive employment is where the employee is completely independent in the work environment. They can ask their employer for reasonable accommodations and/or a position that requires limited social interactions.
- Supported employment is where the employee has a support system in place. They might have a job that’s developed just for them and their strengths.
- Secure/sheltered employment typically occurs in a facility-based setting. The employee receives behavior training and is taught a variety of work skills.
5 ways to embrace autism in the workplace
- Focus on “can”, not “can’t”
Hiring someone on the autistic spectrum should be much like hiring anyone to work for your company. Your focus should be on whether the person can do the job, not on their disability.
It’s the same thought process you would use if you interviewed someone with an identifiable or obvious disability (e.g., blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound). Don’t make assumptions and decide the person can or can’t perform some function of the job because of his or her disabilities.
Instead, focus on each person’s abilities.
- Consider essential functions
What can business leaders do to accommodate employees at various levels of the autistic spectrum?
In any instance of hiring and managing employees with disabilities, a well-defined job description can help both your managers and your employees understand the essential functions of a job and the standards for those functions. You should always:
- Consult with your trusted HR or legal professional.
- Engage in the interactive process.
- Evaluate the need for accommodating individuals with any form of disability on a case-by-case basis.
The essential functions of each job, and the candidate you are considering for that role, should be individually considered. For instance, it’s probably an essential function that your web developer meet deadlines for launching new apps and microsites.
- Be open to reasonable accommodations
The words “reasonable accommodations” can often cause discomfort for managers who automatically assume this term requires them to turn their business inside out to adapt to an employee’s needs.
However, accommodating an employee with ASD (or, really, any disability) is probably similar to changes you may already be making for other employees, such as providing standing desks for those with back problems. Common alterations that may be requested by those with ASD include:
- Allowing the person to wear noise-reducing headphones (in the case of noise sensitivity)
- Swapping desks with a coworker and turning off an overhead light (to help with light sensitivity)
- Permitting them to take lunch at exactly 12:15 p.m. each day (to provide needed structure)
- Outlining the day’s priorities (to help with time management)
- Letting the person work from home (to accommodate the need to hyper-focus)
- Providing advance notice of meeting agendas (to help facilitate communication)
As with any employee who requests an accommodation, you should have a discussion with the employee and include your HR team or legal advisor to determine whether the request is practical (and how it will impact other employees and overall productivity). In addition, there may be a need to ask the employee to provide a doctor’s note that articulates the needs of the employee.
- Promote kindness
A key component to building diversity into your company culture is encouraging an environment of respect. This requires that your leadership proactively address any issues between employees, especially those that may be an indicator (or predictor) of workplace bullying.
People with disabilities such as ASD can be perceived as easy targets by bullies, so extra vigilance may be needed to ensure your work environment is friendly and inclusive.
In less extreme forms of exclusion, it may become necessary to remind employees to invite everyone out for team lunches or after-hours company-sponsored events, even if they think the person may be uncomfortable. That way, at least they know they were invited – even if they choose not to participate.
Sensitivity training may also be helpful for your whole team. Such training can help ensure everyone understands how to work most effectively with coworkers who may require accommodations in the workplace. It can also be helpful in demonstrating what it means to treat everyone with professionalism and respect.
- Make compliance a priority
Accommodating autism in the workplace doesn’t have to be a daunting endeavor. A professional employer organization (PEO) can help you navigate the complexities of employer-employee relationships, helping you take the steps needed to remain compliant while enriching your company’s culture and knowledge base.
As our society becomes more aware of autism, and the different ways it manifests in different people, we also must become more cognizant of the fact that autism in the workplace could be a reality for many businesses. And the number of autistic employees in the workforce will likely continue to grow.