We live in an era where the words inclusion and diversity in a workplace context are becoming common place. Whilst the terms may be commonly referred, what is not near as common is the employment of autistic people across all industries and employer types throughout Australia. We continue to see a huge disparity that reflects in high unemployment rates of autistic people and the socio-economic implications and disadvantage this brings. This is a huge loss for autistic people and employers who simply do not harness the richness in skills and capability these people bring to the workplace – a highly untapped commodity that some experts and leading global commercial enterprises refer to as a ‘significant source of social and business benefits’.
It’s time for business leaders to bring their hearts and minds together on this and lead and create future organisations that are both fair and smart!
In this post I will highlight some key reasons why employers should enable social inclusion of autistic people in their organisation and how they can leverage the value of a neurodiverse workforce to drive an inclusive and engaged culture, increased brand value and competitive advantage.
Why not overlooking autistic people as valued employees is so important
Autism prevalence rates in Australia continue to grow rapidly, an increase of 25.1% from 2015 to 2018, with more than 200,000 Australians having a diagnosis of autism (1). This represents a growing and prominent portion of our population and may represent your brother, sister, child or friend. And yet despite this rising number of people with autism, this portion of our society remain vastly underrepresented in our workforces around the country and across all industries. In fact, the 2018 labour force participation rate is 38.0% for autistic people of working age compared with 84.1% of those without disability, with an unemployment rate for autistic individuals almost eight times that for those without disability (1). This reflects a primary quality of life indicator that leads to both social and financial exclusion of autistic people and is a distressing reality for many of these individuals who are, in the words of James Mahoney Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work at JPMorgan Chase & Co “simply brilliant people–highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” (2).
In seeking to understand the causes for this inherent exclusion and vast under representation of autistic people in Australian workplaces, The Community Attitudes and Behaviours Towards Autism survey conducted by Amaze highlighted 15 key reasons/barriers that prevented autistic adults successfully engaging in employment. Of these, 3 of the top 4 causes included lack of understanding of autism from potential employers, lack of support available to help me get to and support me in a job, and unable to attend interviews due to my autism/anxiety (3).
Contrastingly, in recent years, there has been a growing acknowledgment of the value and benefits of neurodiversity in the workforce amongst private enterprise and government organisations – what Specialisterne Australia refer to as “Harnessing the Autism Advantage” (4). According to Belinda Sheehan, IBM Neurodiversity Program Manager “The world needs all the talent it can get… different perspectives are desperately needed if we are to innovate our way through today’s global challenges” (5).
By enabling employment practices and operating environments that support and empower autistic adults to use their strengths, a vast number of employers are reporting that the adjustments help to better identify and leverage the talents of all employees, making workplaces more generally inclusive and diverse. This is proving to deliver both increased brand value as organisations seek to reflect the communities in which they operate and new operational capacity and advantage as new and different ideas, perspectives, and skills are embraced and leveraged. In support of these claims The Community Attitudes and Behaviours towards Autism survey conducted by Amaze indicates that 70% of Australians believe employers should make adjustments for autistic employees (3), indicating public and consumer sentiment towards employer responsibility and thus the positive brand association towards those organisations embracing and leading the way!
Further, for those employers who want to leverage their workplace productivity and operational capacity, here is one to note – research conducted by JP Morgan Chase & Co indicates that autistic employees are reported to be 92% more productive and 48% faster than non-autistic employees across a range of roles and industries including software engineering, app development, quality assurance, tech operations, business analysis, and even personal banking, to name a few (6). Further, research has demonstrated that autistic individuals often have a strong work ethic, high attention to detail, strong visual acuity, a superior ability to concentrate, innovative problem solving, and low error rates in their work (6,7). This is a big deal and not to be undervalued. These are some of the benefits that come when giving autistic people a fair go… in the right way!
So if the benefits of employing autistic people is increasingly evident – some argue the cause for significant competitive advantage – how can employers enable inclusion of autistic people in their workforce and leverage the value of a neurodiverse workforce?
Tips and ideas for enhancing employers ability to be inclusive and embrace the value of autistic people in the workplace
- It starts with you
Inclusion is a culture and culture building starts at the top. This needs true leadership! Start by challenging your own fears, perceptions, understanding (or lack of), and barriers and in so doing help remove barriers for people with autism in the work place. If you are a business owner or leader then you have the opportunity to make the difference, open the door, and help harness the value of autistic people in your workplace. If it’s important and of value to you, then it will be important and of value to your people.
