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The Push for Neurodiversity: Six Reasons to be Hopeful About Job Prospects for Autistic Students

When you hear “diversity,” you may think about differences in the way people look, their social or economic background, religion, or sex. But what about differences in the way people think?

That’s the focus on a new movement called “neurodiversity.” Neurodiversity advocates want to change the way we look at conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD, reframing each as a “variation of human wiring” instead of a disease. It’s a powerful idea, and some forward-thinking employers are embracing it in their hiring practices. That’s important because according to Autism Society, “More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder [as of 2014]” and “35 percent of young adults  (ages 19-23) with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school.” If you’re a student contemplating next steps, the latter statistic can be sobering. But the good news is that things are changing. Companies are beginning to realize that they’re missing out on finding talented, passionate individuals by approaching autistic job candidates with conventional outlooks, hiring strategies, and workplace expectations. Companies are getting creative, and it’s having some seriously good effects for people on the spectrum.

So sign up for those classes—not being as socially adept as others is no longer the same employment obstacle that it used to be.

Here’s What Some Companies are Doing to Create a More Neurodiverse Workplace:

Recognizing the value in neurodiversity: “Most employers are looking for traits of people with autism for jobs,” says Heather Jia, a researcher from Illinois State University who studies how Autism can help the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) work force. Since most STEM fields are very predictable, systematic, detail-oriented, and rule-based, they align with the prominent characteristics of someone on the spectrum. Jia’s goal is bridging the gap to help employers see the benefits to their community by hiring autistic employees.

Learning from tech leaders: Major technology companies like Microsoft, HP, EY, SAP, and Dell EMC are already implementing “Autism at Work” programs. The goal: lower the unemployment rate of people on the spectrum while bringing a valuable skill-set to the workplace.  The focus is on “changing the hearts and minds of employers,” says Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, so that hiring managers better understand autism and how valuable these employees can be. “Barnett and his Microsoft team are working toward creating a network of people and supports to make these hiring programs work in all types of companies. The Autism at Work conference, held in April 2018, with sessions available remotely via Livestream, helped spread the word about best practices.

Rethinking the interview: Standard job interviews often just don’t work for autistic people. Employers like Microsoft and DELL are moving toward a new process that is less based on communicating answers and more on demonstrating skills. This process may stretch over a longer period, involving more observation rather than conversation. “Switch from an interview to a tryout,” says Rob Austin, Business Professor and Neurodiversity Advocate. Instead of an intense interview process, candidates can take a few weeks to work on small projects while casually being observed. For example, Microsoft’s interview process is held as a workshop that lasts for four weeks. The goal is to put candidates at ease, so they can fully demonstrate their skills in a less stressful environment.

Investing in training: New hires on the spectrum benefit from specific training, including a detailed overview of the workplace, familiarizing them with the work environment and how to navigate it. Sometimes a one-on-one mentor model, or work-buddy system, works well for training. Training for the current employees is also beneficial, especially those in supervisor roles. This training varies depending on the company but usually consists of awareness training. This means ensuring that everyone at the company understands what autism and autism spectrum conditions are, as well as what to expect when working with autistic people.

Making individualized accommodations: Many people with autism benefit from sensory accommodations, like noise-reducing headphones, calming music, or lowered lights, that make for a less stressful work environment. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, says Randy Williams, who runs the People with Disabilities Achieving Career Employment (PACE) program, a manufacturing training program for individuals with disabilities at the University of Pittsburgh. “Sit down with each individual and ask them what could be removed in their environment to make it more enjoyable,” he says. The key is making everyone feel comfortable. Dave Thompson, Director of Workforce Development at the Nicholas Center at Spectrum Designs Foundation in Long Island New York, maintains a more visual workplace. He posts pictures of animals on the factory walls to symbolize different machines in the work stations. The work stations are marked by brightly colored duct tape on the floor. This colorful shop helps autistic employees stay focused at work.

Not trying to hide the disability: The goal isn’t invisibility, says Williams. “We aren’t looking for them to tuck this disability away. That is who they are,” he says. It is the “disability,” or rather, ability, that makes them such valuable employees.

Are you a student on the spectrum or recent graduate who is searching for a job? What other things could employers do to improve the interview process or working conditions? Have you seen these shifting attitudes in your own job-search experience?

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Andrea Kolodziej

Andrea Kolodziej is an Associate Producer at Pellet Media and a core member of the Stairway to STEM team. She tackles all angles of the production field whether it’s video editing, script writing, social media, camera work or web design. Andrea started her production career working as an intern at NBC daytime television. Before her production career began, Andrea worked as an ABA therapist and a 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 photographer.

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