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My autistic son AJ’s first job was at a grocery store. We learned interacting with customers was a challenge, so it wasn’t a great fit for him. He then tried his hand at caddying, but the level of attention and stamina needed proved difficult. He also tried warehouse jobs but the environment proved to be overwhelming for him with loud noises and the hectic pace.
At every corner of the job hunt, AJ also ran into issues of misconceptions and stereotypes, often leading to biases, communication barriers in the workplace like deciphering social cues, rigid workplace structures that left little room for accommodation and flexibility, and face-to-face interviews over task-based assignments, reflecting traditional hiring protocols rather than a more inclusive approach.
But we kept hope, and soon after, AJ landed a job at a hospital with a program tailored for young adults with autism. They assessed his strengths, and we learned a lot about his skills, which turned out to be basic computer tasks and data entry, and not manual labor and interacting with patients.
Throughout this journey, and through my son’s eyes, I’ve gained an intimate understanding of the challenges and triumphs that come with living with a developmental disability — in search of fulfilling and dignified employment. But my story as a parent, and AJ’s story as an autistic job seeker, are not unique.
Related: What Is the Economic Impact of Hiring Autistic, Neurodivergent and Disabled Talent? Here’s What You Should Know.
The benefits of hiring neurodiverse talent
Because of outdated stigmas and beliefs, only one in five people with disabilities, including those with autism, are employed, despite many having the skillset and desire to work. Hiring neurodiverse people benefits them, the companies they work for and the overall economy.
A study by Accenture, American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reported that companies that actively seek to employ people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. Their revenues, net income and profit margins were all higher. At the national level, their analyses revealed that U.S. GDP could get a boost of up to US $25 billion if more people with disabilities joined the labor force.
If you look closer at the data, fostering an inclusive, neurodiverse workforce can also decrease support costs, lower employee turnover and increase customer satisfaction. The Department of Labor, for instance, found that employers who embraced disability saw a 90% increase in employee retention.
More broadly, benefits can include increased creativity and innovation in the workplace, financial independence, which grows consumer spending, a breakdown of stereotypes, and reduced social stigma and discrimination. In other words, inclusion is not only the smart thing to do but the right thing to do.
At Autism Speaks, our autistic employees thrive across various departments, including marketing, communications, services & supports and science. Their unique insights have enriched our company culture, promoting collaboration and empathy. Additionally, we’ve gained insight into the challenges the autism community faces in employment, from hiring obstacles to retention issues.
Related: How Leaders Can Support and Embrace The Untapped Potential of Neurodiverse Talent
How to build a more inclusive workforce
What have we learned along the way? Here are three key lessons we encourage companies to adopt to build a more inclusive workforce:
1. Shake up the recruitment process: Autism affects communication, making traditional hiring practices challenging for neurodivergent individuals. From job searches, résumé crafting and interview scheduling to challenges with organization and time management, these steps can be overwhelming. Given their unique expression, neurodivergent candidates often find these norms stressful compared to their neurotypical counterparts. By recognizing these barriers, employers can implement alternative interviews and allow autistic candidates to showcase their work instead of verbally describing it.
2. Leverage training and embrace diversity: Beyond recruitment, a supportive environment for autistic individuals requires employers taking the lead on integrating inclusive training programs. Whether online or in-person, training — like our Autism Speaks Workplace Inclusion Now program — can guide employers on how best to make the recruitment process more accessible, encourage inclusion and diversity, foster acceptance and empower autistic employees. Training on self-advocacy and navigating challenges at work can also empower autistic staff. Given that many autistic adults belong to multiple marginalized groups, these trainings are crucial for workplace inclusion and well-being.
3. Adopt flexible work environments: Offering flexible work hours, personalized workspace adjustments, and when feasible, remote work options can make a significant difference in the comfort and productivity of neurodiverse employees.
Flexible work hours allow autistic employees to work during times when they feel most productive, accommodating for differences in sleep patterns, peak cognitive periods or the need to avoid crowded commutes that might be stressful. Remote work options enable those who thrive in a familiar, controlled environment to do so, reducing anxiety that can come with office settings and allowing for a customized sensory workspace.
Personalized adjustments, such as customizable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones or specific software that assists with organization, empower autistic employees to perform at their best by minimizing potential stressors. Collectively, these adjustments not only enhance comfort and productivity but also send a strong message of acceptance and respect for neurodiversity in the workplace.
Related: 5 Steps to Building a Supportive and Inclusive Workplace for Neurodiverse Employees
Today, my son AJ works virtually at Ventures ATL, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide opportunities for meaningful and sustainable employment to qualified adults with autism or other developmental differences. He finds pride and purpose in his role, even without the typical office environment.
Securing this job has allowed AJ to move into his own place earlier this year. The pride and relief of witnessing his step into independence were tinged with a parent’s unique anxiety. Yet, as we parted, AJ’s confident gaze spoke volumes about his readiness for what lies ahead. His personal and professional journey symbolizes the potential within the neurodiverse community, urging us to champion understanding and inclusion and to redefine how we nurture talent in our workplaces.