Employees on the autism spectrum: guidance for employers

December 16, 2012 - by: Diversity Insight 0 COMMENTS

by Tammy Binford

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) – a group of developmental disabilities that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges – affect one in 88 children and one in 54 boys, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That makes autism the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States, according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

The National Longitudinal Transition Study, a project of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston revealed striking statistics about those affected by autism:

  • Although 67 percent of youth with autism who were part of a study on employment reported working at some point after high school, 42 percent earned less than the federal minimum wage, and most of the youth in the study reported that the majority of their coworkers were also people with disabilities.
  • Just 29 percent of the youth employed received paid vacation or sick leave, just 11 percent received health insurance, and only 10 percent earned retirement benefits.

With the number of people with autism growing, the need for employment that offers good pay and benefits moves to the forefront. The education system has led the way in exploring how to prepare children on the autism spectrum for adulthood, but clearly the challenges don’t stop with high school graduation. In fact, the most difficult challenge may come when those with autism set out to enter the workforce.

Going into the world of work

Autism Speaks recently sponsored a think-tank session in which various stakeholders including individuals with autism, educators, and employers came together to explore how adults with an ASD can contribute in the workplace and how employers can benefit from hiring individuals with autism. A report on the session outlined a number of observations, including that:

  • Hiring people with autism can pay off in the form of “excellent, dependable, and long-term employees.” The report said employees with autism are found to “follow company rules, arrive on time, and have low rates of absenteeism.”
  • Job coaches are beneficial, business leaders noted, but they can be “burdensome and inflexible.” Business leaders wanted to look for ways to retain employees with autism by using natural supports and internal mentors after phasing out an external job coach. “Employment models that rely on 1:1 or 2:1 job coach-to-employee ratios can be costly, impossible to sustain, and ultimately detrimental to the person with autism,” the report said. “People with autism should receive direct instruction on how to manage and monitor their own behavior in order to avoid relying too heavily on job coaches in the long term.”
  • Training is important not just for the employee with autism but also for his or her coworkers and managers.

Suggested employer practices

The think tank report also highlighted employer practices that can help bring employees with autism into the workplace. Suggestions include:

  • Not confining the job interview to one office but instead using the whole building as the interview location. That way the applicant can preview the work environment and get a realistic idea of what the job will be like. Also, it may be helpful to skip a formal interview and instead use trial work days.
  • Interviewing applicants with an eye toward trainability instead of looking for specific skills.
  • Steering clear of sarcasm and humor during the interview because individuals with autism may interpret words literally.
  • Being careful to make expectations clear during an interview and in a written job description.
  • Training the employee in the location where the job will be performed and breaking down tasks into their component parts as a training method.
  • Avoiding lowered expectations or patronization and being direct and specific about the skills the job requires.

Employer incentives

In addition to noting that employees with autism often make reliable employees, business leaders at the think-tank sessions said other strengths include “intense attention to detail and a need for perfection.” Also, one employer said that the turnover rate of his employees with autism is one third that of workers without disabilities.

Another benefit noted is that supports put in place for employees with autism benefit other employees, too. “Visual reminders, simplified job descriptions, and ‘traveling’ interviews – where job candidates observe employees performing the job for which they are being considered – are useful for all company employees,” the report noted. “Productivity can be increased for all employees with these universal accommodations.”

Employers also need to be aware of proposed changes to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that, if approved, would require employers awarded federal and state contracts to work toward maintaining a workforce in which at least seven percent of their employees have self-disclosed disabilities. “Noncompliant employers would run the risk of losing federal funds or incurring other penalties,” the report noted. “These changes, if adopted, would help create an added incentive for employers to recruit and retain employees with autism.”

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