Every April, here at Templeton, we celebrate World Autism Month, dedicating the whole month to increasing awareness and acceptance of people with autism in the tech industry – and in every workplace.
Although autism spectrum disorder affects an estimated 1% of the world’s population, autistic people still face the highest rates of unemployment of all disabled groups. Just 21.7% of people with autism are in employment – a figure showing that those individuals are systemically denied the right to work. At the same time, society misses out on the opportunity to benefit from the strengths that people with ASD can bring to the workplace.
People with autism often have desirable qualities for employers, including high intelligence, careful attention to detail, intense commitment to high-quality work and out-of-the-box thinking. During World Autism Month – and all year round – we’re raising awareness of the great benefits that neurodiverse and autistic individuals could bring to the tech industry.
What Is Autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. Autism has many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Autism is a spectrum. This means that each person with this disorder has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Like everyone, individuals on the autism spectrum have things they're good at, as well as things they struggle with. How people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from severely challenged to highly skilled. In fact, some autistic people have an average or above-average level of intelligence, meaning that they’re more than capable of making friends, having relationships, or even getting a job – they just might need extra help with these things.
Addressing the concept that humans are not neurologically “one size fits all”, neurodiversity is a movement that wants to change the way we think about autism. The movement focuses on celebrating neurological diversity and championing the different worldviews and skills that autistic and other neurodiverse people have. By embracing neurodiversity, businesses can create more equal and representative workplaces, in turn closing the disability employment gap.
Neurodiverse Workers: An Untapped Talent Pool
While technology is transforming the way we work at an ever-increasing pace, there’s one seemingly intractable problem holding it back: the tech talent crisis.
- According to recent studies, the tech talent shortage is at the highest level since 2008.
- 65% of businesses are reporting that hiring challenges are hurting the tech industry.
- Skills in data analytics, cyber security, artificial intelligence and transformation are particularly scarce;
- Left without action, it is expected a global shortage of 3 million tech workers by 2030.
On the other extreme, neurodivergent people are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, underpaid and poorly supported. What’s more, many autistic workers are feeling unable to disclose that in their workplaces.
- About 1 in 7 people have a neurodivergent condition (more than 15% of the global population) – a broad term that refers to people who have autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
- Approximately 85% of neurodivergent people are unemployed or are doing menial jobs far below their skill and testing level.
- Just 32% of autistic adults in the UK are in paid work, and only 16% have a full-time paid job.
- 77% of unemployed autistic adults have stated that they want to work.
Although the tech talent shortage is a burgeoning problem, there’s a large group of individuals that have the skills to fill the tech talent gap, largely overlooked by the industry to date: the neurodiverse population – specifically those with autism – remains an untapped talent pool.
Tech Industry: Where Neurodiverse & Autistic People Can Thrive
Securing satisfying employment is difficult for anyone, but for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental conditions, it’s more of a challenge. However, the tech sector can both benefit and benefit from neurodiverse talent for the following main reasons:
Tech Embraces (Neuro)Diversity
Despite common stereotypes, tech is one of the most forward-thinking and inclusive industries. According to Thomson Reuters’ 2018 Diversity and Inclusion Index Ranks, four of the top ten most inclusive publicly-traded companies are technology-focused. These figures suggest that the tech sector can be a good place for autistic and neurodivergent people to seek employment.
Innovation Requires Uncommon Ways of Thinking
People on the autism spectrum may approach challenges differently than others. In teams that work to solve highly complex problems, for instance, many autistic employees contribute their expertise in pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. If everyone had similar problem-solving techniques, companies would find it difficult to develop products and services that cater to an increasingly diverse public.
Hence, these new perspectives that neurodiverse and autistic workers bring can be beneficial for technology companies, which are constantly trying to promote innovation. That’s also one of the reasons why companies are taking steps to prioritise neurodiversity in the workplace – despite being beneficial for company culture; it can also lead to developing more innovative solutions.
Neurodiversity Comes with Desirable Skill Sets
Autistic people could have a variety of exceptional skills that enable them to thrive in IT roles, ranging from Computer Programmers and Data Analysts to AI Engineers – just to name a few. Many are capable of working long hours on repetitive cloud security tasks without losing interest. Others have a high capacity for logical reasoning and pattern recognition, enabling them to systematically develop and test AI models.
Here are some of the areas where autistic candidates often demonstrate above-average skills:
- Sustained attention and concentration
- Reliability, conscientiousness and persistence
- Enhanced logical and analytical abilities
- An affinity for attending to detail, spotting errors and enhancing accuracy
- Detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
Moreover, autistic employees usually exhibit a higher level of work ethic and quality than neurotypical employees. Workers with ASD also have the same productivity levels as their co-workers and bring a variety of skills that make a positive impact on the workplace.
