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Driving Innovation Through Autism Awareness in Recruiting

Feb. 15, 2023
Neuro-inclusive hiring can expand talent pools and bring skilled individuals into the workforce.

Hiring practices that accommodate people on the autism spectrum aren’t about meeting diversity goals or calling companies inclusive. They’re making sure you don’t miss the opportunity to hire someone like Peter Mann.

A serial entrepreneur, former Dell senior manager and owner of a company that’s pushing design and manufacturing innovations in electric motors, Mann says human resources departments often eliminate candidates like him because they don’t know how to deal with people who can’t socialize easily or need accommodations to get through the interview process.

“[Autism has] been an asset, since all I think about is work,” Peter says of how being non-neurotypical has impacted his career. “So, I just put in more hours than typical person. I just can’t shut my brain off.”

Despite autistic people being able to leverage their abilities at their place of employment, it can be extremely difficult for them to break into the workforce. According to Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, 85% of autistic college graduates are under-employed or unemployed, a rate higher than other disabilities.

Advocating for Employment

Peter Mann’s late diagnosis came about because his wife was watching the “CBS Mornings” show.

“She came and got me and she's like, ‘You need to watch this,’” he says. It was a woman describing her own autistic traits.

“As she spoke about this, it’s like, that is me to a ‘T.’ It explains so much. And I was like, ‘Holy cow, that is crazy’. And then I went online and started researching it.”

He went on to take several online autistic assessments, scoring high on all of them, and was later officially diagnosed.

When it comes to recruiting neurodivergent talent, misconceptions and misunderstandings play a large part in the disability unemployment gap. Mann explains his experience looking into the topic.

“What’s interesting is the vast majority of autistic folks will not even disclose they’re autistic because generally, you’re met with negative consequences. It’s like your interview’s canceled, or you get one question in and they’re like, ‘You’re not the right person for us,’” Mann says.

To reach out to autistic people who were struggling to get through the interview process or having trouble moving up in a company, Peter posts on LinkedIn, a platform he uses to advocate for autism awareness.

“I’ve talked with dozens of people on Zoom or video calls and chatted with probably hundreds of others on social media,” Mann says. And so, it’s really been rewarding for me. But at the same time, it’s very heartbreaking to hear the stories of the reality of what the experience is because there really is no equity or inclusion.

What he learned from speaking to these individuals is that autistic people are filtered out almost immediately.

“You’re judged from these nonverbal cues before you even get started, he says. And so, the traditional interview process is really set up for those that are extroverted and really good socializers. It’s not set up for someone that’s better equipped to, perhaps, show you how they can do something, rather than, you know, telling you through words or through a social interaction.”

He says for many individuals, the interview portion of recruiting workplace talent plays to autistic people’s weaknesses.

Struggles that appear during the interview process, such as trouble maintaining eye contact and restlessness, are traditionally undesirable for the employer, often viewing these actions as unprofessional.

“I don’t think autistic people ever intend to be rude. It’s largely a misunderstanding of communication,” Mann says. “Autistic people are not even in a place where they can disclose [that] they’re autistic. And then if you’re comfortable enough to disclose that you’re autistic, then in certain cases, you really want some accommodations.”

Mann describes a scenario where he was coaching someone through the hiring process where the potential employee wanted to ask for accommodations.

“He asked the HR guys, ‘Can I have the interview questions ahead of time?’ And the guy’s like, ‘No, that wouldn’t be fair to the other applicants.’ Fairness is equality, but equity is about giving the person what they need to be successful in that situation. So, there they were answering an equity issue with an equality answer,” Mann says.

Mann believes that this example and others like it are because of training issues. “I’m sure the HR person’s a good person, but … maybe nobody’s ever asked for an accommodation before.”

He adds, “You’re obviously not being inclusive or providing equity for people, you’ll never get to belonging, which is the ultimate goal, where you can be free to be yourself.”

All of these issues show that the traditional recruitment process is not geared toward finding success for every individual, including neurodivergent people. “Just because things have always been done one way in the past doesn’t mean that that’s the way it should be done going forward.

“When you’re hiring for a job, it should be like, ‘Is this the best person for this job?’ And you know, and if somebody has disability, say like autism is both a minority at maybe 1% to 2% of the population, and it’s a disability, are you making accommodations for the person to be their best self? Because that’s really what equity is,” Mann says.

Understanding Autism

“Autism is really just a difference in the way of thinking, perceiving and socializing. That’s it ... Co-occurring conditions, you may or may not have, which could be cognition, speech, ADHD, a number of other things,” Mann says. “They say, if you've met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. We’re all different.”

Mann describes autism as similar to biodiversity. “A left-handed person isn’t a defective right-handed person, they’re just a left-handed person. Our brains aren’t defective; it’s just wired differently.”

He highlights that work style and interests also come in a wide variety in the autistic community. “For some of us, we have this hyperfocus ability; there’s some people that are super creative. Not everybody’s an Einstein, but it’s a spectrum.”

Dan Harris, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Neurodiversity in Business (NiB), describes some ways in which autistic people and their characteristics can sometimes be perceived.

“We are trying to change society’s understanding and highlight that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage, he says. "But we don’t buy into the whole superpower myth. So, I think it’s quite damaging for a large portion of our population that we only project the image of an amazing scientist or mathematician who can go in and do great data and analytics, etc. The reality is, is that we’re all individuals, and we all have our strengths and weakness.

NiB launched in the United Kingdom’s House of Parliament in March 2022. At that point,  it had 100 founding members, and it has now grown to over 500 organizations. Featuring no subscription fees for members, Peter’s business Oransi is a member of NiB, along with the likes of Amazon, Google, McDonald’s and many other businesses from small to global.

