Inclusive Workforce

Changing Perspectives of Autism in the Workplace

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There is a wealth of technical talent available in the population of high-functioning autistic individuals, but it often goes untapped for the want of proper accommodations that could make any workplace – with or without people on the autism spectrum – a better place to work.Renowned computer scientist Alan Kay quote, "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points."

Currently in the United States, only 14 percent of those with autism are employed, mainly in a non-professional manner.

I have a nephew and friends with autism or other disabilities who, if given a chance, would make a happy and useful employee if we could just focus on their abilities. We have come far as a society in recognizing that people with disabilities can contribute as much as the rest of us. If we concentrate on what people can do, and it matches what we need, it makes great teams greater, and good managers better.

Understanding Autism

Autism is a spectrum of disorders that affects one in 68 children with differing degrees. To some degree, each child could exhibit:

  • Social and communication problems
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Limited interests or activities
  • Intense concentration or fixation

In spite of, or because of these disabilities, a corresponding ability is revealed, such as:

  • Taking things literally to excel at following instructions
  • Repetitive work does not bore some people, and they love structure; while some can excel at pattern matching
  • Being focused on one subject matter makes some astounding experts in an area
  • Some are able to concentrate on tasks that easily wear down others

These talents often find great use areas such as software development, especially in testing. However, because many on the autism spectrum find it hard to look a person in the eye, control their repetitive or comforting behaviors, or hold a “normal” casual conversation, they often don’t fare well in interviews, are ostracized, or languish in low-paying jobs. Their talent and academic achievement is wasted, and companies miss out on talented individuals.

Changing Perspectives

With targeted recruiting, a change in interviewing skills, and some reasonable workplace accommodations – largely through educating “neurotypical” staff and management to be more precise, careful and literal in their instruction – these differences can be cast aside to the benefit of both the autistic individual in getting a productive and meaningful job, the workforce in morale, and the company in productivity.

When hearing about the accommodations needed, most neurotypicals often comment, “why can’t we just do that anyway? That would make life so much easier!”.

I’m also excited by technological advances in artificial intelligence, such as the IBM AbilityLab Content Clarifier that simplifies, summarizes and augments content to increase comprehension for people with cognitive disabilities.

Organizations are already focusing on efforts to attract talented individuals with differing abilities to help drive innovation, foster a culture of diversity, and transform the business. Combined with new technology, we can help change the perspective and pre-conceived perceptions on the autistic community, while helping everyone be more empathetic and respectful.

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