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Hiring and training employees with autism

SOURCE: Frederic J. Brown / AFP
Organisations hiring people on the spectrum have become truly inclusive and are seeing success.


By Aisyah Liliana 

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Major corporations such as Microsoft, SAP, and HP Enterprise/DVC Technology have begun specifically recruiting and training employees with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through the Dandelion Program, HPE/DXC has employed 58 people with autism by offering internships and jobs in cybersecurity, data analytics, and software testing.

Today, adults on the spectrum have more job opportunities than ever before. The neurodiverse workforce is thriving – but mainly at select companies that invest in making it possible.

Corporations such as Ernst & Young and multinational software companies SAP and Microsoft are heavily investing in this initiative. Together, they employ about 300 people with ASD.

According to reportsHarvard Business Review, many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism, and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. They are often great at coding, a skill that is in high demand. 

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Austen Weinhart, COO of Coding Autism in Los Angeles, a coding boot camp for people with ASD, says that “the traits that are usually associated with people on the spectrum correlate really strongly with those of a successful coder.” Those skills include “pattern recognition, strong attention to detail” and a “very direct” communication style. 

In Steve Silberman’s book NeuroTribes, he points out that the incidence of autism is particularly high in places like Silicon Valley for reasons not completely understood.

He and others have hypothesised that many of the industry’s “oddballs” and “nerds” might well have been “on the spectrum,” although undiagnosed.

Hiring for neurodiversity, then, could be seen as an extension of the tendencies of a culture that recognises the value of nerds.

Neurodiverse people at times require concessions in the workplace, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation, or sometimes they might exhibit challenging eccentricities.

These concessions and challenges are however manageable, and the returns are great.

To reap these rewards, companies would have to adjust their recruitment, selection, and career development policies. Companies that have reformed their HR processes in order to acquire neurodiverse talent include – SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY

Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and more have expressed interest and are well on their way. 

If your organisation is invested in hiring more employees with ASD, here are some of the most crucial practices to keep in mind for their training and development: 

Inclusive Training

HPE/DXC’s Dandelion Program provides a four-hour management training session that uses role-plays to help managers practice “issues and challenges that they may not have faced before,” according to Michael Fieldhouse, Dandelion Program executive.

On-the-job training for communication and interpersonal skills is also vital.

The Dandelion Program provides technical training, training in executive functioning skills such as organisation and memory skills, and adaptive/life skills training on topics like financial management and nutrition. 

For managers and coworkers, awareness training can also be helpful to help them understand their colleagues and how they can be supported.

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A supportive ecosystem

Companies with neurodiversity programs design and maintain simple support systems for their employees. SAP defines two “support circles”, one for the workplace, and the other for an employee’s personal life.

In the workplace, the support circle includes a team manager, a team buddy, a job and life skills coach, a work mentor, and an “HR business partner,” who oversees a group of programme participants.

Oliver Thornton, CEO of Coding Autism in Westlake Village, California, who has Asperger’s syndrome recommends matching “team buddies and other employees who are neurotypical” with employees on the spectrum. He says SAP uses this method as part of its ASD hiring initiative, as buddies help “ensure that they’re on pace with everything … that they have coworkers and colleagues that they can get along with.”

Be open to reasonable concessions

Accommodating the needs of an employee who is neurodiverse, is much like accommodating to staffers who are neurotypical. You might buy a bigger screen for an employee who has trouble using a small one or you might buy a standing desk for an employee with back problems. 

Some common and very simple alterations that may be requested by an employee with ASD would be: 

  • Allowing the use of noise-canceling headphones, for those sensitive to noise
  • Swapping desks or turning off an overhead light, for those sensitive to light
  • Permitting them to have their lunch at the same time every day, for those that thrive on a schedule