· 2 min read · Features

Think differently to unlock the benefits of autistic employees


A more informed, flexible mindset can help organisations tap into the opportunity of employing autistic people

Autism is far more common than most people think. There are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism – that's more than 1 in 100. However, only 15% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment.

With new technologies flooding the workplace there is a knock-on effect regarding the skillsets required to succeed. There is huge demand for data scientists who typically have skills in areas such as statistics and computer science. This means fresh opportunities for autistic people who may have real expertise in these areas, but who struggle to get employers to recognise their potential.

If organisations are to stay one step ahead of the competition they need to employ individuals that may have a non-traditional or even unique ability to help meet these growing demands.

The opportunities are endless

From 2013 to 2020 the UK’s big data workforce is expected to grow by around 346,000 according to our research with The Tech Partnership. Demand for these jobs is set to rise by 160%.

This opens up a potential talent pool and opportunities for candidates with different profiles, including those on the autism spectrum. In the analytics arena particularly, the need to place greater importance on skills such as mathematical competence, attention to detail, problem solving and the ability to look at challenges from different angles is imperative.

Therefore, employers must have an expansive mindset when considering the strength of all candidates, especially those with autism.

Increasingly people with autism have difficulty finding and staying in employment. This is often due to lack of knowledge on the part of the employer on how best to accommodate their individual and specific needs. Very often simple adjustments can make their experiences much less stressful – for example, always making autistic employees aware as soon as possible of any change of plan.

Providing the platform to succeed

Recently SAS has stepped up its efforts to attract candidates on the autism spectrum in an attempt to force a wider change in the market.

Last year SAS’ UK headquarters in Marlow was home to a disability internship programme offering work experience to interns on the autism spectrum. Students gained a deeper knowledge of SAS and the world of analytics, participated in day-to-day tasks, and integrated with multiple teams across the business.

Not only was this programme an enriching and invaluable experience for the students, it also educated SAS employees about autism in the workplace. SAS has continued to work closely with the National Autistic Society throughout the programme to provide training and implement changes, including adapting the interview process and providing both written and verbal instructions.

Expanding the employer mindset

It is important that employers remain flexible throughout the process of employing an autistic person. Adapting the mindset of managers to consider autistic candidates is a fundamental challenge that won't happen overnight. Through the power of collaboration organisations from a variety of industries can share their thoughts and ideas on this subject.

We will be hosting a session in partnership with the National Autistic Society this autumn. The aim is to learn from the experiences of other companies, share SAS’ experiences to date, and encourage other organisations to explore the benefits of being an ‘autism-friendly’ employer.

Only once employers begin to share their experiences and thoughts on autism in the workplace can this be promoted more widely and given some real momentum.

Sue Warman is senior director of HR, Northern Europe & Russia/CIS at SAS