The challenges of recruiting and employing people with autism
Ian Iceton, May 08, 2018
The challenges people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face in the workplace, and how organisations can improve their approach
It is estimated that there are more than half a million people on the autism spectrum in the UK; of these more than 85% are believed to be unemployed or severely under-employed. Diagnosis is increasing rapidly in line with greater awareness and acceptance of the condition, and there is also a much greater awareness of the employment issue at government level. In 2010 the UK government published its first strategy for adults with autism in England. This is significant for both recruitment and for employers recognising that some existing staff may well start disclosing their condition.
In research undertaken at Cranfield University School of Management, into the ways the HR community and businesses can learn to better handle candidates and employees on the autism spectrum, I’ve found that many organisations are ill-prepared for this rise in awareness. But there are some emerging examples of good practice. And in responding to this challenge we will improve our approach to employee engagement across the organisation.
The HR community has spent the last few decades advocating the message that diversity is crucial in business, that fairness and morality require us to design every process and 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 skills gaps, and a desire for employees with creativity and potential to innovate, 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 is severely underrepresented 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 urgently required.
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 varies. 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%, according to the organisation Autism Speaks. The challenges in finding work start with not receiving adequate careers guidance while in education. Then the interview process is almost always conducted in a way that maximises 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 labelled as autistic. 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 understand this range of requirements. People with autism often prefer to have a fixed routine, and find change incredibly difficult to cope with.
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 of interviews and so involve social interaction, interpersonal skills, and picking up nuance and subtlety 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 minimise 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 and Sonne (2014) talk about The Dandelion Principle approach to HR (see table below), demonstrating how organisations can switch from designing work by task, and fitting people to the tasks, to designing the job description to maximise the potential for particular individuals to create value. In this way creativity and innovation can be achieved, or in some cases ASD workers have an ability to work in a very 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 among adults with autism could be reduced by changes to 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 among the customer base, if shown to be doing a good job in this area.
Conversely, there is much anecdotal evidence that many ASD workers 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 have been completely avoided if the manager had been aware of the condition and adapted accordingly.
Some of the interventions that are being attempted by organisations include the following:
1. Some employers are co-operating with social partner organisations to assist them with expertise in dealing with the challenges of recruiting and retaining ASD employees (Austin and Pisano, 2017). There are also supported employment programmes for adults with ASD such as Prospects (Hendricks, 2010). In Australia Hewlett Packard co-operated with the Australian government to provide opportunities for autistic individuals.
2. Various UK social bodies and charities have published recent work and recommendations available to employers to learn from. For example in an ACAS research paper in 2016 Bewley and George used two case studies to show what is possible. Very recently (2018) Westminster Achieve Ability published its report to support the UK government’s aim of increasing the number of employed people with disabilities by one million over the next 10 years. The CIPD and Uptimize also produced an employer guide this year.
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 are also emerging commercial organisations, such as Germany- and UK-based Auticon, who has a deep understanding of the different issues and provide both support to the candidate and 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 to meet potential ASD workers.
5. There are early signs that some trade unions are also working in this area to support members and organisations (Richards, Sang and Marks, 2017).
6. The National Autistic Society wants 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 other employment-focused 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 support services (see Hagner and Cooney table below).
It has been shown that general diversity training in workplaces can be readily adapted to incorporate greater awareness of developmental disabilities, which also enables the wider debate about hidden disabilities to be aired. It is 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. They see it as 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 exactly what they 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 using metaphors and assumptions.
This is an extremely fertile area of current research, discussion and debate. Emergent good practice already exists, but many organisations could do more in this area. It is a genuine opportunity to increase talent and improve employee engagement – why wouldn’t you want that?
Ian Iceton has been HRD at a number of prominent organisations over the past 20 years (Volkswagen Group UK, Skanska, Network Rail, and currently River & Mercantile Group). He has featured on HR magazine's HR Most Influential sector list for the last two years. Iceton is looking to work with HR functions and ASD adults to further explore the opportunities to make progress. You can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org