World Autism Awareness Week (29th March to 4th April), provides all of us in the professional services sector with the opportunity to reflect on the steps we can take to improve opportunities for those on the autism spectrum.

Over one in 100 people in the UK are autistic, which means you are highly likely to already have autistic colleagues, albeit you may not be aware of it. So how should you approach autism in the workplace? Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can offer a huge amount to society: just think of Greta Thunberg (who describes her Aspergers as a superpower), Anthony Hopkins, Daryl Hannah, Susan Boyle and Chris Packham, to name but a few.

Just recently, The Times reported on Vice Admiral Nick Hine, who credits his autism (diagnosed a decade ago) for a different way of thinking that made him a better naval officer. This doesn’t dismiss the very real challenges that many autistic people face in life. Autism can be profound and all-encompassing, affecting every aspect and stage of life. But these examples should challenge ingrained and simplistic assumptions, both about the nature of autism and the qualities that drive career success.

Sadly, autism in the workplace is often not well handled. Autistic people are often still excluded from employment due to inbuilt processes that work against those with ASD. It is shocking to know, for example, that the number of autistic adults in full-time employment in the UK stands at just 16%. According to the National Autistic Society, this figure hasn’t changed in almost a decade. But it also makes sense when you think of the challenges facing autistic people entering and progressing in the workplace.

The interviewing process, for example, is daunting for anyone – but for someone with autism it can be a very real barrier, presenting an overwhelming experience that focuses on complex communication and social skills that are far more difficult for those on the autism spectrum. For employers too, there can often be a bias to looking for candidates with good interpersonal/communication/team skills – sometimes listing these as standard prerequisites on job descriptions. This is no problem if the job really demands those skills. But they are often prioritised, regardless of the actual job requirements. Take a role in technology, data analysis, business intelligence, writing or design – do you really need to be a ‘team player’ for many of these roles?

With this in mind, what steps can we take as recruiters and professional services firms to improve opportunities for people with ASD? Here are some areas for us to consider:

  1. First, challenge your mindset. It is easy to think that the best workplaces are populated in their entirety by people adept at social interaction and communication. This is just not true. The most highly functioning, productive teams are those that are the most diverse – which includes diversity in thinking.
  2. Think through your job descriptions. Don’t include terms like ‘excellent communication’ or ‘team’ skills if the role actually doesn’t require either.
  3. Prioritise finding the best person for the job, not just those who interview best. In certain roles, this may convince you to revise the recruitment process altogether, shifting an interview to the end of the process following on from perhaps completing an online assessment or supervised project.
  4. For interviews, ensure your communication is clear and detail exactly what the interview will entail before the day. This will help autistic candidates understand and prepare for the experience.
  5. Try to ensure interviews are calm, welcoming and reassuring (consider asking if candidates need any particular accommodations to feel at ease). A large panel interview may be advantageous to achieving consensus and/or speeding up your decision making, but you may also be presenting such an overwhelming environment that you only succeed in shortlisting candidates that can best manage panel interviews.
  6. Think carefully about your questions to ensure you gather the information you need. Be direct and literal, rather than abstract and general (for example, describe a specific challenge that would be typical to that role and ask the candidate how he/she would overcome it).
  7. Instead of asking two or three-part questions, break them down to make them clearer and easier to process.
  8. Give candidates time to answer. Those with ASD may take longer to answer, purely because they process information differently.
  9. Be careful of discriminating against candidates who have inconsistent eye contact, don’t do small talk, or give an unusual greeting. These abilities may be important to some roles but have little bearing on many of the skills necessary for other jobs.

Those with ASD can offer ways of thinking often lacking in neurotypical people: attention to detail, hyper focus on a subject of interest, a high degree of accuracy, reliability, deep factual knowledge, technical ability and creativity of thinking. According to an ‘Autism Empowerment Kit’ published by the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition, autistic people often excel at developing creative and novel ideas – ‘probably due to the fact that they do not conform as closely to social norms and are less subject to cognitive bias from prior knowledge and experience’

It’s also worth remembering that many adults who are on the autism spectrum may never have been diagnosed; others may not divulge their ASD before interview, for fear of discrimination. A more open process generally would help everyone and ensure firms secure a broader range of talent that brings different thinking to the table. On the job too, an understanding of the needs of those with ASD could push managers to communicate more clearly and regularly. This can surely only be a positive for everyone?

By way of conclusion, it is interesting to consider ULTRA Testing, a neurodiverse technology company founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers in 2013. It provides software testing and quality assurance (QA) services, with no fewer than 75% of its team members on the autism spectrum. Not only that, but whenever benchmarked, ULTRA teams have consistently outperformed their QA industry peers.

Interestingly, ULTRA does not rely on CVs or interviews. Instead, they have developed an eight-step recruitment process that includes an online questionnaire, a pattern recognition test, and a week-long simulation of software testing work assessing more than 20 specific attributes including cognitive abilities and behavioural traits. Interviews are only conducted at the end of the process.

This may not work for all roles or industries – or indeed for all individuals on the autism spectrum. But it’s food for thought for all of us responsible for recruitment. In an age in which data and technology is changing everything, it’s time for us all to think differently.

We are always interested in hearing and sharing ideas on autism in the workplace and for improving the recruitment experience and career opportunities for those with disabilities, health conditions or impairments. If you have a story, personal experience or case study you would like to share, please contact [email protected]

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