As people on the autism spectrum move into adulthood, who will hire them?

By and Andrew Williams | 6 minute read | March 26, 2019

The last decade saw major strides toward creating a more diverse workforce (and for good reason), but one group has been largely overlooked—until now.

Ingrid Weiss wanted a job.

The college-educated 23-year-old knew that work was the next step in her path to adulthood, but she faced barriers. As someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), interviews—the gateway to almost any position—are particularly challenging.

“I spent over half a year just saying, ‘Oh, oh, oh yeah. Another failed interview. What a surprise,’” Weiss recalls.

For people with ASD, the interview process can be fraught, as communication is often a struggle. Stress levels increase, eye contact is hard—in fact, nearly every interview “best practice” is difficult. In 2015, Wendy Mitchell of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, conducted a study to see just how much these interview challenges affected people with ASD. She found that just 30 percent of the study group with ASD were offered a second interview, compared to 75 percent of people without the disorder.

All told, about one percent of the population across Asia, North America and Europe has ASD (a number that has steadily increased since the CDC began keeping track of diagnoses in 2000). Many of these individuals are part of the workforce. Yet, for college-educated people with ASD, like Weiss, underemployment and unemployment rate hovers between 75 and 85 percent. This is quite a difference compared to the national unemployment rate of roughly four percent.

“This number is staggering, and it’s not necessarily because the candidates don’t have the skills,” says Amanda Dennis, manager of IBM’s pilot program with IBM IGNITE (the company’s application quality and testing services division) that employs people with ASD. “It’s really due to the fast-paced world that we live in and our inability to provide the right accommodations for individuals who may need to look at entering the workforce in a different way.”

As the number of ASD diagnoses grows and more of these individuals move into adulthood, businesses must embrace people living with ASD not only as productive members of the working world, but also as essential ones.

A New Approach to Diversity

Race, ethnicity, physical ability, religion, gender and sexual orientation are all important components of diversity—and in recent years many strides have been made to diversify the workplace in these areas. But Dennis says there’s still more to be done: widely overlooked is our cognitive diversity.

According to research, cognitive diversity could be just as important in the workplace as the other diverse characteristics that hiring managers and C-suite executives spend so much time considering. In fact, one study found that factors like race, gender and age matter less to positive outcomes in enhanced problem solving than does cognitive diversity.

“Neurodiversity is often overlooked because it is not readily apparent, and when it is, it is misunderstood,” says Paul Austin, IBM’s North America ASD program lead. “We suspect that people who do not look us in the eye or who do not know the social norms of an organization aren’t going to be good hires. But if we can look past these things to get to the skills of a person while helping them develop new skills to cope with social situations, we can reap great talent.”

IBM’s program to hire and support neurodiverse people—which is defined as individuals with different disorders such as autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), hyperlexia and dyslexia—includes job types like testing services (like at IBM IGNITE), development projects, cybersecurity or database work. All of these divisions are closely aligned with the unique skills of neurodiverse people.

“We started out with testing because neurodiverse people have attention to detail,” says Shalini Pahwa, senior delivery manager at IBM. “They are very focused. They can recognize the patterns very clearly and they are very good at repetitive tasks. In testing, that’s what is needed.”

Pahwa, whose son is neurodiverse, adds that neurodiverse people also bring many soft skills that are important in any work environment.

“My team is amazing,” adds Dennis, who currently manages a team of six neurodiverse employees. “I have a group of individuals who are so trustworthy, so refreshingly honest and so dedicated to their work.”

Embracing Neurodiversity at Work

The benefits of neurodiversity are clear, but integrating neurodiverse people into work systems is an important piece to its success. This, of course, starts with the interview.

“Having interviews that are over the phone or maybe in person can be really stressful for anyone,” says Dennis. “But imagine being in the shoes of an individual with ASD, where your anxiety can really take over.”

Dennis explains IBM’s altered, two-step approach to interviewing neurodiverse candidates. It starts with a visit to the office to get a feel for the corporate environment, following by an opportunity to practice interviewing. Managers also talk with candidates about their anxieties related to entering the workforce.

“I remember Ingrid Weiss sharing with me that she was worried about joining the corporate world because she wasn’t sure what she was going to wear. Were the clothes going to be uncomfortable? Where was she going to sit? Were the lights going to be too distracting? With so many people walking around talking, was she going to be able to focus on the work?” says Dennis.

Once IBM hires the candidates, Dennis and her team onboard the neurodiverse hires differently to help quell anxieties. Austin adds that providing a set of headphones to reduce noise or specifying clear and precise instructions for the person to follow can work wonders when onboarding a neurodiverse person. There’s also some helpful technology tools: Dr. Will Scott’s “content clarifier” can help reduce complex instructions to simpler ones; Jennifer Skeivik’s project Pino helps both children and adults learn more about social norms and interactions; intelligent monitors that adjust light to the proper frequencies can reduce stress or environmental strain.

Beyond the tech tools, IBM integrates ASD employees with their colleagues through continued meetings, lunches and other activities to help with common social anxieties that arise. And for Weiss’s part (she was hired in 2018), this team environment is a highlight of the job.

“There’s definitely a lot of conversation that goes on within the team I’m part of,” says Weiss. “There’s always a great sense of humor going around the office that gets us through the really rough parts of the project, and I really like contributing to that atmosphere.”

Weiss and her teammates have gained more than a job through IBM’s program too: things like financial independence and the ability to be more autonomous are two major ones.

“It’s amazing to have that sense of purpose,” Weiss says. “I’m doing something. I’m contributing something to the world.”

Austin believes that with more awareness to the skillsets of neurodiverse people, companies can tap into a talent source that is often overlooked. By embracing the difference and diversity that neurodiverse people have to offer, not only will a rising generation of workers like Weiss gain the ability to move into adulthood with confidence, organizations can meaningfully fill the growing skills gap, increase productivity and enhance company culture.

Watch IBM’s mini-documentary, When Neurodiversity Works, for more about the ASD pilot in Lansing, Michigan.

Visit IBM IGNITE to learn more about application quality and testing services.