Over the next decade, nearly 1 million teens with autism will enter adulthood, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks. Yet today, the vast majority of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or under employed. Where will all these young adults work to become contributing members of society?
“The fact that this community is 85% underemployed is made even more remarkable when you think about how well they perform in the tech categories that we are involved in at auticon. The performance based on the cognitive strength of our team is off the charts,” says David Aspinall, auticon CEO U.S. and a YPO member.
Auticon, a global technology consulting firm, is a for-profit social enterprise whose mission is to employ technology analysts and consultants on the autism spectrum. Currently, 200 of their 300 employees are on the spectrum. Aspinall says auticon is not a charity. In fact, the company’s coders, technologists and data scientists can command a premium rate because of the high performance they consistently achieve along with the neurodiversity they bring to a client’s workplace.
Neurodivergence refers to variations occurring naturally in the human genome regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and behavioral traits. People on the autism spectrum exhibit neurodivergence, each with their own blend of characteristics. As Dr. Stephen Shore, who holds a doctorate in education, is a professor at Adelphi University and who is on the spectrum, famously said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” However, there are common attributes of people on the autism spectrum regarding communication and social interaction, sensory receptivity and highly focused interests.
While these characteristics may manifest in behavior that is unexpected in a typical work environment, Aspinall says those same traits are found in talents beneficial to business. This includes the ability to look at a problem differently, see trends in large amounts of data, apply problem-solving methodologies, and persist and follow through on repetitive tasks. He adds that this make their consultants perform incredibly well in applications and technology.
At the same time, the technology industry continues to lack qualified workers to meet demand. As of 2016, there were 3 million more technology and science jobs in the U.S. than workers, according to a report from consulting firm Randstad NV. A global shortage of 85 million tech workers is expected by 2030, according to management consulting firm Korn Ferry.
To create a neurodiverse workforce, there are three things your organization can do today to attract and retain highly skilled workers on the autism spectrum: Start by having an awareness of your current organization and its needs; adapt your hiring practices that could be unintentionally eliminating people on the autism spectrum; and make physical changes within your office environment.
Start with an awareness
A key step toward making your organization autism friendly is to understand your existing practices and culture and how they might impact current or potential employees on the autism spectrum. For example, some people on the spectrum have a difficult time making eye contact or do not like to be touched, which means they do not want to shake hands as would happen in a typical business environment. Without awareness that this is an autistic trait, the worker could be deemed as someone who is not a team player, which then could lead to failure for promotion, or just being marginalized in their role because they do not socially fit in with everyone else.
“More often than not, companies are going to have autistic individuals who work in their organization. I would challenge organizations to look inwardly to understand the needs of the people who are already within their organization, and then understand how they grow based on accommodating those needs,” says Aspinall.
The fact that this community is 85% underemployed is made even more remarkable when you think about how well they perform in the categories that we are involved in at auticon. ”
— David Aspinall, auticon CEO U.S. share
Adapt your hiring practices
People on the autism spectrum might not socially conform to the standards of most companies. For example, someone on the spectrum might be highly qualified for a job but perform poorly in an interview because the social aspect of interviewing is a huge challenge for them. auticon does not even call the hiring process an interview. Instead they hold a series of chats.
“Given the fact that we’re a technology services company, we need to understand the abilities of the individual. We use gamification in the form of coding challenges and cognitive challenges to establish where within our service offering the individual will excel. Then we cap it off with a technical chat with our lead technologist, who by the way, is also on the spectrum,” says Aspinall.
Unlike other companies, the hiring process at auticon is paced based on the needs of the applicant. The company does not have a timeline for their interview process, and in fact, are always holding chats with prospective candidates. “The client’s requirement is ultimately the green light for the hiring of the individual. The more clients we get, the more customer demand we have is directly related to the number of adults on the spectrum that we can employ,” says Aspinall.
Make changes within your work environment
When a company hires one of auticon’s consultants, the engagement comes with a lot of education. The company provides a job coach to work with the consultant and advises the client about environmental changes in their office that might be needed.
The design and functionality of a typical office can be stressful for adults with autism, who may have sensitivities to noise, bright lights and common social interactions. Some recommended changes to make an office more attractive and productive are:
- Designate a quiet room in the office where workers can escape noise and commotion.
- Dim bright lights and turn off fluorescent lights.
- Reduce or eliminate background music in hallways, bathrooms and communal spaces.
- Allow use of noise-canceling headphones.
- Make participation in company social events optional.
I would challenge organizations to look inwardly to understand the needs of the people that are already within their organization. ”
— David Aspinall, auticon CEO U.S. share
While auticon’s current focus is on technology, Aspinall believes that the future may include placing consultants into other markets that also could benefit from the same cognitive strengths, such as the legal industry and manufacturing.
“Tech is our proving ground, but it doesn’t have to stop there. What we are doing is expanding by understanding the capabilities of the people that we have deep relationships within the community,” says Aspinall.