Autism@Work began as a weekend project at SAP in India five years ago and is now a global movement adopted by several leading companies worldwide, including Microsoft, DXC Technology (formerly HPE), EY and JPMorgan Chase. The programs seek to address the unemployment gap for college graduates with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 85 percent of whom are unemployed or underemployed after graduating. So far, hundreds of candidates on the autism spectrum have been placed, with positive results for both companies and employees.
Some early adopters of Autism@Work are working with research partners to test and validate the benefits of such programs, and the initial findings are promising. The Dandelion Employment Program is an initiative by DXC Technology in collaboration with the Australian Department of Human Services, Department of Defense, and Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Recent research on the program by LaTrobe University found benefits not only for the individuals with autistic individuals, and their families, but also for the employers in the areas of productivity, innovation and employee engagement. Part of those benefits, researchers noted, are tied to training: It is “critical that managers, team leaders, and supervisors are equipped with the skills and tools to support these individuals at work” for the program to be a success.
Another study out of Australia, conducted by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre at Curtin University, found that employees with ASD benefitted companies through their attention to detail, high standard of work ethic, quality of work and creative skills. In addition, the study found no additional costs incurred in hiring candidates with ASD, and the companies experienced an overall increase of autism awareness. The study found that “education and training on ASD for all staff may support the employee with ASD to feel accepted in the work place.”
A third study, on a collaboration among Deutsche Bank, Autistica (a U.K. autism research organization) and UCL Institute of Education, reported on a program that created internships at Deutsche Bank for candidates with ASD in the U.K. Of all the interns who participated in the program, 75 percent were offered full-time employment. The study concluded with four recommendations for successful employment of individuals with ASD:
- Set clear expectations and be committed.
- Treat people as individuals.
- Provide widespread training on autism, not just to the hiring managers and buddies.
- Create a point-person to facilitate communication.
There is clear evidence to support the benefits of considering candidates with ASD as potential employees. So, what would it take for your company to launch and maintain a successful Autism@Work program?
Assessment of the organization and recruiting infrastructure is key to laying the groundwork for a successful program. Finding the right department, environment and supportive employees is also necessary. Once these tasks are done, training becomes of paramount importance in creating the framework for a successful program and ensuring its ongoing success. All three cited studies found that the need for training extended well beyond the employees on the autism spectrum to all employees.
When embarking on an Autism@Work program, organization-wide autism awareness training should familiarize all employees with the organizational motivations for engaging in such a program as well as autism and how it may present in the workplace. A side benefit of this training can be increased levels of employee engagement.
As the elements of a program are put in place, more in-depth training is required for the managers and employees who will be working with colleagues on the spectrum. This training should cover the social interaction, executive functioning and sensory sensitivity differences that individuals on the spectrum may bring to the workplace, along with strategies for managing through those differences. Scenario-based training can be particularly effective in helping managers and co-workers understand how best to support colleagues on the spectrum. Once employees with autism are on board, training for managers and co-workers should continue as needed, particularly as they learn more about their individual colleagues on the spectrum and their specific behavioral differences.
Most of the training associated with employing individuals on the autism spectrum is focused on clear communication skills. Many employers find this training beneficial well beyond managing individuals on the autism spectrum. With the right approach, a firm can reap the benefits of an increased talent pool for potential employees; improve engagement, awareness and productivity; and broaden diversity. The rewards are clear for those companies willing to follow steps to successful employment of candidates with ASD.