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The Benefits of Neurodiversity – in Tech and Beyond
Many organisations understand that Diversity and Inclusion are crucial for their success. However, their main focus remains on the diversity of identities (such as gender, race and cultural background). Neurodiversity, though, is equally important to understand, value and support within the workplace.
People that are neurodivergent have talents, perspectives and skills that can be beneficial in many work environments. Hence, hiring neurodiverse employees can provide companies with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits, both financially and in terms of workplace culture. Some of the benefits of embracing neurodiversity in your workplace include:
Gaining a Competitive Advantage in the Market
While neurodivergent people often struggle with social interaction, communication and some cognitive functioning, they are also predisposed to display high levels of concentration and subject expertise due to their special interests. Neurodiverse individuals also hold detailed factual knowledge or technical skill and excel at repetitive tasks. In other words, they possess the skills particularly needed right now in the tech sector, as digital transformation is forcing companies to adopt more advanced technology to meet customer demands quicker.
Tackling Skills Gap and Labour Shortages
Tech is facing a massive talent shortage across the board. The latest reports suggest that data analysis is the sector’s fastest-growing skills cluster and is set to expand by 33% in the next five years. In the meantime, the UK tech industry is facing its biggest shortages in cybersecurity, big data, and data analysis and architecture.
The neurodivergent population could solve the industry’s biggest challenge: bridging the tech skills gap. This underrepresented pool of candidates has a huge amount of skill and talent to bring to the table. Despite this, the unemployment rate of people with autism is shockingly the highest across all disability groups.
Bringing Innovation into the Game
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways people's brains work and interpret information. By literally thinking differently, neurodivergent employees offer novel perspectives that can enhance innovation – from finding solutions to complex tasks and issues to developing innovative plans and products.
Industry leaders quickly realise that neurodiverse teams can prove to be an incredible asset, driving business value in places that strive for excellence and innovation. SAP reports examples of neurodivergent employees participating on teams that generated significant innovations, including someone who helped develop a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings. Meanwhile, a pilot programme at EY compared the work generated by neurodiverse and neurotypical account support professionals. Quality, efficiency and productivity were comparable, but the neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation.
Fostering a Culture of Inclusion
Hiring neurodivergent people has a positive effect on the entire workforce by fostering a culture of inclusion. Neurodiversity in teams (i.e. the collaborative effect of working with different cognitive styles) can also have an astonishing effect on a work culture: communication becomes clearer and more efficient, team spirit gains new momentum, and employees feel valued for their unique and individual selves. Accommodating individual needs is a wonderful thing that everyone can benefit from by encouraging both innovation and empathy within the organisation.
Interesting in recruiting top tech talent? Find out What Do Candidates Want from Employers in 2022
How to Recruit and Retain Autistic Talent
Hiring more diversely – particularly autistic workers – can be as simple as implementing a reflexive interview process, building work environments that are welcoming and safe for all and shaping cultures that embrace and celebrate our differences. Here are some practical ways to create a more neurodiverse and inclusive workplace:
Prepare the Ground
The best way to build a programme that attracts and retains qualified autistic candidates is to recognise the advantages of having autistic employees in the first place. Understanding the meaning and value of neurodiversity in your organisation prior to implementing an effective neurodiversity programme is crucial. It will allow you to make - recruitment, onboarding and training more accessible and relevant for autistic individuals. Moreover, it will give managers the time and resources to educate themselves on how to effectively manage a diverse atmosphere and get the best out of it.
Educate your Current Workforce
Unfortunately, bias and stigma around neurodiversity still exist, with research showing that more than half of autistic employees felt excluded in their workplace because of the way other employees behave when they are around. Better education and understanding of our cognitive differences will eliminate some of the misconceptions about people with autism. Also, will allow their colleagues and managers to provide them with the types of support they need.
By educating your neurotypical workforce on neurodiversity, you can create a culture of inclusivity – critical to ensuring your autistic employees feel welcomed, supported and valued members of the team.
Adjust your Recruitment Practices
Autism spectrum disorder affects people in different ways. However, there are common characteristics associated with autism, including difficulty with social interaction and sensory sensitivities. This doesn’t mean that people with ASD lack the intelligence, skills and technical expertise to thrive in the IT industry. It means that many on the spectrum may lack the communication abilities to successfully get through the screening and interview process.
To avoid missing out on amazing talent within the autistic spectrum due to obsolete recruitment processes, there are many minor adjustments your organisations can make to encourage them to apply for jobs and enable them to demonstrate their skills:
- Job descriptions: Avoid including skills that are not essential for the job, such as excellent communication skills or good team player. Many autistic people will not apply for jobs demanding these attributes, even if they have strong skills that are directly relevant to the tasks involved.
