Autistic adults are capable of holding and excelling at different jobs if they are given the right opportunities. The only disconnect is the hiring process, which utilizes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. The process includes identifying abilities to carry a conversation, making eye contact and capacity to work with a team; traits that do not come easily to autistic individuals. If we look beyond this hiring process and choose to highlight ways in which autistic people experience, process, and express information, we can identify how their strengths can be channeled productively.
In this research article I will be:
- appreciating how neurodiversity can help in creating an inclusive workforce.
- highlighting characteristics which may make autistic individuals instrumental in achieving organizational goals.
- identifying how autistic individuals can align themselves with potential jobs to become financially independent.
This article has been compiled after researching findings of recent reports and studies, and studying success stories of companies who have chosen to hire autistic adults.
Comic art by Iqra Babar, an autistic artist
At times it may be difficult to identify an autistic individual simply by appearance because autism is not an illness or a disease; it is a lifelong condition. To understand autism better, we need to understand the origin of the word. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the word “autism” has its origin in the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.” Therefore, an autistic individual is often self-absorbed and seems to exist in a private world. Since this world is private, most people on the autism spectrum have difficulty in comprehending their surroundings the way other people may do. Autism then limits their ability to successfully communicate and interact with others.
Autism is a spectrum. There is no one way to “be” autistic. There are many different behaviors, skills, and traits affiliated with autism, making it highly unlikely that every person who has been diagnosed with autism will show the same traits.
Autism may lead to the development of multiple medical conditions, but in no way does it imply that autistic individuals are not capable of performing tasks or learning new skills. The only requirement is the right support. For example, if a child has trouble speaking, he may choose to seek the support of a speech therapist. This does not mean that the child cannot comprehend math or he cannot throw a ball. Similar is the case with autism. Autistic children and adults successfully manage to lead normal lives as any other person may, as long as they have a support system in place.
Appreciating Autism as Part of Neurodiversity
Autism is a developmental disorder that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Autistic individuals may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also often have difficulty communicating non-verbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. However, instead of looking at autism as a disability, we can choose to appreciate it as part of the human race’s neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. In a nutshell, it means that brain differences are just that: differences. So conditions like attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD) and autism are simply variations of the human brain.
If we view autism as a normal variation of the human brain, we will become more receptive to the needs of autistic individuals, which may be different. Similar to why a tall boy may need to consume more calories than a shorter one, simply because his physiological needs differ.
By appreciating neurodiversity we can prevent society from molding an autistic individual into a definition of “normal” behaviors. This way society will eventually develop the capacity and tolerance to allow for differences in behavior and needs, and create more opportunities for inclusion in workplaces.
The Advantages of Autistic Brains
Roughly 60% of people with autism have average or above average intelligence, yet 85% are unemployed. According to Dr Barry M. Prizant, author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, instead of classifying autistic behaviors as signs of pathology we can see them as part of a range of strategies to cope with a world that feels chaotic and overwhelming. Rather than curb these behaviors, it is better to enhance abilities, build on strengths, and offer supports that will naturally lead to more desirable behavior and a better quality of life.
Agreeing with this notion, Scott Standifer, a Clinical Instructor for Disability Policy and Studies in the School of Health Professions at the University of Missouri, says that, “turning the disability into strength is a great idea.”
Jennifer Pearson, Director of Special Education for Glenbrook High School District, says that students with autism and their families aren’t looking for sheltered workshops, but real jobs out in the community they can take pride in. Dr Pearson says that, “our goal is not to play the pity card and have students hired because of a disability, but because employers recognize what they have to offer.”
According to advocates, opening the workplace to people with autism could harness their sometimes-unusual talents, while decreasing costs to families and taxpayers for daytime aides and health care and housing subsidies, estimated at more than $1 million over an adult lifetime.
When provided with meaningful opportunities to excel, autistic people have regularly proven themselves to be dedicated, loyal, productive, and focused employees. There are multiple common autistic traits that have statistically proven to be beneficial. These have helped in enhancing roles at companies that are otherwise difficult to fill.
Intense Attention to Detail
A universal feature of the autistic brain is excellent attention to detail. Autistic individuals have an increased ability to absorb and process useful information at an exceptional level of detail. These individuals tend to adopt a bottom-up strategy – they first perceive the parts of an object and then build up to the whole. Because of superior visual discrimination ability, autistic people are faster and more accurate in in tasks that require one to find a target hidden among other elements. People with autism are often meticulous with their work, thereby ensuring a high quality of the work they do.
Autistic individuals have the ability to focus intensely on minute details, which is making them attractive to computer software companies. This ability has also compelled food service and prep companies to capitalize on this strength and employ autistic individuals in quality-control positions.
Affinity for Repetitive Tasks
Having a structure, routine and organization is vital to the mental well-being of autistic individuals. This prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and therefore, people with autism tend to stick to a repetitive schedule. Since autistic individuals are exceptional at sticking to routines and timetables, they are likely to be very punctual and reliable.
