What can we learn from the challenges of recruiting and employing adults on the Autism spectrum?
IAN ICETON examines what he has learnt so far in his research into the challenges for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the workplace; and how all organisations can benefit from this work, not just for diverse candidates and employees but for overall employee engagement.
It is estimated that there are over half a million people on the Autism spectrum in the UK, and of these over 85% are believed to be unemployed or severely under-employed. Furthermore the level of diagnosis is increasing rapidly as there has become a greater awareness and acceptance of the issues amongst those that are “diagnosing” people, and a greater preparedness for people to self-diagnose and self-declare. There is also a much greater awareness of the issues at a Governmental level. In 2010 the UK Government published its’ first strategy for adults with Autism in England. This is significant therefore for both recruitment strategy; and in recognising that some of your existing staff may well start disclosing their position. My proposition is that many organisations are ill-prepared for this, but that there are some emerging examples of good practice which we can all learn from, and that actually in responding to this challenge we will improve our whole approach to employee engagement across the organisation. In Ian’s next phase of research he is looking to work with HR functions and ASD adults to further explore the opportunities to make progress in this area, and he would welcome contact from any individuals or organisations that are interested in being involved.
The HR community has spent the last few decades preaching the message that Diversity is crucial in business, that fairness and morality requires us to design every process and every policy to treat candidates and employees equally, with reasonable adjustments wherever practical, and that business benefits will follow from this approach. In a world with growing numbers of skills gaps, and a desire for candidates and employees with creativity and innovation potential, it is even more critical that these policies and processes enable people who meet these criteria to join and succeed in organisations – and yet the evidence is that we are doing the exact opposite with a key talent group that are severely under represented in the current workforce. Worse still, some of these people are already in our businesses, and we are treating them poorly, and under-exploiting their capabilities, because HR and line managers don’t realise what is happening. Education and training is required urgently.
Understanding and awareness
Autism is defined as a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how a person makes sense of the world around them. It is known as a spectrum condition because of the range of difficulties that affect people, and the way they present is different in different people. Asperger’s Syndrome for example, is a form of autism, where people have typically fewer difficulties with speaking which only serves to mask their actual communication challenges.
For individuals with ASD finding work isn’t just about employment, it is a crucial element of achieving social inclusion, providing personal status and identity that is often missing from their lives. The unemployment rate for ASD individuals is extraordinarily high, up to 80%, says the organisation Autism speaks. The challenges in finding work start with not receiving adequate career guidance whilst in education. Then the interview process itself is almost always undertaken in a way that maximise the difficulties for ASD individuals, many of whom may be reluctant to declare a condition that they perceive might prejudice their chances.
Once in the workforce, depending on disclosure, many ASD adults talk about the stigma they experience, and the extra stress from being labeled autistic at work. Furthermore, many people with Autism also experience some form of sensory sensitivity or under-sensitivity, for example to sounds, touch, taste, smells light or colours, which can be difficult for them to talk about and not all employers are understanding of this range of requirements. People with autism often prefer to have a fixed routine, and find change incredibly difficult to cope with.
Systematic Literature Review – Key Observations
In my structured review of all the existing work in this area, I have found the following key observations:
1. Recruitment – Line managers and co-workers have been shown to make assumptions about Adults with ASD, and are susceptible to a range of biases. The individuals themselves are interested in a range of careers, not just a stereotypical set of jobs. They face dilemmas about when to disclose their condition. Selection processes that comprise primarily interviews only, that involve social interaction, inter personal skills, and picking up nuance and subtly in a strange environment, are all extremely difficult and stressful for ASD candidates.
Options for accommodations in the selection process include doing the first interview by phone; sending a copy of the likely interview questions in advance; and setting interviews at times that minimises logistical and travelling difficulties. Microsoft for example has developed a specific program to identify and recruit “great autistic candidates”;
2. Work design – Some organisations are adapting their work design to maximise the opportunity to benefit from the unique capabilities and talents of these “neurodiverse” employees. Austin & Sonne (2014) talked about the dandelion principle approach to HR (see first graphic – table 1), demonstrating how organisations could switch from designing work by task, and fitting people to the tasks, to one which designs the job description to maximise the potential for particular individuals to create value. In this way real creativity and innovation can be achieved, or in some cases ASD workers have an ability to work in a very detailed and systematic way, that allows them to excel at certain tasks;
3. Training and development – Some organisations are thinking hard about how they can maximise the future potential of an employee by developing them in ways that suit their greatest strengths.
