Workplace Inclusion: Tapping the Talents of Individuals with Autism

By Guest Expert on Mar 19, 2024
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By Arianna Esposito, Vice President, Services and Supports, Lifespan Programs, Autism Speaks

With one in 45 adults in the United States on the autism spectrum and more than 70,000 adolescents with autism transitioning from school-based services into the adult world each year, the autistic community has the potential to play a significant role in tomorrow’s workforce.

This demographic shift presents an untapped opportunity for small and mid-sized businesses to foster innovation, creativity and productivity by embracing autistic employees in the workplace. Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one in five people with disabilities is employed—signaling an unemployment crisis for those with disabilities and missed opportunities for employers and the economy at large.

RELATED: 8 Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace >>

Understanding Autism in the Professional Realm

Understanding autism in the workplace challenges us to dispel myths and embrace the unique contributions autistic individuals contribute to their roles.

Debunking the myths: The reality of autism in the workplace

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. While autism affects how individuals process information, one of the biggest misconceptions about autistic individuals is that they’re:

  • Unable to maintain full-time employment or
  • Can only excel in certain roles, such as those in the IT sector.

These stereotypes can negatively impact employers’ decisions to be more inclusive with hiring practices.

Valuing autistic employees' unique abilities

The truth is each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to challenged.

Yet, when equipped with the right tools and resources to help them reach their full potential, many autistic employees can do the jobs neurotypical individuals do. Autistic employees possess a wide range of skills and talents that can be invaluable in the workplace, including:

  • Exceptional attention to detail
  • Strong problem-solving skills

The critical role of employer commitment

An essential component to tapping into this undervalued group, however, is employers who are:

  • Committed to promoting diversity and equity,
  • Willing to address the barriers that exist for people with autism and
  • Prepared to implement inclusive hiring and employment practices that take the autistic community’s diverse needs and abilities into account.

diversity equity and inclusion changes to make in your workplace

The Benefits of Hiring People with Autism

For businesses, hiring people with autism goes beyond altruism. Being inclusive of a neurodiverse workforce may entail additional benefits like:

  • Higher productivity

Increased productivity and decreased support costs among these workers

  • Reduced turnover

Lower employee turnover (with lower turnover rates existing among disabled employees)

  • Greater customer satisfaction

Increased customer satisfaction, as many companies found that, in hiring employees who better represent the diverse population of customers, they were able to provide better service.

Additional benefits of autism in the workplace include:

  • Economic and social gains

Besides the obvious pros of fostering greater understanding and inclusion, studies have shown that closing the gap between employment needs and the autistic community could help boost the U.S. economy’s GDP by up to $25 billion, meaning benefits are not just specific to supporting autistic individuals and companies.

  • Workplace innovations and social harmony

Some studies cite the social benefits of joining the workforce for autistic individuals as increased creativity and innovation in the workplace; financial independence, which grows consumer spending; and reduced social stigmas and discrimination. When individuals who are autistic, neurodivergent and disabled see others like them succeeding and achieving recognition, it has the power to inspire the whole community.

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Addressing Barriers to Employing People with Autism

While the advantages are hard to ignore, making the pledge to hire inclusively requires commitment, especially considering the barriers to employment that exist for members of the autistic community.

  • Rethinking hiring practices

One of the primary obstacles businesses face when looking to bring on neurodiverse talent is their hiring practices. Knowing that autism affects how individuals process information, application and interview processes can be daunting and overwhelming to some autistics.

Hiring managers can work to develop practices that ensure available roles are accessible and that all job postings and advertisements have readable font sizes and presentation to reduce barriers early in the application process.

  • Innovating the interview process

Additionally, as traditional interviews that typically assess a jobseeker’s abstract/analytical thinking skills may induce anxiety for a neurodivergent person (even when they have the necessary qualifications to perform the actual job), employers can restructure the interview process by shifting to performance-based interviews or evaluating work samples to allow candidates to demonstrate specific skills needed for a job.

Adapting to sensory and communication needs

Upon obtaining employment, autistic employees also often struggle to have sensory differences understood and accommodated. Managers should set aside time when onboarding a new neurodiverse employee to learn the person’s communication style and feedback preferences.

Spontaneous, face-to-face dialogue can be challenging for some, whereas communicating expectations and feedback in writing can be a useful strategy employees can use to double-check these new employees’ understanding of their roles.

Managers are also advised to work with individuals to decide what shifts and locations might best offer a safe space conducive to productivity.

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Implementing Change: Enhancing Autism Inclusion in the Workplace

Ready for change? For businesses that recognize the many positives of adopting inclusive hiring and workplace practices, leaders should evaluate:

  • Which, if any, employee education and awareness trainings are in place for their teams and
  • Whether the trainings are effective in raising awareness around neurodiverse thinking and communication styles to retain people.

HR teams can work in collaboration with neurodiverse people, trained facilitators or nonprofits to identify the right programs to support and enable inclusive recruiting and retention.

For example, Autism Speaks launched Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN), which was created to educate workplaces, job seekers and community stakeholders committed to promoting diversity in hiring, creating inclusive workspaces and helping people on the spectrum find employment.

The program’s trainings, some developed with Virginia Commonwealth University and evaluated for efficacy by an advisory committee of autistic adults and leaders, offer specific guidance on hiring and retaining autistic workers, as well as building welcoming environments.

Greif, formally known as Lee Container, is a global leader in industrial packaging products and services and an example of the positive emotional and financial benefits training programs like WIN can offer. Greif’s managers have identified a growing culture of camaraderie and inclusion among employees and a notable increase in autistic employee retention since implementing the program.

Through a fearless commitment to driving acceptance, business leaders have the ability to empower autistic individuals, fellow employees and the future workforce to be successful and supported in the workplace and build a more inclusive world for all.

RELATED: The Ultimate ADA Guide: Small Business Edition >>

About Arianna Esposito

Arianna Esposito, MBA, BCBA, is the Vice President, Services and Supports, Lifespan Programs at Autism Speaks. With more than 10 years of experience, her work focuses on developing, testing and scaling evidenced-based programs that provide strategic information and support services to people with autism and their families across the spectrum and at pivotal points in the developmental trajectory across their lifespan. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and an Executive MBA from Saint Joseph’s University.

About Axcet HR Solutions

Headquartered in Kansas City since 1988, Axcet HR Solutions has stood at the forefront of the professional employer organization (PEO) industry for over three decades.

As a trusted, certified PEO partner for small and medium-sized businesses, Axcet offers comprehensive human resources solutions that encompass payroll services, employee benefits management, workers' compensation and risk management, as well as regulatory compliance assistance.

Our mission is to empower businesses to maximize their potential by handling the complexities of HR management, allowing them to focus on their core operations. With a deep commitment to personalized service and a focus on fostering a positive workplace culture, Axcet HR Solutions is more than just a PEO; we are your strategic HR partner, dedicated to your business's growth and success.

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