While one in 68 children in America ranks somewhere on the autism spectrum (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), only 53 percent of autistic young adults are gainfully employed. Washington, D.C.-based mom Patti Pacelli was concerned about her autistic son Trevor’s career prospects. Through the course of her research for her book “Six Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces,” she found that in some companies autism is seen as an asset, not a liability.
Software giant, SAP, for example, recognizes the benefits autistic employees bring to their business. The attention to detail, ability to spot imperfections and follow precise guidelines that are common in autistic individuals are rare and valuable assets, especially in the field of software testing. The company even put together a plan to have one percent of its workforce as autistic by the year 2020. Pacelli says autistic individuals are incredibly loyal employees and are often extremely passionate about their job. Since they take comfort in routine and are conscious of time deadlines and rules, they can be some of the most productive and reliable workers, especially in jobs that involve repetitive or detail-oriented work.
With more and more companies, especially those in the technology sector, recognizing the advantages autistic individuals can bring to their organization and hiring them, creating a work environment that is autism-friendly will be key to take advantage of the extraordinary strengths and talents autistic employees can provide.
Provide clear, written instructions. One of the most appreciated attributes of individuals with autism is their ability to take direction, but Pacelli warns instructions should be clear, without use of sarcastic language or metaphors. Instead of saying “Don’t be late,” for example, saying “Be at your desk ready to start working at 9” is a better way to deliver instructions to an individual with autism. Instructions given in writing is ideal, so they have something they can refer back to. Running by their desk and delivering a rapid message is more likely to result in misunderstanding and frustration for both parties.
Provide opportunities for written, rather than spoken words. Autistic individuals will often respond better when asked to write down a thought rather than speak. In an interview, for example, being asked to showcase skills on a written test rather than verbally describe their qualifications is ideal.
Provide structure. Autistic employees thrive on routine and structure. “They really like to know what to expect so they can plan out their day,” says Pacelli. Avoiding interruptions and changes in routine is ideal. Interruptions to routine, such as an impromptu meeting in the staff room to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday, being told to stay late 30 minutes before their shift is about to end, or having a meeting postponed at the last minute can be upsetting to an autistic employee. Giving them a heads up if there’s potential for a schedule change can help them to adjust.
Autism-friendly facilities. Autistic individuals have heightened senses, making sitting next to a break room or near a busy hallway extremely distracting. “Hearing people’s conversations in the background, while it might not seem loud to someone else, seems really loud [to someone with autism] and cuts into their thinking so they can’t focus on what they’re doing,” says Pacelli. Harsh florescent lighting can also be distracting. Providing quiet workstations and options for dimmer lighting or an escape room where they can get away for short breaks when they require quiet time are some of the accommodations employers can make to help autistic employees thrive.
By Lisa Evans