When discussing misconceptions about hiring autistic individuals, first look at misconceptions about autistic people, Harris says. They are not all young, white, middle-class males, for example. Autism is spread across race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

“We’re trying to move away from the very medical model of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s into the social model, where actually you’re looking at the autistic brain as being unique and specific,” he says. “But actually, within that spectrum, we need to recognize that autism itself is pretty broad.”

Harris adds that the medical model has historically sought a way to prevent or cure autism. “We don’t want a cure; we don’t think we need a cure.”

The key to adding neurodiversity to an organization, he adds, is to treat people as individuals and understand how they need to interact with colleagues and the larger group.

“Sometimes unspoken communication, body language, etc., sometimes can be difficult for autistic people to read. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that autistic people are antisocia l… Just because autistic people take longer to kind of interpret or process information due to the differences in the way their brains operate, doesn’t mean they don’t understand,” he adds.

What Can Businesses Do?

Ian Bazzoli is chief operating officer at Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, an organization that works with corporations to recruit, retain and attract autistic individuals. He says companies can make simple accommodations when hiring.

“I often watched hiring managers hire with a biased lens, often overlooking candidates that perhaps could do well in a job. But perhaps that candidate didn’t make great eye contact or have a good handshake. And those are things that, you know, many autistic individuals struggle with,” Bazzoli says.

As an employer-facing organization, Integrate focuses on how to hire and retain more inclusively. That process “starts with an assessment of their HR practices, everything from how they how job descriptions are written and what responsibilities are on those job descriptions to how does has the interview process work on onboarding performance management,” Bazzoli says.

“When a resume comes across a recruiter’s desk or a hiring manager’s desk, they’re looking at it in a very short amount of time, 10 seconds or less,” Bazzoli says. “If it doesn’t have sort of a very clear linear sort of growth to it, or if there’s a period of unemployment or the person maybe has job hopped from job to job, they may just pass on the person just because of that ... One of the things that we remind companies is that many autistic individuals have had challenges at different stops in their careers.”

Companies often pick employees through resume or interviewing factors that don’t measure how well they can complete the job, Bazzoli says, presenting a problem for autistic people who may struggle in those soft-skill areas.

“Really focus on the critical components of a job. If you’re looking for a candidate, does the candidate have those competencies or those aspects that can make them successful in the job? Because so often, hiring decisions are made around aspects that are outside of that.”

A prevalent issue surrounding hiring neurodivergent people is that the company does not want to risk the unknown, he says.

Integrate’s initial assessment lets them instruct employers on how to tweak processes that are uncomfortable for prospective autistic employees. They then offer training and education for HR, hiring managers and the company on basic autism awareness.

“It’s important to understand other people’s way of thinking, because it helps us become better communicators, it helps us become better colleagues, it helps us become better people,” Bazzoli adds.

Specific management strategies produce the best outcomes for new employees and their employers.

“The final piece is post-placement support, Bazzoli says. “Once an individual is placed into a company, we’re doing usually weekly, or biweekly calls with the hiring manager, as well as HR, to make sure things are going smoothly. If there are issues popping up, helping them work through those issues ... Awareness isn’t enough. It has to be followed up by organizations taking action, making a commitment to hiring neurodivergent individuals and creating a hiring process that’s inclusive.”

Continuous Responsibility

Accommodations don’t stop after the initial hiring process; they must flow over to the job itself, requiring flexibility, autism hiring advocates say.

Sensory sensitivity, for example, is something that affects many autistic people, and leaders should do what they can to accommodate this and other specific concerns.

“Any of the senses can make you hyper- or hypo-sensitive. For me, noise, and noise is a common one. So, part of accommodations is being in an environment that allows you to be your best self.” Mann says. “For many autistic people, the disability that is autism is not so much that you’re autistic, it’s that you’re an environment that just spins you up or triggers you.

“For me, I go into shutdown, it’s like you’ve plugged all your appliances in, and you blew the circuit breaker. That’s what my brain does.”

He adds that to accommodate people’s challenges, “It’s allowing people to wear headphones if they need that. It’s having proper lighting… In general, things that the typical person may find a little bit annoying, for us can be debilitating.”

COVID-19 taught many businesses that organizations can run with fully remote or hybrid schedules–the sorts of accommodations that neurodivergent people have been requesting for decades.

Triggers vary by person, as do accommodations. Common examples of making a friendly environment include:

  • Let people take breaks if needed
  • Set clear expectations
  • Create a clear schedule so as to not drive anxiety

“If you accommodate an autistic person in the workplace, it makes it better for everyone. They’re not expensive things,” Mann says. “It’s really just a choice. And it’s a choice that people are mostly not even aware of.”

Benefits of a Neuro-inclusive Workforce

Because of their unique skills creating a competitive advantage, there are countless benefits to hiring neurodivergent talent.

There is no thinking outside the box, because there is no box, Mann explains. “A lot of the best innovators and inventors are autistic, because there’s a different way of thinking … You’re getting different types of people and perspectives.”

He adds that, “if you want to grow and evolve as a company, you really need to have people that reflect society.”

Education, awareness and taking risks are the road to closing the disability unemployment gap. In the interest of autistic individuals and businesses alike, taking real and tangible steps toward inclusion will break down barriers for a more successful and diversified workplace.

“I think people inherently are good and want to do the right thing. You just, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Peter concludes. “At the end of the day, we live in a very competitive world and innovation is, ‘Can you find a better way to do things?’ And part of finding a better way to do things is having people who are different and think differently.”

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