From research to reality
Evidence suggests that the cost to the economy of the current high level of unemployment amongst adults with Autism could be hugely reduced by changes in employment practices; this is therefore, a societal benefit.
There could also be wider reputational benefits for employers, both with existing staff, and as a potential recruiter, and even amongst the customer base, to be shown to be doing a good job in this area.
Conversely, there is much anecdotal evidence that many ASD workers in the workplace face extreme difficulties from unhelpful or unaware employers, and that this can often lead to performance management and ultimately disciplinary processes. Often these time wasting and costly exercises could be completely avoided if the Line Manager had been aware of the condition, and adapted the relationship accordingly.
Practical next steps
Some of the interventions that are being attempted by organisations include the following:
1. Some employers are cooperating with social partner organisations to assist them with expertise in dealing with the challenges of recruiting and retaining ASD employees (Austin & Pisano, 2017). There are also supported employment programmes for adults with ASD, such as Prospects (Hendricks, 2010), in Australia Hewlett Packard cooperated with the Australian Government to provide opportunities for Autistic individuals;
2. Various UK social bodies and charities have published recent work and recommendations that are also available for employers to learn from, for example in an ACAS research paper in 2016, Bewley & George used two case studies to show what is possible; and very recently Westminster Achieve Ability (2018) published their report in order to support the UK Governments aim of increasing the number of people with disabilities employed in the UK by 1 million over the next ten years, and CIPD/Uptimize produced an employer guide(2018);
3. Other businesses have started Autism specific in-house programmes, SAP in Germany for example has an Autism employee mentoring system, in the US EY has recently started an Autism specific internship and placement programme, and in the UK Deutsche Bank has done the same thing. There also emerging commercial organisations, such as Auticon, in Germany and the UK, who have a deep understanding of the issues involved in these cases and provide both support to the candidate, including trained job coaches, but also guidance to the employing organisation;
4. Recently UCL ran an Autism specific undergraduate recruitment fair, the first of its kind to my knowledge, that enabled UK organisations looking to learn about this topic more and encourage ASD candidates, to meet potential ASD workers;
5. There are early signs that some enlightened Trade Unions are also working in this area to support members and organisations, (Richards, Sang & Marks, (2017); and
6. The National Autistic Society is also looking to do more in this space and is looking to convene a Development board, of engaged employers, to assist with supporting their Anderson School and Enterprise Campus, and other employment focussed activities.
Once ASD staff have been recruited, or if an employee self declares, it is now clear that a much greater awareness of the potential issues, and a specific strategy to handle them, can bring many benefits. This could include: Job modifications; tailored supervision strategies; training and guidance for co-workers and line managers; and support services. (Hagner & Cooney, 2005) – second graphic, based around table
It has been shown that general diversity training in workplaces can be readily adapted to incorporate greater awareness of developmental disabilities, which also enable the whole wider debate about hidden disabilities to be aired. It is very clear that the behaviours of managers and leaders in this capacity are critical to success.
What is also clear is that the use of language in this space is extremely sensitive, with some on the spectrum not being prepared to consider ASD as a disability, but rather just a difference of approach, or a set of skills, and that so-called neurotypicals are the ones with communication difficulties, because they don’t say what they exactly mean, don’t give specific enough instructions, get too upset when they receive direct and honest feedback from the ASD worker, and are prone to the use of metaphor and assumptions.
This is an extremely fertile area of current research, discussion and debate. Emergent good practice already exists, but many more organisations, and their HR functions specifically, could look to do more in this area, it is a genuine opportunity to increase talent in your organisation, and improve employee engagement – why wouldn’t you want that?
“Fulfilling and Rewarding Lives: the strategy for adults with Autism in England”, 2010, UK Government
Austin & Sonne, 2014, pp71 MIT Sloan Review, “The Dandelion principle: redesigning work for the Innovation economy”.
Austin & Pisano, 2017, HBR, May/June, “ Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage – why you should embrace it in your workplace”
Bewley & George, Neurodiversity at Work – research paper, NIESR, 2016, 9/16
Hagner & Cooney (2005), “I do that for Everyone, Supervising Employees with Autism, Journal on Autism, 20,2, p91-97
Richards, Sang & Marks, Heriot Watt University, May 2017, “Identifying Line Management Support and Neurodiversity Training Needs for Network Rail”
Westminster AcieveAbility, Commission for Dyslexia and Neurodivergence, 2018