Embracing autism leads to better workplace

There is not a shortage of talent, but there is a shortage of inclusive practice. 

“It’s so difficult to get good people at the minute.” “I can barely keep the staff I have.” “Specialists are in short supply.” These are refrains which are being heard at conferences and meetings up and down the country. Just a year or two ago, businesses could have their pick of staff and indeed the greatest dilemma was finding the time to sift through the vast quantity of applications which would be inevitably received for every job advertised.

At near full employment, the reality has changed. Businesses report a shortage of suitable talent and skills. The good news is that this is not the case. Whilst businesses may be struggling to identify talent using the same recruitment techniques and practices as before, for a very long time they have largely overlooked a community of people keen to work and with lots of unique skills and perspectives to offer.

One in 65 students in our schools system is autistic. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition which relates to how a person communicates and interacts with others and how we experience the world around us.

It is a spectrum which essentially means that, just like your whole workforce, everyone will have different needs and different abilities. Whilst often the narrative around autism is focused on deficits, it is fundamentally a different way of thinking. Every employee will have strengths and weaknesses – for autistic people these may just be a little further apart. This means that where a person has a particular skill or interest, it is likely they can excel.

Most autistic people have a special interest, a subject they can focus on intensely and learn everything about. If you are looking for a specialist, the autism talent pool is where you should be looking.

So why are autistic people not filling jobs in your company? The reality is, if you are a medium or large business, it is highly like you may already have autistic staff members however, due to stigma, they may not talk openly about this or indeed know it themselves. However for every one autistic person presently in full employment, there are at least four that are not.

This has devastating consequences for individuals, families and society, however it is also depriving businesses of much needed skills. A key reason for this is that most workplaces are not presently accessible for autistic people, from the recruitment process to the workplace environment, there are invisible barriers in how things work which are preventing autistic people from securing employment and sharing our skills. The journey required towards autism accessibility is likely to aid efficiency and create a more supportive environment for all staff. In the process, you gain a cohort of employees who communicate, think and interact differently – in other words innovation.

There are some simple steps you can take to put your company on the road to full inclusion:

Engage with the autism community

To ensure your company is putting the correct supports in place, it is important to engage directly with individuals and organisations in the autism community. This will ensure your approach is consistent with the present needs of the Irish autism community and is respectful. AsIAm, and our partner Specialisterne Ireland, provide these support services to businesses interested in becoming inclusive.

Develop clear job descriptions

Job descriptions are often not very clear. This can be enough to prevent an autistic person from applying who may struggle to engage with something which is not clear. How many people are put off applying for jobs because they think they will not be good enough? This is a particular issue in the autism community where stigma and discrimination often result in low self-esteem. Writing job descriptions which are clear, in context and accurate will attract more autistic talent.

Be openly inclusive in your approach to autism

A huge challenge facing the autism community is the issue of disclosure. Candidates may require reasonable accommodations but fear that sharing their diagnosis may lead to workplace discrimination. Awareness of autism has increased massively in recent years however the general public’s overall understanding of the condition remains poor. Autistic people often feel patronised following disclosure or even face exclusion in the recruitment process. It is important that recruitment materials make clear that the company is autism-friendly and will proactively seek to employ and support autistic staff members. The materials should also make clear what supports are available so that candidates can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that disclosure will have no negative impact and lead to real, meaningful support.

Put in place accessibility measures at interview

There is nothing less autism-friendly than a traditional interview. New environments, abstract questions and a plethora of unknowns all make the task of securing a job through interview extremely challenging for autistic candidates. Small changes to the interview process can make a huge difference.

Autism-proof your office environment

Autistic people may experience the sensory environment in a very different way to most people. This may mean that the open plan office which seems relatively mute and calm to most, may be incredible overwhelming for an autistic person. It is advisable to request a sensory audit of your office by an organisation such as AsIAm. This will allow common and specific barriers to be identified and addressed before someone starts work.

Create a supportive culture

Becoming an inclusive employer is about more than the HR Department or senior management team. Just as workplaces now discuss and celebrate a wide range of diversity issues, it is vital to ensure all staff are educated about autism. Neurodiversity Day celebrations or ‘lunch and learn’ talks can be a great way to ensure all staff are aware that people may need to do things differently but that is not just tolerated but celebrated by your company.

Put in place reasonable accommodations

It is likely that autistic employees may require reasonable accommodations from an employer. It is likely the changes will be small. It is important to realise that these will look different for every employee, so engaging with the employee to identify these will not only ensure they are understood and agreed by all but will also empower the autistic employee and boost confidence.

So what are you waiting for? Win the talent war by recognising, supporting and recruiting autistic talent.

Adam Harris is the founder and CEO of AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity. AsIAm’s vision is to bring about an autism-friendly Ireland. For more information or to access their services please visit AsIAm.

Published on 8 August, 2019