How Greater Autism Representation Positively Impacts the Workplace

Let’s get the numbers out of the way: only about 15% of autistic adults are able to land paying jobs, far fewer than would like to be working, according to a 2017 Drexel University report that surveyed adults who use state disability services. Today, a growing number of forward-thinking employers are hiring autistic employees, moved by their own personal experiences or by the benefits to all of a largely untapped talent pool, are looking to significantly improve that number. Along the way, they are busting many of the myths that hold others back.

If you or a loved one are on the spectrum and not sure whether college is worth pursuing because you fear the barriers that have traditionally existed to employment for autistic people, these new workplace realities should give you hope.

1. Employers are Learning That People with Autism Have Diverse Interests, Just Like Everyone Else

“There’s this myth that [autistic people] are all STEM people,” says Dania Jekel, Executive Director of the Asperger/Autism Network who estimates that three out of four people she encounters at AANE are primarily interested in the arts or humanities. So while many people with autism may share certain special abilities—focus, memory, patience with repetitive tasks—different individuals can put those abilities toward very different ends. Employers shouldn’t pigeonhole autistic job-seekers to a narrow range of tech positions.

2. Many Accommodations are Free or Inexpensive

When employers hear the word “accommodations,” they often imagine expensive changes to the work environment, says Laura Furlong, CEO of Marcfirst, an Illinois non-profit that serves individuals with disabilities and their families. The reality may be a pleasant surprise. “Most of the supports we help people provide are very minimal cost,” she says. Positioning a work chair so that the back is toward the door or providing white-noise headphones are low- or no-cost measures that work for many people with autism, says Furlong.

3. It can Actually Boost Productivity

Including autistic employees can boost productivity, says Tara Cunningham, CEO of Specialisterne USA, a nonprofit that provides career development for people with autism. “It’s not because the autistic person is working super-humanly—it’s because everybody else is,” she says. Bringing on new employees with autism can be a catalyst for the kind of changes that help all employees be their best, from simple switches, like swapping harsh fluorescent lighting for something more soothing, to changes in how managers relate to all their employees. As Gary Pisano (Harvard Business School) and Robert Austin (Ivey Business School) wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Perhaps the most surprising benefit is that managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.”

4. Workplaces are Changing

Randy Williams, who helps people with disabilities learn about manufacturing jobs at the University of Pittsburgh’s People with Disabilities Achieving Career Employment program, points out that assumptions about manufacturing work may be out of date. “Manufacturing has historically been associated with heavy industry, hard labor,” he says. “But by and large, manufacturing settings today resemble laboratories,” and can be safe and productive environments for people with a wide range of disabilities.

5. You can Start with an Internship

“Innovation” may be the buzzword on every business’ lips (or website), but in reality, hiring managers can be uneasy about trying something new. “Companies that are new to hiring our folks can be very hesitant, especially in a corporate setting,” says Mike Predmore of Marcfirst. One solution: Starting with a paid internship. By giving both parties a chance for a “test drive,” internships can relieve everyone’s anxiety. Often, internships turn into permanent positions. But even if they don’t, they offer the intern valuable experience, and may help the employer be more realistic about how effective an autistic person can be for their business.

6. Every Person with Autism is Different

It’s a fact: Not everyone is a great fit for every job. But that’s true for every new hire, whether or not a person has autism. As the saying goes: “If you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism.” Employers who generalize based on one negative experience will be missing out on great talent. Companies that want to hire autistic employees have to be committed to finding good fits between the person and the position, while also being creative and flexible.

7. Integration can Work

While some employers place autistic workers in specialized “pods,” or work groups, many have successfully integrated employees with autism with the rest of their workforce. At Spectrum Designs, one of a small but growing cadre of companies with a workforce that is predominantly (though not exclusively) people with autism, individuals with autism and those without work side by side. Says Spectrum Chief Operating Officer Tim Howe: “There is no us and them: there is only us.”

8. Many Companies are Hiring People with Autism

Big-name companies like Microsoft, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), SAP, and Dell EMC have all launched special hiring programs targeting autistic employees. Suit-maker Hart Schaffner Marx employs people with autism at its factory outside Chicago, and “social enterprise” companies like Spectrum Designs and Aspiritech have sprung up specifically to provide meaningful employment opportunities for autistic people. “Companies are very quickly accumulating front-lines know-how” about how to hire, train, and integrate employees with autism, says Rob Austin, who has studied and written about neurodiversity in the workplace. While today’s programs aren’t large enough to make a significant dent in the sky-high unemployment rate for autistic individuals, they can serve as models and resources for other companies that aspire to become more inclusive.

What are we missing? Do you see evidence of new workplace realities where you live? Who is hiring autistic employees and how are opportunities changing? Let us know what you’d like to hear more about in the comments.

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Andrea Kolodziej is a Production Coordinator at Award Productions. She manages production shoots and multiple video projects for clients across the country. Andrea has tackled all angles of the production field including video editing, script writing, social media, camera work, web design, and more. She started her production career working as an intern at NBC daytime television and developed her core skills working as an Associate Producer at Pellet Media. She was also a former core member of the Stairway to STEM team and was highly involved in the development of STS. Before her production career began, Andrea spent many years caring for her special needs sister and worked as a therapist and 1-1 paraprofessional for autistic students.

Andrea is passionate about helping others and inspiring through creativity. In her spare time, she is an avid traveler and a freelance photographer.

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