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More companies hiring employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder

January 16, 2017

By Heather Nezich, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Earlier this week Anthem announced its partnership with Mind Shift, a company that helps businesses employ the strengths of people on the autism spectrum.  They plan to recruit and hire autistic individuals for jobs in health care analytics.  For adults on the spectrum, finding quality employment is very difficult.  More and more companies are creating programs to provide satisfying employment to this growing population.

An estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. have some form of autism.  In total, the combined under and unemployment of young adults with autism is estimated to be 90%.  But people on the spectrum possess skills and traits in high demand.  According to the Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders typically possess strong visual perception skills and the ability to remain highly focused in certain situations.  They often are highly intelligent, pay careful attention to detail, have the ability to find patterns and anomalies in data, and are able to focus and perform high-quality repetitive tasks.

As companies try to diversify their staff and be more inclusive, a growing number are now identifying positions that people on the spectrum will excel at.  Importantly, they are also creating special interview systems and onboarding programs for these employees.  

Both low and high functioning people on the spectrum tend to have poor short-term working memory but often have a better long-term memory than most people.  Therefore jobs like cashier, waitress, receptionist, etc. don’t serve them well.  Cashiers have to make quick change, waitresses have to keep track of several tables at a time, and receptionists often deal with a busy switchboard.  

The spectrum varies widely, but in general below is a list of jobs often suitable for those on the spectrum:

Good Jobs for Visual Thinkers

  • Computer programming
  • Drafting
  • Photography
  • Automobile mechanic
  • Small appliance repair
  • Laboratory technician
  • Web page design
  • Building trades
  • Computer animation

Good Jobs for Non-Visual Thinkers (those good at math, music, or facts)

  • Accounting
  • Computer programming
  • Engineering
  • Telemarketing
  • Statistician
  • Clerk and filing jobs
  • Copy editor
  • Library science
  • Bank teller

Good Jobs for Non-Verbal People with Autism or People with Poor Verbal Skills

  • Re-shelving library books
  • Factory assembly work
  • Copy shop
  • Janitor jobs
  • Restocking shelves
  • Warehouse
  • Lawn and garden work
  • Data entry

Some well-known employers that have created autism employment programs include Freddie Mac, Microsoft, SAP, Willis Towers Watson, and Walgreens.

Freddie Mac
In 2011 Freddie Mac began hiring recent college graduates with autism as paid interns.  They come from fields such as computer science, math, or finance.  Aaron Cohen, the firm’s first full-time hire to come from the program stated, “It’s a good fit for me.  I like number crunching; that’s always something I’ve liked doing.”  Cohen is a data analyst for Freddie Mac and has Asperger’s syndrome.  Freddie Mac partnered with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to create their program.

 In 2015 Microsoft partnered with Specialisterne and PROVAIL to hire people with autism for ten full-time positions.  They’ve now hired 11 new full-time employees and have extended the program to the UK.  Because people with autism struggle with communication, they created a unique interview system.  Instead of the typical “sink or swim” interview, they offer an interview process that includes a workshop, which allows candidates to demonstrate their skills.

 German software company SAP also partnered with Specialisterne to help people with autism find employment.  In 2012 they launched their Autism at Work Inititiative in India.  They hired six people with autism as software testers.  The program has now expanded to Ireland and the U.S.  The SAP program forgoes the traditional interview process as well and instead uses a month long screening and workshop focused on soft skills such as teamwork, communication and workplace etiquette.  Once hired a mentor makes sure employees in the program have a successful transition.  In addition, SAP offers autism awareness to all its employees.

Willers Towers Watson
 The Willers Towers Watson program began in 2014 when they hired autistic individuals to review compensation survey submissions.  “They performed really well, and they opened our eyes that we should consider them for jobs in HR, technology and benefits administration,” said Tim Weiler, a Willis Towers Watson consultant.  “They’re diligent and capable of a period of prolonged focus.  If you can alter your sourcing strategy by not unconsciously screening them out when you interview them, you can solve management issues.”

 Walgreens employees a high number of autistic individuals and those with other disabilities in its Anderson, South Carolina distribution center. The Anderson facility turned out to be the company’s most productive center, so the company had now expanded the program to additional facilities.  They have built a mock store as part of a workplace training program for individuals with autism spectrum disorder or other disabilities.  They plan to continue expanding their program.

Most companies that have initiated pilot programs have partnered with organizations that specialize in finding work for those with autism.  They can help you identify any accommodations these employees may need during the interview process and beyond.  People on the spectrum have much to offer organizations, and if management is willing to think outside the box and truly practice inclusiveness, it could help this underserved labor market find meaningful work.

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