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Frustrated by young employees who spend more time texting than doing their jobs? Want to find an employee who gets immersed in their work and pays close attention to details?

Then you might want to follow the lead of other businesses that have begun to actively recruit autistic employees. "They're loyal and diligent and are a lower turnover risk," said Tim Weiler, director, Eastern division, sales effectiveness and rewards, at Towers Watson, a human-resources consulting firm.

The company hired 18 autistic individuals for a pilot program in White Plains, New York, last year to assist with a review of compensation survey data submissions. Next year, it plans to expand the program to its actuarial services centre in Philadelphia, benefits operations centre in New Jersey and technology administration solutions centre in London.

While the number of employers willing to consider autistic individuals is growing, most are recruiting a small number at first. (Credit: Thinkstock)

Like Towers Watson, more employers are seeing the potential benefits of hiring autistic individuals, especially for jobs that require the ability to concentrate on long, repetitive tasks, retention of large amounts of information, a knack for detecting patterns, or strong mathematics and coding skills.

“Over the last 18 to 24 months, a lot of organisations have been contacting us for assistance because they know autistic individuals have incredible strengths they’d like to tap into,” said Emma Jones, who is on the employment training team at the National Autistic Society in the UK. 

Autistic individuals have incredible strengths firms want to tap into.

Technology companies, including Microsoft, Vodafone, SAP and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, are most active in reaching out and hiring people with autism. But companies in other industries also are starting to put out the welcome mat.

The spectrum of candidates

While the number of employers willing to consider autistic individuals is growing, most are recruiting a small number at first. Consequently, the unemployment rate for the autistic population remains quite high. For example, the National Autistic Society estimates that only 15% of adults with autism in the UK have full-time jobs even though many want to work.

That's of great concern as more people are diagnosed with autism. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 68 American children is on the autism spectrum, a rate about 30% higher than the figure for 2008.  Globally, the World Health Organization said studies indicate that about one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder. The autism spectrum encompasses a group of complex disorders of brain development characterised to varying degrees by difficulty with social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication. Although their interpersonal skills may be weak, many autistic individuals are quite intelligent and high functioning.

The World Health Organization said studies indicate that about one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder.

"We have learned that the autism spectrum is very wide and you need to view each person as an individual," said Chris Cristiano, regional supply chain manager, North Atlantic, for Safelite AutoGlass. "One of the people we hired is very personable and not shy, while the other is more introverted and takes longer to warm up to people." Working in conjunction with MassGeneral Hospital for Children's Aspire program, Safelite has hired four interns with autism, and two of them went on to accept permanent positions.

One is Michael Alejunas, who is getting his first real work experience at Safelite, helping with productivity management and inventory control. When he finished his associate's degree in computer programming, "I felt lost in life," he said. "But this job has helped me get back on track."

He usually shies away from people, but has become more at ease with his four co-workers and can now interact with customers who have appointments at Safelite. "I'm trying to be more talkative and outgoing," Alejunas said. "But it's baby steps."

The right environment

At Towers Watson, candidates are invited to a screening event where the company can get a sense of their strengths, interests and fit for the roles being filled, Weiler explained. "Those who pass the screening receive four weeks of training focused on social skills, teamwork, norms of office behaviour and the job they'll be doing."

Towers Watson also prepares supervisors and other employees for what to expect. Autistic candidates, Weiler said, "may not shake hands or always say hello, but it’s social anxiety, not rudeness."

Employers sometimes must make accommodations, such as placing autistic workers in quiet corners with few distractions. “An open plan office can cause a lot of difficulty,” said Jones of the National Autistic Society. “Employers shouldn’t put people on the autism spectrum close to printers or in places with a lot of background noise and bright lighting because of their sensitivities.”

Employers sometimes must make accommodations, such as placing autistic workers in quiet corners with few distractions. (Credit: Thinkstock)

Parents with autistic children are sometimes the catalyst for autism employment programs. Weiler, for example, convinced Towers Watson to launch its pilot program after he saw his autistic son graduate from college with honours and then struggle with the transition to employment. Many autistic individuals find the social interactions in the recruiting process challenging and end up getting screened out before their job skills are even assessed.

Fighting discrimination

If they do secure a job, some autistic employees find the work belittling. When Dan Peters worked at a supermarket, people assumed he was intellectually limited and assigned him to bag groceries. "They discriminated because of their stereotypes and gave me low brainpower jobs," he said.

But now he feels valued in his new full-time job at Safelite, where he works in the warehouse and delivers glass products to company outlets in Maine and New Hampshire. "I've met the CEO twice, and he remembers me and treats me with respect," said Peters, who hopes to work his way up to warehouse manager.

It’s generally advisable for job applicants to wait until the interview to disclose autism. A recent study by researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse universities found that when people revealed in their cover letters that they had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, they were about 25% less likely to be contacted by the employer than those who didn’t mention a disability.

Even if they are called in for an interview, people with autism often make a poor showing. They may fail to make eye contact with the interviewer, have trouble reading body language and understanding ambiguous questions, and give short, direct answers without elaborating on their positive attributes. And if asked to talk about their weaknesses, they readily reveal their foibles.

Prepping for the interview

The National Autistic Society recommends that hiring managers rework their questions to be very direct, avoiding idioms and metaphors, and provide the questions to applicants before the interview.

Some medical experts believe training and practice can ameliorate the interviewing problem. A research study found that simulation interview training on computers helped autistic individuals improve their performance and get more job offers. The subjects were interviewed by a virtual human resources staff member and got instant feedback about their responses.

Those who received training were nearly eight times more likely to get a paid job or competitive volunteer position than the control group, according to Matthew Smith, lead author of the study and assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Our program helped them learn to talk effectively about being hard working, easy to work with and able to perform well in teams,” he said. “They also spoke in a more professional manner."

SAP may be one of the most committed employers of autistic people. The software company expects that by 2020, autistic employees will account for 1% of its total workforce, which currently numbers about 75,600. Next year, the company said, autistic employees will be working in eight countries, including India, Ireland, Germany, Australia and the US.

They can concentrate a long time on a repetitive task and spot mistakes better.

"We find them good for software testing and quality assurance; they can concentrate a long time on a repetitive task and spot mistakes better," said Anka Wittenberg, SAP's head of diversity. "One person got so into a task for so long that he didn't realise he should take a break." SAP has since put a big watch by his computer monitor so he doesn't overwork.

For SAP to reach its 1% goal, it must look beyond its usual recruiting goals of hiring people with excellent communication and teamwork skills. "Most people with autism aren't strong in those areas and would have fallen out of our normal recruiting process," Wittenberg said. "We had to be open to that reality and make them part of our broader diversity strategy. The more diverse we are, the more innovative we are.”

A boost in confidence

For many autistic people, the greatest benefit of a job isn't the specific work experience, but rather the self-confidence they gain.

Through the years, Thomas Kingston, a business law student, has endured offensive comments from people who said they thought he would be weird like the character in the movie Rain Man, and were surprised to find him to be really nice. But last summer, he got a "massive boost in self-confidence" and developed skills in administration and team work, during a brief stint with the UK Department for Work and Pensions.

"I was invited to meetings and felt part of the team," Kingston said. "I actually felt that my health improved; my anxiety was reduced because I had a stable routine and felt like I had accomplished something."

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