- You are not alone
There is an increasing number of organisations that are seeing and experiencing the benefits of employing autistic people. These include employers such as JP Morgan Chase & Co, Auticon, ANZ, DXC Technology, SunPork, Westpac and IBM to name a few.
Asperger Services Australia (ASA) is currently developing their expertise with the goal to assist organisations like you to attract and enable the value of autistic people in your workplace.
- How you attract and recruit makes all the difference
Conventional candidate attraction and interviewing methods are often inappropriate for candidates with autism because their communication styles are different and traditional recruitment is all about communication, rapport building and engagement. This does not mean they are not the right person for the job!
Consider tapping into alternative candidate referral pathways such as career fairs, non-profit and school/TAFE/university recruiting and outreach, and employee referrals.
Seek advice or expertise on how you can enable interview and assessment processes that support people with autism being able to demonstrate their strengths and suitability for the job, not how to ‘perform’ at an interview.
Ask an autistic person and get their perspective on how you can do this in an effective and inclusive way that removes barriers and allows them to share their strengths.
Work trials and practical assessments are two examples of different ways to assess autistic people’s skills and fit for the role.
- Be ready to value and enable difference when it comes
Consider starting a job in a new place when your experience tells you that most people may not understand you or how you think, or why you do some things in a certain way, and being unique and different hasn’t always been a celebrated experience. Daunting right! Set up your workplace to respect and embrace diversity.
Provide training to managers on how to understand autistic communication as well as understanding the practicalities and mindset of inclusion.
Identify and empower sponsors or champions to help promote and enable inclusion practices in your work place.
Develop a buddy system of mentors and help create a network to foster inclusivity and support. This could include a buddy within the team and a mentor that is outside of their direct team. These may be other autistic people and/or people who have training/understanding of autism.
Get to know the person and who they are – autism is a part of the person, its not the person. Take a person-centred approach in establishing an understanding, appreciation and relationship with an autistic person just as you would with anyone. Learn about their strengths and perspectives, likes and dislikes, and how to harness the value they bring.
- Invite the conversation and be willing to listen
Ask your autistic employees what they think needs to change to support inclusive practices that enable them to bring their strengths to their role and be prepared to listen, respond and take action. Be sure to communicate back when actions are being taken.
Ask them what communication format they are most comfortable to have this ongoing dialogue, so they feel comfortable and empowered to articulate their thoughts in a constructive manner. Keep the conversation and feedback going through regular, structured discussions in the agreed format.
- Be adaptive and make adjustments
Adjustments in practice and processes to create a more inclusive workplace for autistic people often does not come with much or any expense to the bottom line. The most common adjustments include flexible hours, sensory considerations (ie. lighting, noise), providing clarity around roles and expectations, providing regular assurance, offering direct but sensitive feedback and providing clear routine (7). Learn and respond to the things that make the difference so your people feel supported and valued.
People who thrive bring the business alive!
- It’s a journey
Start with defining your ‘why’ and your vision for supporting autistic people in your workplace. Create a plan that will help you start to bring this vision to life, involve your people in the process, and get the right help and expertise to ensure you are planning for success. Create an environment of talking, listening, learning, and improving along the way and understand this is a journey that will evolve. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step – so take the first step!
Diversity in the workplace is not simply a social aspiration. It’s fast becoming a strategic necessity that underpins innovation, progress and growth. There are a number of social and commercial reasons why employing autistic people is an important and valuable step in an organisation’s journey of inclusion. There are more inclusive ways to recruit, support, empower and retain autistic people in the work place, enabling access to skilled talent from a virtually untapped talent pool of neurodiverse thinkers, that will give your business that competitive edge.
You are not on your own as an employer. There are organisations that specialise in helping and guiding this culturally and strategically important step towards an autism-inclusive workplace as well as accessible resources available to help you take those first steps.
Start thinking today about how this might fit in your business and how you can make a difference, be the difference, and leverage the difference of engaging autistic people in your business.
If you would like to have a conversation or explore your options you can contact Asperger Services Australia (ASA ) on 07 3865 2911 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would love to help you on your journey!
ASA Board Director