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How to successfully hire someone with autism

2 Jun 2021 By Nina Parson

Autistic people can bring unique innovation and problem-solving skills to the workplace, as long as businesses enable them to thrive, says Nina Parson

According to a study of future skills by the World Economic Forum, analytical thinking, innovation and problem solving top the list of skills needed for the future. These are all skills exhibited by autistic people, so it’s no surprise that many employers are seeking to boost their neurodiversity credentials in a bid to broaden their talent pool.

However, with just one in five autistic people currently in employment, traditional recruitment processes are still discriminating against those on the autism spectrum, which now equates to one in every 100 people in the UK. So here are three ways to go about successfully hiring and supporting someone with autism:

Understand autism

Key to increasing the representation of autistic people at work is taking a moment to understand what autism means. Is an autistic individual someone with a lifelong disability or a different thinking style? The answer is both. Autism is a spectrum condition that develops in childhood. Individuals range from high functioning, high IQ to non-verbal, or have extra support needs.

Autistic people are often stereotyped to gravitate towards roles in IT or science, where their expertise and intense interest is celebrated and social skills less required, but their way of thinking can bring huge innovation and creativity to any sector. They think differently, see the world differently and can see patterns that others fail to spot. Their thinking is often the key to innovation, but people with autism can also have difficulties with social interaction, sensory overload and linguistic nuances.

Not all autistic people are high performing, but they can still bring real value. They have a great ability to focus and enjoy routine. If engaged on a task they enjoy, they can work very intensely and reliably. Autistic people frequently enjoy structured, process oriented, even repetitive tasks – such as database management, call centre roles, structuring processes and stocktaking, which neurotypical people can struggle with because they can become distracted or bored.

Reconsider recruitment processes

An overemphasis on interpersonal skills during typical recruitment processes, regardless of whether or not they’re needed for the job, can often hinder autistic people. For example, an interviewer might put a lot of focus on social interaction, such as the ability to maintain good eye contact. However, for someone with autism, this can be challenging. They might be able to do it, but it will generally make them feel uncomfortable. Similarly, if given an abstract scenario and asked situational judgement-type questions, they can struggle. So it’s far better to ask them to perform a set task from the role itself.

By adapting recruitment processes so they don’t work against autistic people, or other neurodevelopmental conditions, you can level the playing field. Simple things, such as allowing the person to submit a video of their response to questions, instead of taking part in a panel interview, can go a long way towards making it possible for people whose minds work in different ways to succeed.

Obtain funding for reasonable adjustments

Many autistic people often try to hide their condition at the recruitment stage, for fear of not being hired. They may have been successful academically at school or university but experienced negative consequences from being perceived as different and unsurprisingly do not wish to disclose. Others may manage well in other aspects of their day-to-day lives but encounter problems in the workplace.

This can lead to them ending up under performance measures, when upfront support can prevent this. For example, Access to Work is a government scheme, run by the Department for Work and Pensions, that can be used to fund, or partially fund, any training or technology needed for someone with autism to do the job, or travel to work. 

The grant, currently capped at £62,000 a year per person, is based on a workplace needs assessment, which can also be used to identify any training needed for them or their manager. For example, if someone struggles with nuances of language, their manager can be coached on how to keep language simple and direct, by avoiding sarcasm or exaggeration, which can be taken literally. Alternatively, if an autistic employee struggles with oversensitivity, they can be helped to avoid travelling on public transport in rush hour and given the option to wear headphones to reduce noise. These adjustments might seem strange to others at first, but they can enable someone with autism to become one of your most hard working and effective employees.

Nina Parson is director of psychology at ToHealth

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