April is Autism Awareness Month, and with all the enthusiasm about diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, we need to call attention to one alarming statistic: of the 5 million adults with autism in the US, 85% are unemployed.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The Benefits of a Neurodiverse Workforce
The benefits of a neurologically diverse workforce inclusive of people on the autism spectrum align with the positive outcomes associated with racial, gender and sexual diversity. Consider these recent findings:
- Drexel University found that 60% of people with autism in vocational rehabilitation programs find permanent employment.
- Deloitte found that 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 — and up to 30% higher productivity.
- An Australian study of companies that employ people with autism found that the impact “was overwhelmingly positive,” with 66% saying they would recommend other businesses hire people on the spectrum.
- Yet a UK study found that 50% of hiring managers are uncomfortable bringing neurodivergent workers on board, with 25% citing autism as a red flag. This bias causes people with autism to hide their neurodiversity, making it harder to succeed. Just 30% of employees with audism disclose their diagnosis to HR departments.
Companies Hiring for Neurodiversity
Smart companies are making concerted efforts to attract, engage and retrain employees with autism because of the business benefits.
- JP Morgan Chase’s Autism at Work program encourages people on the spectrum to apply, eliminating stress and failure caused by hiding a diagnosis. Data from the program found that its employees made fewer errors and were 140% more productive than their neurotypical peers. Recruiting is important because many people with autism make the same assumptions employers do — that they are not welcome to apply.
- SAP’s program by the same name, Autism at Work, boasts a 90% retention rate of employees hired through its initiative.
- Goldman Sachs launched its Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative, an eight-week paid internship program that puts applicants through robust training, coaching and mentoring to position them for a long-term career path. Its first cohort achieved a 100% offer and acceptance rate.
- Dell’s Autism Hiring Program starts with a two-week skills assessment as a gateway to internships and permanent employment.
These programs succeed because they don’t just hire employees with autism. They offer support, mentoring, coaching and workplace accommodations like individualized sound, light, smells and other sensory settings that enhance productivity and reduce distractions.
How to Attract Employees with Autism
The best thing companies can do to start attracting employees with autism is to publicize the fact that they value a neurodiverse workforce. You can do that in job postings and job descriptions, but candidates might not believe you. Note how few are willing to disclose their diagnoses for fear of losing out on opportunities.
You can also remove discriminatory language and criteria in job descriptions. Professionals are conditioned to recruit and promote soft skills but often mistake soft skills for social skills. Problem-solving, critical thinking and the ability to interpret data are valuable soft skills that people with autism often display. Eye contact, a firm handshake, making small talk and speaking up in meetings are social skills that do not necessarily add business value. One way to get beyond biases is to use data to assess candidates instead of subjective criteria. Use tests and assessment tools that measure skills and performance in recruiting processes.
Focus on abilities. While euphemisms like “differently abled” and “special” are condescending, the point is that people with autism have abilities — just like everyone else. The goal should be to treat candidates with autism just like any other job seeker — determine their strengths, goals and likes, and map them to the appropriate position.
Check out the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) Neurodiversity Inclusion: Checklist for Organizational Success for more guidance.
One reason why organizations that include neurodiverse employees are more successful than peers that don’t is that inclusive workplaces improve performance for all employees. Everyone performs better when they feel a sense of belonging at work, and belonging fosters psychological safety that generates contentment, loyalty and productivity.