28 September 2017 – “We all have gifts and talents that can shine if given the chance”
PEOPLE WITH autism often have difficulty getting or keeping a job. Liliya John, Rebecca Flower, Catherine Trezona and Jason White discuss neurodiversity in the workforce and the benefits of hiring autistic employees.
People with autism may have many invaluable skills that are sought after by today’s employers – like attention to detail, diligence, perseverance and an ability to think outside the square – but they are often disadvantaged when it comes to getting and keeping a job because of differences in social communication and interaction, and because of other people’s lack of understanding.
When Specialisterne Australia’s John Craven visited New Zealand earlier this year to speak at the Altogether Autism conference, he told story after story of people with autism who had excelled in the workplace when “inclusive employers” saw through their social and non-verbal communication difficulties and took a punt on hiring them. Despite this, fewer than 20 per cent of autistic adults with typical intelligence are fully employed and many others are not fully utilising their talents.
What’s in a name?
In this article, the authors refer to people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in a range of ways, reflecting the preferences of members of this community. Many adults prefer identify-first language i.e. ‘autistic people’, while others prefer to be described using person-first language i.e. ‘people with autism’. Many are comfortable with the descriptor ‘on the autism spectrum’. Most prefer not to refer to autism as a ‘disability’, as autism is a different way of thinking with its own strengths and characteristics, coined by the phrase ‘neurodiverse’. Those without autism are often described by autistic people as ‘neurotypical’ or ‘NT’ for short.
What’s in a number?
We don’t know how many autistic people live in New Zealand as the numbers of autism diagnoses are not currently collected by any national agency. Best estimates range between 45,000 and 70,000, i.e. 1 in 100 and 1 in 68.
These estimates are based on international statistics.
The New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline (2008, updated 2016) estimates 1 in 100 New Zealanders are on the autism spectrum. More recent findings from a study by Minds for Minds, a New Zealand based research network, suggest the prevalence of autism in New Zealand is similar to European populations, believed to be 1 in 68, or nearly 70,000 people (Virues-Ortega et al., 2017).
Without knowing how many people in New Zealand are on the autism spectrum, our best estimate on the number of autistic people who are unemployed is also hard to pinpoint. What we do know is that getting and keeping a job is particularly challenging when you are autistic. There are several reasons for this.
In June 2017, Altogether Autism and Specialisterne Australia partnered to develop a survey to identify autistic talent in New Zealand. Altogether Autism provides evidenced information and advice to anyone in New Zealand living or working with autism. Specialisterne Australia is a non-profit social enterprise that helps employers understand, value, and include in their organisation the unique perspective and capabilities of individuals on the autism spectrum.
In little over one month, 125 people completed the online survey. Of these, 57% had tertiary qualifications but only 6% were in full time employment, despite their readiness and willingness to work. The three key barriers to getting a job identified by the survey were unclear employer expectations, difficulty with job interviews, and no opportunity to demonstrate skills. The three key barriers to keeping a job were lack of awareness and acceptance of autism, poor recognition of support needs, and poor social attitudes in the workplace. Three key changes needed for autistic talent to thrive at work were identified as the recognition of special talents and skills, working with people who believe in their autistic workmates, and matching skills to tasks.
An excellent example of an individual who found it difficult to remain in employment was provided by one of the participants in our surveys. This individual had a position that involved reporting errors, and each of these errors would require fixing. He/she did a diligent job, however found that the supervisor was making “odd” comments that they didn’t quite understand. After multiple discussions with the supervisor, the individual, confused, resigned. On their last day, the supervisor explained that the individual had been finding too many errors, and the company couldn’t keep up with the work. Ultimately, this was making the company look bad. Unbeknownst to the individual, what the supervisor was doing in these “odd” conversations was hinting that the individual “miss” some of the errors. Individuals on the spectrum are known to follow rules to the letter, which is one of the reasons for making such great employees (Dakin & Frith, 2005; Keita, Guy, Berthiaume, Mottron, & Bertone, 2014). Unfortunately, when an employer doesn’t want the rules to be followed, this can cause issue.
What impact can employment have on an individual’s life?
An additional survey run alongside the autistic talent search asked people with autism to share their employment experiences. Sixty two percent of the 47 respondents were currently unemployed. The main characteristics of a positive work environment were a good fit between personal interest and the current job, and positive attitudes and support from colleagues at the workplace. Disclosing their autism in the workplace had gone badly for some, leading to a gradual reduction in working hours, being passed over for promotions, removal of decision making powers and under recognition of capabilities.
