Employing people with autism

Written on 4 March 2022

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the corporate world has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. The millennial and Gen Z generations are statistically the most diverse in history, and this is causing a demonstrable shift in the culture in the workplace.

And yet, the topic of neurodiversity still tends to go under the radar. In fact, according to the National Autistic Society, just 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment and only 32% are in some kind of paid work.

The common perception is that this stems from a rigid stance on what makes a ‘successful’ employee. The concept is often associated with attributes such as communication skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to ‘fit in’ to the workforce.

With this in mind, Autism Acceptance Month provides a golden opportunity for employers to consider how they can break the mould and foster a culture of neurodiversity in their organisation.

Hiring practices

While a culture of neurodiversity acceptance is the end goal, this cannot be achieved without neurodiversity in the workforce. Organisations must therefore turn to acquisition as a first port of call.

This is particularly important given that, in many cases, recruitment processes are naturally weighted against neurodiverse candidates.

For instance, while a powerful tool in the world of recruitment, artificial intelligence (AI) has been found to unfairly disadvantage candidates who don’t fit a certain profile.

Even organisations with the best of intentions can be caught out by this, so it’s critical that hiring teams are diligent in configuring and auditing these processes.

However, this diligence is just as critical for manual recruitment processes. Just as AI can become unconsciously biased, so too can hiring managers themselves. With this in mind, the core values of equality and objectivity must be baked into every stage of the process.

The exact nature of the individual stages is also key, and this is where flexibility becomes another key value. For instance, a traditional face-to-face interview may not be a comfortable or productive environment for an autistic candidate.

In this case, the organisation must always attempt to make reasonable adjustments where necessary and applicable. This will enable the candidate to perform in a manner that suits their strengths and personality to the greatest extent possible.

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The employee experience

But of course, diversifying the workforce is merely the first piece of the puzzle. More important and arguably far more complex is the task of creating a culture that not only accepts but promotes and nurtures neurodiversity.

Due to the often-complex nature of disorders such as autism, the role of management is critical here.

While individuals with such disorders can sometimes come across as, for instance, abrupt or aggressive, managers who have received proper awareness training will be far better equipped to recognise this and handle the situation in a more pragmatic manner.

Not only is this likely to result in a quicker and better resolution, but the recognition and understanding itself is likely to instil a feeling of acceptance and appreciation among neurodiverse employees, which in turn can lead to better engagement and performance.

In fact, according to Deloitte, businesses that provide mentors to professionals with a disability reported a 16% increase in profitability, 18% in productivity, and 12% in customer loyalty.

The working environment is another key area when it comes to neurodiversity. Hypersensitivity, for instance, is a common characteristic among individuals with autism and Asperger’s, and so it may be necessary for certain adjustments to be made in order to create a more inclusive workplace.

The same goes for communication – another area of potential sensitivity for autistic employees, whether verbal or non-verbal. Once again, this is a matter that managers and fellow employees can be made aware of and taught how to deal with more effectively by the organisation.

But no matter the specific issue, the common thread here is the need to make adjustments where reasonable and necessary. A willingness to do this by the organisation will, over time, serve to create an environment that is conducive with success and happiness for neurodiverse employees.

Recognising the value of neurodiversity

While compassion should be the main driving force here, it’s worth noting that embracing neurodiversity can also allow organisations to gain a competitive advantage.

Stigma has led many to believe that the characteristics of autism or similar disorders should be seen as flaws, but from a certain perspective, this is far from the case.

For instance, autistic individuals often excel in rule-based thinking – the need to act on principles rather than consequences. Depending on the nature of the organisation, this could be an exceptionally valuable tool.

There’s also an argument to be made that, with 68% of the UK’s autistic population unemployed, this is an untapped market for British businesses. As a result, employers who take an objective and inclusive stance to hiring are likely to end up with high-quality talent.

But in general, it’s well accepted that diversity of all kinds contributes to innovation and creativity, as it allows a wider range of experiences and perspectives to be brought to the table.

What’s more, many believe that it offers a cultural boost in itself, with workers feeling more satisfied and engaged due to their employer’s diplomatic and inclusive stance.

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Have a query about your obligations in regards to people with disabilities? If you need advice on conducting a fair and non-discriminatory recruitment process, making reasonable adjustments, or dealing with performance concerns, WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR specialists are here to help.

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