- Application forms: Provide clear guidance on the application form and make sure that it includes a space for applicants to highlight any support or adjustments people on the autism spectrum may need at an interview.
- Job adverts: They should list essential skills and avoid jargon or unnecessary information. The advert should be clearly presented, avoiding complex design and language.
- Interviews: You could adapt the interview process for autistic candidates by providing interview questions in advance, as well as clear and concise written and visual information about the process. Avoiding general, hypothetical or abstract questions and providing adequate breaks during long interviews are also some good practices to follow. Additionally, a work trial or a period of work experience could be a better alternative for assessing an autistic person’s skills than a formal interview.
Many of these adjustments may also benefit other candidates and enhance overall efficiency in recruitment.
Create a Suitable Working Environment
Creating the right working environment for autistic employees in tech is crucial for unlocking their full potential. Accommodations such as placing people with ASD in a quiet area with minimal background noise and distractions can help them feel less anxious and uncomfortable. Noise-cancelling headphones, a consistent working schedule, defined job responsibilities and behavioural support are also some adjustments you can make to assist employees with autism.
In addition, providing written or verbal feedback and more visual support in the workplace, such as using pictures or symbols to communicate instructions, could benefit all employers – not just the ones on the autism spectrum.
Learn from the Pioneers in the Field
A number of companies in the tech industry are reacting to the need to hire candidates with an autism spectrum disorder. By implementing programmes to recruit autistic people and providing them with the necessary support during their employment, major companies – such as Microsoft, SAP and Dell – saw a positive business impact.
By learning how top tech companies have shifted their hiring processes, you might discover innovative recruitment practices you could also implement in your workplace and gain valuable insights on how to get started on neurodiverse hiring.
How Major Tech Companies Embraced Autism
A growing number of prominent companies is making exploratory efforts to be more inclusive for neurodiverse workers, while others have already reformed their HR processes in order to access autistic talent – among them are SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce, Dell and Auticon.
Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Programme
In 2015, Microsoft launched The Autism Hiring Programme in partnership with Provail and Specialisterne, two firms that provide training and support to people with an autism spectrum disorder. The programme aims to increase the percentage of neurodiverse employees at the company and was built on the belief that “traditional recruiting does not allow people with autism to demonstrate their strengths, qualifications and unique talents", according to Microsoft’s website.
The programme has an inclusive hiring approach that enables the company to attract top talent within the autism spectrum: applicants are engaged in an extended recruitment process (interview academy) that focuses on workability, team projects and skill assessment. Moreover, Microsoft is also hosting regular Autism Hiring events.
SAP’s Autism at Work Programme
SAP launched its Autism at Work programme in 2013, with the goal to have 1% of its total workforce (roughly 650 people) fall on the autism spectrum by 2020. SAP’s recruitment process also waives traditional interview practices for a month-long screening and workshops, which include building robots from LEGOs based on detailed instructions.
The programme focuses on soft skills, teamwork and communication and the candidate can choose what form the interview takes, whether it’s a walk around the facilities, a group or a one-on-one interview. After the hiring process, employees are mentored further to ensure a successful transaction. In addition, SAP has introduced autism awareness to its entire company and has taken part in Autism at Work summits, along with other technology organisations.
Interesting Fact: Despite being a competitor to Microsoft, when the latter was setting up its own autism hiring programme, SAP happily shared experience and insights!
Salesforce’s Assessment Programme
Salesforce is also one of the multiple tech companies that have partnered with Specialisterne for its Autism@Work initiative, which helps companies examine recruitment and training strategies that promote neurodiversity.
Salesforce’s four-week assessment programme launched in 2019, providing candidates with a unique opportunity to get accustomed to a new environment over time and determine if they felt comfortable with the work environment they might be asked to join. According to the company’s website, “each week was designed to not only teach each candidate the specific skills to thrive in various work situations but to also assess the long-term success for each candidate. Following the assessment and graduation, Salesforce offered positions to six candidates, all of whom accepted”.
Dell’s Autism Hiring Programme
Dell also stands among other tech companies that are creating initiatives to court job seekers on the autism spectrum and make sure their workplaces are more inclusive. The American tech company developed its Autism Hiring Programme in collaboration with the Neurodiversity in the Workplace organisation, aiming to onboard candidates with autism through an altered recruitment process. The programme identifies and invites eligible candidates for a two-week skills assessment, which is designed to help each candidate demonstrate their skills through various projects and manager interactions.
Auticon’s Unique Hiring Strategy
Auticon is another international tech company striving to improve the employment rates of those with autism by employing only IT consultants within the spectrum. Currently, it has more than 200 autistic employees with high-quality careers.
Building a Diverse Tech Workforce Starts at Templeton
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Find out how to attract more diverse candidates – Check out our Recruitment Diversity Report: Hiring Diverse Talent in 2022