Why autistic individuals can make great employees
When given the chance, people on the spectrum can make fantastic employees. Not only are they thought to be reliable, honest, and persistent (Howlin, 1997), but there are a number of skills that autistic individuals excel in over and above neurotypicals. Compared to the general population, autistic people are thought to be better at processing local, or detailed, information (e.g., Dakin et al., 2005; Keita et al., 2014). Autistic individuals have been found to perform better in the abstract reasoning and spatial processing tasks (Stevenson & Gernsbacher, 2013). Further, individuals on the spectrum are often able to concentrate on one thing for long periods of time, may perform well in repetitive tasks, and have low rates of absenteeism (Scott et al., 2017). Another area where autistic employees are likely to excel is in their area of interest. A part of the diagnostic criteria is having a strong and intense interest (APA, 2013), autistic people are often very knowledgeable in this area, and may get a lot of enjoyment from spending time on this interest (e.g., Mercier, Mottron, & Belleville, 2000). If a position is a good fit for an individual they are likely to have more success in the workplace (Muller, Schuler, Burton, & Yates, 2003; Olney, 2000), as are they when the position is related to their specific interest (Keel, Mesibov, & Woods, 1997; Koenig & Williams, 2017).
How can HR leaders help to seek autistic talent and support autistic employees?
The survey respondents were also asked to report on the challenging experiences they had faced in seeking employment and staying in employment. For many, the interview process is the most challenging experience. Adapting the interview process was frequently suggested as an autism friendly organisational practice. For instance, instead of asking the job applicants to describe what they know about the particular job or their experience in doing it, why not offer opportunities to a showcase knowledge, experience and expertise in the actual work environment.
Social skills have been reported as one of the most common features examined by an employer during an interview (Huffcutt, Conway, Ross, & Stone, 2001). Yet by definition, a key feature of autism is differences in communication. As defined in the diagnostic criteria for autism (see the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders [5th ed.,], American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013), individuals on the autism spectrum experience, to varying degrees, have difficulties with social communication and social interaction. Therefore, in an inherently social and unscripted process such as a job interview, challenges for autistic individuals are not surprising.
Challenges or differences with social communication and interaction may present in an interview in behaviour such as misinterpretation of a question. For example, Wehman et al. (2017) reported that during an interview for an internship program, one participant on the spectrum responded that the best they liked about working for the company was “lunch!” (p.287). Not only did this individual interpret the question literally, but he/she (presumably) showed little understanding of how an employer would perceive such an answer. Autistic individuals may have difficulty recognising and correctly interpreting what other people are thinking or feeling. This can include non-literal language (e.g., sarcasm) and non-verbal behaviour (e.g., facial expressions), each of which may provide important information to a candidate during an interview. In the case of the above-mentioned individual who reported enjoying ‘lunch’, had only an interview taken place, he/she may not have been offered a position. However, as the employer had the opportunity to assess the individual’s work ethic and skills during an internship program, he/she was subsequently employed, and remained employed for at least 5 years post-internship (Wehman et al., 2017).
Survey respondents also emphasised the need for employers and colleagues to have more understanding, awareness and acceptance of autism. The special skills, strengths and talents, e.g., attention to detail, creative ‘out of the box’ thinking that the autistic people contribute to the workplace should be given due recognition and appreciation. Respondents also suggested that organisations should provide autism awareness training for the staff as improved understanding and awareness can foster a non-judgemental and supportive attitude towards the autistic employees. Autism awareness training would also help the managers and supervisors to communicate effectively with the autistic employees as they prefer clear and direct instructions, preferably written instead of verbal. Providing workplace accommodations is another key organisational strategy that can be of great support to autistic employees. Providing compact and private office space, flexible working hours, a safe place for time out etc., would help to improve comfort as well as productivity. Additionally, strategies to manage lighting, and noise would be helpful for those with sensory sensitivities.
- This article appeared in Employment Today – October 2017 issue
Catherine Trezona is the National Manager for Altogether Autism. She is committed to bringing the successful Specialisterne model to New Zealand.
Liliya John is a researcher for Altogether Autism. She is responsible for coordinating research projects between Altogether Autism and Specialisterne Australia.
Jason White is the Employment Services Manager at Specialisterne Australia, where he looks after business development, program delivery and client relations. He has worked exclusively with the autism community in employment services and transition support since 2009.
Dr Rebecca Flower is the Research and Innovation Manager at Specialisterne Australia, where she is responsible for research, development of tools, intellectual property and quality control. Dr Flower has an undergraduate degree in Psychology, a PhD which focused on autism, and has published research in organisational psychology.
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