This is also the reason why autistic individuals have strong work ethics. A lifetime of order and the need to stay organized helps them schedule their tasks and complete assignments well before deadlines. They have zero concept of leaving things to the last minute. Managers have frequently observed lower rates of absenteeism and higher retention rates among employees on the autism spectrum. Because of their preference for maintaining habits and routines that work for them, once they are settled into a job, they will often remain in a role they enjoy for longer than other employees.
Recognizing this trait, a bakery in Florida called Miami is Kind is offering opportunities to autistic individuals. The precision and affinity for repetitive tasks are a perfect fit for the job. Every operation is broken down and organized to fit each baker. Together the employees weigh, mix and shape the ingredients to put them in the oven. Then they work on the packaging and the shipping of the orders nationwide.
As opposed to social interactions that are unpredictable, to an autistic individual, computers are consistent and logical. Computer programming is an exercise in planning and designing inputs that yield a set of expected outputs. Because of this predictability children and adults with autism are becoming highly efficient in this field. Research has shown that people with autism possess the right qualities to become test engineers, because of the repetitive nature of the task. A Danish company, Specialisterne, dedicated to software testing, is unique in that 75% of its staff is autistic.
According to Robert D. Austin, a professor of IT management at Copenhagen Business School, “software testing is extremely exacting and requires a lot of precision, but it’s also kind of mind-numbingly repetitious. It is important to do it correctly, but it’s very difficult to keep your attention on it well enough to do it correctly”.
Quoting the success of Specialisterne, Austin says that it is a for-profit business that relies on employees’ talents, to attract clients. Explaining further he says that the company works as business consultants on tasks such as software testing, programming and data entry for the public and private sectors.
Highlighting this characteristic as highly valuable, Anka Wittenberg, SAP’s head of diversity says that, “we find autistic adults good for software testing and quality assurance; they can concentrate a long time on a repetitive task and spot mistakes better.”
Recalling an incident she said that, “one person got so into a task for so long that he didn’t realize he should take a break.”
SAP has since put a big watch by his computer monitor so he does not overwork.
Retaining Large Amounts of Information
Autism is characterized by Increased Perceptual Capacity – the ability to process more information at any given time. Autistic individuals have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’. There is also evidence for reduced ‘inattentional blindness’ amongst autistic people. Inattentional blindness is the psychological phenomenon that causes one to miss things that are right in front of their eyes. The lower rates of inattentional blindness mean higher rates of detection and identification among autistic individuals. This helps them in noticing both expected and unexpected things in their visual field.
The DXC Dandelion Program is an initiative designed to build valuable information technology skills and careers for individuals on the autism spectrum. Apart from multiple clients, the Program also works in partnership with the Australian Government Department of Human Services (DHS). As part of the initiative a trainee quoted his experience and said that, “I found if it was something repetitive […] instead of just doing the easy task, I would often try to find a way to make the process more efficient. Like get something that does part of the task for me or something. So that process was challenging. It stopped me from being bored during the easier times.”
Ability to Detect Patterns
Autistic people also show excellent pattern recognition, a superior ability to identify and remember sounds and are much more likely to have perfect pitch. This gives them skills to excel as artists, musicians and scientists. A December 2015 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found a strong link between autism and divergent thinking – the ability to think creatively, out of the box. In other words, developing novel ideas and utilizing creative problem solving may come easy to those with autism.
One such success story is that of The AutistiX, which is an indie band hailing from the United Kingdom, and has 3 autistic band members. Since forming in 2010, The AutistiX has completed an international tour and for the past 4 years even performed at Beatles Day in Hastings, England.
Autism has also often been linked to the Savant Syndrome. Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. This may facilitate some autistics to develop exceptional abilities that are above the average intelligence and/or talent levels of the general population.
But research in the past 10 years has generated some controversy about the actual incidence of savantism. Some researchers say these seemingly extraordinary abilities may just reflect the fact that many people with autism have a different skill set than their typical peers do. “People with autism are natural specialists – when they dig in, they quickly become expert,” says Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal.
One such example is of Angus Corbett, a 25 year old fused glass artist from Barr in Ayrshire. Having completed an HND in glass production in Glasgow, he has been supported by the Princes Trust to set up AyeGlass. He now designs and produces glassware based on his own artwork, despite having limited vision. Talking about the inspiration behind his art, he says that, “I have always been attracted to shapes and patterns of different forms and sizes and now create unique fused art glassware.”
Amidst controversy, these skills have also been put to military use: the Israeli Defence Force has a specialist intelligence unit comprised exclusively of autistic analysts, whose skills are used to detect military threats.
It is encouraging to witness large corporations like SAP, Microsoft, Walgreens, and Freddie Mac moving towards creating a diverse workforce and engaging autistic adults. When successfully matched with jobs that align with their interests and abilities, autistic employees can often hyper-focus on the task at hand, which enhances performance, workflow, and productivity for the business. After placing more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services, Hewlett Packard Enterprise has revealed preliminary results that suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others. Characteristics which may make autistic individuals instrumental in achieving organizational goals include intense attention to detail, affinity for repetitive tasks, retaining large amounts of information and ability to detect patterns.
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