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How to Hire an Employee With Autism

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Less than a third of all autistic adults are employed, either full-time or part-time.

Less than a third.

That means out of 3.5 million people with autism, only about 1 million of those people are employed. Most of them aren’t making enough money to live on their own. And it doesn’t look very good for the young autistic workforce.

That doesn’t make any sense. There’s literally science that says we can work and we love it!

So why won’t more people hire us?

The Office Environment

The workplace is a beehive. Busy, busy, busy, all around you people are walking to and from the copier, shuffling papers, keyboards clicking. The bright florescent lights beam into your eyes paired with the gentle hum of everyone trying to talk low into the phone. Small talk is the only talk at the office. Cheeky smiles, ignored requests, unanswered e-mails and phone calls are just a few of the subtle, passive-aggressive ways people at the office get under each other’s skin.

People with autism often don’t do well in these types of environments. Too loud, too bright, too mean. I myself work in this type of environment. I love my job, but I wear sunglasses and headphones on a daily basis. They were willing to accommodate my brightness sensitivity with light cover and a doctor’s note, but too many people complained that the light cover was too dark. If I answer a question too sharply, or respond too honestly, I get on people’s s**t list. They watch me like a hawk for about a week, and then they forget.

It sucks. I’d rather work from home.

Most employers don’t know how to treat someone with autism. Even less actually employ them. People fear what they don’t understand. We are how we are, and that’s not going to change. If we can’t change, that means employers have to.

It’s not acceptable that so many of us aren’t working when we have marketable skills and the only things standing in our way is HR’s interpretation of us. So based on my experience, here’s how to hire someone with autism:

How to Interview an Autistic Person

Don’t focus on eye contact, demeanor, tone of voice, none of that. Can the person you’re talking to do the job you want them to? Don’t worry about whether or not the person fits in with your team. If your team lacks people with autism, you’re not getting a full perspective. Maintain an open mind, and have patience with any questions, stuttering, long winded answers, fidgeting, etc. People with autism often have a knack for rote memorization, and make excellent resources in the workplace once we know the ropes.

Interview us like any other candidate, just be aware of our atypical movements and verbal communication skills. Just because we’re having a hard time talking to you, it doesn’t mean we can’t do the job.

How to Provide Reasonable Accommodations

Reasonable accommodation means certain things in the workplace environment can be adjusted to make the person with autism more physically comfortable. The less stimulating the environment is, the less likely we are to become overly stimulated and need breaks, and the more likely we are to make you tons of money.

Reasonable accommodations can include numerous compromises, like needing feedback regularly for job performance, requiring a five-minute break every hour, light covers, heads-up for company changes, etc. It’s important to view these accommodations as compromises instead of negative aspects of hiring someone with autism. They aren’t negative. It doesn’t cost you anything to give your employee a few extra five-minute breaks.

There are certain factors that must be considered when considering reasonable accommodations. These include the actual job itself. For example, light covers aren’t a reasonable accommodation if the job is predominantly outside.

Talking to the autistic employee is the best way to figure out what accommodations are necessary. Some of us have dulled senses instead of hyperactive ones. Some autistic employees don’t even need accommodations, depending on the job. At my job, my reasonable accommodations include letting me wear my sunglasses inside and seating me in a darker area. In no way does this disrupt anyone, and without the light distractions I can see things so much faster, and therefore, work quicker. Productivity for the win!

How to Give Performance Feedback

Be very clear! Make sure you have metrics in place to measure performance. Autistic people need clear metrics and expectations. We often think completely differently from you, and that’s crucial to remember. For example, First Call Resolution numbers must be high, Customer Callbacks must be low, etc. My director gives my team weekly goal sheets and accounts list, and that helps me know what she’s looking at so I can work it. She’s a very intelligent lady, and I trust that she’s looking at the right accounts. If I didn’t trust her, I wouldn’t be working what she gives me, and I would be working on what I thought would bring us more money.

That said, it’s also super important to set attainable goals, and communicate them to us in a way we can understand. This will keep us on task with where our performance is at any given time, and will help us to work smarter, and make you money. Along with setting those goals however, you may need to check in a little more often than you normally would to make sure we’re on task.

What to Do When Your Autistic Employee is Socially Stepping on Toes

When I first got hired, before my diagnosis, before I was nice, I used to have problems with people in my department. OK, all the departments. I was very nervous about making good impressions, but I didn’t have the skills or know-how to make one. My desk was (OK, is) filled with little Post-It notes to remind myself of basic social skills like, “Am I taking this wrong?” “Humility – don’t be so prideful;” “Don’t forget to smile at people;” “People appreciate acknowledgement,” to name a few.

If your autistic employee is stepping on people’s toes, you need to let them knowWe don’t do well with subtleties, so bluntly tell us that you’ve heard around the office that people are complaining about us. Tell us point blank how we can rectify that behavior. For example, if your employee is cutting in line at the fax machine, you can tell them, “People have complained that you are jumping the line for the fax machine. When you need to fax something, make sure there is not someone who was there first.”

My director gave me a book called, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There.” It was in regards to my behavior. I know because I read it, but I didn’t understand why she gave it to me. There are like 20 habits in there, and I did a little bit of each, so I wasn’t sure if it was my whole personality that was off-putting or if there was something specific about interacting with me. With that book though, I learned about workplace self-awareness, and ultimately my temperament started to relax.

Hiring people with autism is a very smart move for your employee base. Not only are you getting a person who probably isn’t interested in office politics or drama, you’re getting someone who wants to work. You’re also getting a new perspective. Working with people with autism can give a fresh outlook on what exactly is important in the job market, and I can attest to this, soft skills can be taught with the right training. I’ve been told many times by various supervisors that they wished they had 10 of me. I work hard, and even though I can be a little short-tempered on occasion, that doesn’t mean I can’t make lots of money with my skills. In the end, isn’t that what we’re all in business for?

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Thinkstock photo by Jacob Lund.

Originally published: September 27, 2017
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