Why empowering students with autism pays dividends for tech companies

Last week, you may have noticed a small theme running through our content on Alphr.com. On Tuesday, we announced we’d be hosting a coding event for children on the autistic spectrum from Dennis Publishing’s charity of the year, CASPA (Children on the Autistic Spectrum Parents’ Association). Yesterday I wrote about the event itself with plenty of pictures, but today I wanted to write something about the real issue that CASPA is trying to address with the good work it does: getting more people with autism into the workplace.

“The path to employment relies less on being able to perform a job well and more on being able to banter about doing a job well. In that respect, people on the autistic spectrum are at a natural disadvantage before they even enter the interview room”

We know that career opportunities for people with autism are limited. As Helen Dyer from CASPA told me, some 85% of people with autism are not in full-time employment. The reasons for this aren’t hard to understand from a societal perspective: the way we hire people has a comical overreliance on one-one-one rapport and social cues – something that people with autism typically struggle with, to varying degrees of severity. The path to employment relies less on being able to perform a job well and more on being able to banter about doing a job well. In that respect, people on the autistic spectrum are at a natural disadvantage before they even enter the interview room.

Michael Barton wrote a brilliant piece for us about living with autism. Michael works here at Dennis Publishing on Buyacar as an analyst and is a patron of CASPA. I caught up with him for a little help with this piece, and what he said about the recruitment process was pretty enlightening: “With employers, I’ve always found there’s a large social bias towards interview process,” he explained. “People naturally want to hire people they’ll get on with, who are similar to them. However, with autistic people, because they don’t have that social prowess, it can put them at a disadvantage.[gallery:12]

“On the opposite side, you might get people who come across as competent in an interview, but it’s all very superficial. For autistic people it’s the other way around – because of the social bias of an interview, they’ll often fall through at this process even if they would be very good at the job.”

Technology can be an answer to this. Dyer cites one recently televised example where a young man with autism couldn’t communicate in a job interview until presented with an iPad. “It seemed like the young man didn’t have anything going on, didn’t know what to say – but actually it was just because he wasn’t communicating in the way we wanted him to communicate: with speech and language.”

This is one reason why companies like Microsoft are actively taking steps to diversify their workforce. As Dave Coplin, envisionment officer at the company, told me, “We thought, well, ‘the skills they have far outweigh the accommodation difficulties we’d have – why would we exclude these people from our workplace?’”

It’s a very good question, and one that may well give companies that actively move against recruitment’s rigid conventions an advantage in the long term. People on the autistic spectrum often have a number of skills that make them extremely well suited to a fulfilling career in the tech sector, and they’re currently seriously underrepresented.[gallery:26]  

“If more companies hop through these modest hoops to make their businesses more accessible to people living with autism, they’ll benefit from a relatively untapped talent pool”

“Basically, with autistic people, their brains are wired slightly differently,” explains Barton. “While their social skills lag behind, they’re very keen on things like attention to detail, being able to focus on things for a long time, and if it’s a topic they’re particularly interested in, they tend to want to learn everything there is to know about it.” All this spells brains uniquely suited to tech industry staples like coding.

As Coplin hinted above when talking about “accommodation difficulties”, making an office space – or even a whole corporate culture – autism-friendly isn’t completely smooth sailing, but neither is it rocket science. Part of the problem is the fact that the autistic spectrum, as the name suggests, covers a broad spectrum. “Even though most people have heard of the term autism, it affects different people in different ways,” says Barton.

“Autism is just a part of a person – that could lead to employers thinking ‘well, what kind of things can we do to facilitate autistic people?’ Because autism is a spectrum, what works for some people won’t necessarily work for others. It all sounds very vague and might seem expensive, but it can be really simple.” Barton cites quiet areas, and the importance of set routines and clear written instructions, rather than a reliance on “unwritten rules” so often taken for granted within the modern workplace.[gallery:3]

If more companies hop through these modest hoops to make their businesses more accessible to people living with autism, they’ll benefit from a relatively untapped talent pool. But for now CASPA and charities like it just have to continue doing their best in preparing those on the autistic spectrum to play the game as it’s written for the rest of the population.

Dyer is ready to help, but wants companies to do their bit in making workplaces more accessible. “Organisations like CASPA – we know what they need, we know what to do, but we don’t have the capacity to [make businesses autism-friendly] in order to smooth that path.” A rate of 85% unemployment is a pretty shameful statistic that everyone should want to change, but if the human angle doesn’t move businesses to act, then hopefully the economic value will.

To find out more about Dennis Publishing’s charity of the year, CASPA, visit its official website here.

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