The specialists: autism in the workforce

Autism made headlines in the worlds of tech and business recently with news of a new pilot scheme put in place by Microsoft to bring more people on the spectrum onto the technology giant's staff.

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Re:locate spoke to Microsoft's partner in the project, social enterprise Specialisterne, about autism in the workforce and the value people on the spectrum can bring to an organisation.Research done by the British National Autistic Society shows that only around 15 per cent of working age adults with autism are in employment, compared to around 35 per cent of the wider disabled population. That's something that recruitment firm Specialisterne believes can be addressed.Tom Brundage, general manager of the agency, describes his firm as a "specialist search agency" working with people on the spectrum. "Fundamentally, we really want to address and alleviate the issue of unemployment amongst people on the autism spectrum," Brundage told Re:locate. "It's a group that has about 85 per cent unemployment despite the fact that a high percentage of those individuals are eminently employable."Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that while everyone on the spectrum shares certain areas of difficulty around communication and relating to the world around them, it manifests in a range of ways. In many cases, however, people on the spectrum are very employable and bring skills to the table that are particularly relevant to certain sectors and roles.Specialisterne's primary focus the IT sector and say that many of their candidates can provide real value to the industry. "They're very good at things that involve pattern recognition, and deviations from a norm or a standard," says Brundage. "They have a very high level of attention to detail with a [low] tolerance for errors. They really thrive on activities that involve a lot of repetition or routine in ways that the broader population would find tedious or mundane. But people on the spectrum often zone into the routine and excel in those areas."Drilling down, Brundage says, "So, in terms of IT roles – things like software testing; software development; the whole burgeoning field of big data, data analytics, business analysis. We feel that's very ripe for people on the autism spectrum because of their skills in those areas. We feel it fits the skills of the candidates we're trying to serve. But at the same time it's an area that we feel is growing. We think there's going to be an increasing need for candidates in that area and we think as well that there's a growing skills shortage in that area. So we think there's a real sweet spot for us."Indeed, IT is one of the STEM fields suffering from a skills gap. A CBI study last year showed that 42 per cent of companies are struggling to recruit candidates in engineering and tech.Specialisterne also focuses on related areas that might be more appropriately labelled as advanced clerical work related to data. Things that, Brundage says "include things like proof reading and document cleansing and even data entry, where the sheer amount of data that's out there and the need to make it accurate and current, there are roles in those kind of related areas that we'll place people into as well."That's not to say that IT is Specialisterne's only focus or, of course, the only field for which people on the spectrum offer value. "We have some candidates who have crossed our radar who have skills in a broad range of areas – musical and art and film. We have one candidate in particular who's just a film encyclopedia, and there's got to be a role for him in research for a film company or publication or the British Film Institute," says Brundage.While many people with autism offer useful skills to employers, however, the statistics show that there are barriers keeping them out of relevant roles. Specialisterne's mission is to get past those barriers, and its example may have applications for other companies.The company started in Denmark and has offices in European and North American locations ranging from Norway to the US and Canada. Each arm of the organisation has the freedom to approach its core mission how it sees fit. In the UK, that means a mix of hiring out candidates - or specialists, as they're referred to at the firm - as contractors with a lower number of placements in permanent roles. Sometimes it's a mix of the two, with candidates starting on a contractor basis and moving on to take a permanent role at the company. This, says Brundage, enables clients to "prove the concept with a lower risk environment then move forward with a direct placement once they feel comfortable with the model."The barriers to hiring people with autism start right at the beginning of the recruitment process. "We do find that the deck is really stacked against people with autism right from the start, because in virtually every single job description it will say that for that job you must have strong communication skills, or strong interpersonal skills, or 'experience of working in a team environment and collaborating', which really puts a harsh spotlight on the areas of greatest weakness for many of the candidates that we're trying to place. When, in fact, for a lot of the roles that we're trying to place them into the job amounts to sitting in front of a computer screen all day long wearing headphones."Also, during the interview process, we think there should be some adjustments made for accommodating people on the spectrum... In the first case, people with autism understand things very literally. They'll say things that are true. They may not be very relevant to the question, the way they phrase their answer may not help their cause, but it's very easy for things they say to be misconstrued by the interviewer if they don't have some awareness of what autism is like and how people on the autism spectrum communicate."On the other end, people doing the interviewing will often talk in business speak, they won't speak clearly. They'll use business metaphors. And so the candidate will misinterpret the question."But, even beyond that, even when there's an understanding of what's being asked and what they're talking about, people on the spectrum sometimes don't know how to put themselves in the place of the person asking the question and they answer accordingly. So they'll just speak from their head outwards, and very often give answers that are way too short but they answer the question and they don't give themselves the chance to show themselves in the brightest light."With that in mind Specialisterne tries, wherever possible, to have a representative in the room when an interview is taking place. That's not to say interviewers can't accommodate the needs of people with autism into their process, however. Brudage said that recruiters absolutely can and should make their processes more accessible."We're trying to tip the perception of people on the autism spectrum on its head, so that people focus on their strengths and not on their disabilities, that they have a workplace environment that accommodates those strengths, to the point where that becomes part of the fabric of that organisation, and then in 20 or 30 years time that will just become a place to have an accommodating work place for people on the spectrum in ways that you don't see today," Brundage says.Similarly, accommodations can be made in the working environment to make it easier for people on the spectrum to fit into their roles. In practical terms, Brundage notes that "We wouldn't want to have (our candidates) in a busy aisleway where there's there's constant traffic going by. We wouldn't want to have them working right under a very bright light. Some of our candidates don't like people going behind them, so we'll try to get them a space maybe off in the corner, maybe in a quiet area. We'll ask that there be a safe place designated that the person can go to if they reach a point where they're feeling tension or stress. One hallmark of people on the spectrum is that when they feel tension or pressure they don't always reveal that verbally... Before the person gets to a point of having a shutdown we just want to make sure there's a safe place where they can go, a quiet room."Specialisterne will also go into workplaces and talk to candidates' managers and colleagues, covering background information and autism in the workplace. "We're really preaching a gospel of empathy for that person that involves active listening and an active observing process on the part of the managers and the colleagues," says Brundage.The approach is paying dividends, too. Following Mircosoft's scheme in the US, Brundage expects that initiative to be picked up in the UK and elsewhere. Other global companies Specialisterne has worked with include HP, CAI, an actuarial consultancy called Towers Watson and SAP. There are also signs that employment for people with autism is creeping up the policy agenda - Specialisterne was also at the heart of a recent high profile event hosted by Ban Ki-moon, theUN Secretary General, while the UK government's recently-revised Think Autism strategy for helping adults with autism. However, there remains lots to be done.From an employer's perspective the autistic population represents a largely untapped workforce with important skills, particularly in a world awash with ever-growing IT and data needs. More importantly, people on the spectrum are a group with much to offer society who are being needlessly kept out of employment.For more information on autism and the workforce, Specialisterne can be found here and the National Autistic Society is here.

Read about social stories for children with autism in Autism Parenting Magazine

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