How inclusive are initiatives for hiring people with autism?
Updated: Sep 17, 2022
Approximately 78% of autistic people are unemployed, but not necessarily through lack of skill or desire to work. Rather, the interview process and the lack of the right support once we're employed places barriers in our way.
So, it's great news that, according to this article: "major tech companies are making autism hiring a priority".
But, let's just take a minute to really think this through.
First, why only tech companies?
Last time I was on the hunt for a job, I found that there wasn't much out there in the way of roles that actually targeted autistic people. That is, not if you didn't fit into the stereotype of an autistic male with a high IQ who was an excellent programmer.
Lacking in my search results were companies welcoming applications from autistic people for jobs that take into account the other various competencies that we often have, such as editorial skills, an aptitude for organising information, integrity, reliability, an analytical mind, and so on. The jobs targeted specifically at autists were narrowed down to: software development or low-paid menial tasks.
There are two issues with capitalising on the very specific perceived advantages to hiring autistic people in this way:
It perpetuates harmful stereotypes of what autism looks like, reducing real understanding and awareness of autism, and making diagnosis harder.
It justifies the underpinning idea that certain skills make a person's autistic traits more "acceptable".
While some people with autism might have special or unusual talents, it's harmful to expect that we should all exhibit the same exploitable abilities.
Second, what are the real motivations for these efforts?
There is a huge potential for propaganda, motivated by the business it might attract, when companies advertise hiring programmes targeted at autistic people. The focus appears to be on the social clout associated with "charitably" hiring people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, there is no mention of an effort to hire other neuro-diverse groups, such as people with AD(H)D, Tourette's Syndrome, or Dyspraxia, and nothing to back up claims of being genuinely interested in (or following through on) hiring other groups of people with learning or intellectual disabilities.
If you care about hiring (and properly paying) disabled people, then do it. Don't target one specific group -- in this case, autistic people -- and call it "hiring disabled people". Doing so can be harmful for two reasons:
It perpetuates the myth that autism and intellectual disability go hand-in-hand.
It helps companies avoid actually hiring and supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Autism can come with or without intellectual disability. Conflating the two does neither community any favours. The unashamedly liberal, bleeding-heart snowflake in me strongly believes that no-one should live in poverty because the jobs they do are considered "lower status" or less valued by society. Work is work and everyone should be in a position to aspire to a good life, autistic or not.
Why not be open to diversity, in general?
A person shouldn't have to make their autism known or overtly request adjustments for their workplace to be an accommodating one.
Yes, autism is a protected characteristic, entitling autistic people to the support and protections that other people with disabilities have. However, the level and types of adjustment needed depends on each individual autist, just like the lenses you need in your glasses depends on what your particular prescription is.
Many autistic people don't consider their autism, itself, a disability, and would like to just do their work in a supportive environment. It's the expectations of the majority that limit us, more than our own minds do. This makes autism a disability only insofar as the learning environment, which revolves around complying with unwritten rules, isn't suited to the way our brains work, which is in the minority.
You know that quote: "If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree..."? We're that fish. And, we're all sorts of different types of fish, too.
We aren't disabled so much as society disables us, being that it's biased towards accommodating the needs of neurotypical people first. We are at an imposed social and, thus, economic disadvantage due to the ignorance that surrounds autism –– ignorance maintained by programmes publicising their "forward-thinking" recognition of the "hidden benefits" of hiring autistic people.
There's nothing hidden about my skills if you care to look. Special hiring programmes don't need to be targeted at me if you care to provide a welcoming application process.
Rather than targeting a very specific type of autistic persona for the positive PR of a company, I'd like to see actual changes in the workplace that encourage people to apply for jobs there. Things like:
training for managers;
efforts to reduce sensory triggers, with levels of lighting, heating, noise, and so on;
mentors and individual support for navigating company politics and unwritten rules;
slow transition into different and increasing workloads;
a personal workstation rather than hot-desking;
an actual relaxation space that cannot be used as an emergency meeting room;
flexible, paid time off;
subsidised therapy; and
control over working hours and breaks.
This doesn't just benefit the fully diagnosed, "out and proud" autistic people, such as myself. Making issues faced by autistic people a collective rather than individual focus makes it easier for people to receive the support they need without having to specify that they're autistic.
It helps those who haven't been diagnosed (notably, other female autists), those who don't want to advertise their autism, those who don't have the confidence to ask for change, and those that don't know what to ask for.
More than this, a workplace that is autism-friendly is employee-friendly because it recognises diversity, and thus has the potential to benefit all who work there with inclusivity.
Ambitious about Autism. Employment. https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/what-we-do/employment
Bryan, S. (2018). I'm autistic, and I don't support the Microsoft Autistic Hiring Program: Why you shouldn't either. Medium. https://medium.com/s/for-the-record/im-autistic-and-i-don-t-support-the-microsoft-autistic-hiring-program-and-you-shouldn-t-either-d4e5ac576dc7
Genius Within. What is neurodiversity? https://www.geniuswithin.org/what-is-neurodiversity/
National Autistic Society (2021). Autism at work programme. https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/employment/autism-work-programme
National Autistic Society (2021). The history of autism. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism/the-history-of-autism#:~:text=A%20survey%20by%20the%20Office,profiles%20on%20the%20autism%20spectrum.
Warnick, J. (2016). Unique Microsoft hiring program opens more doors to people with autism. Microsoft Story Labs. https://news.microsoft.com/stories/people/kyle-schwaneke.html
Wilson, B. (2020). 7 companies that hire autistic adults. DAIVERGENT. https://daivergent.com/blog/companies-that-hire-autistic-adults
World Health Organization (2021). Autism spectrum disorders. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/autism-spectrum-disorders
Disclaimer: I don't include or take seriously any references from Autism Speaks, because this organisation consistently pushes an agenda that is offensive and harmful to autistic people through various means. This includes (and is not limited to) creating commercials claiming that autism destroys relationships, backing the debunked vaccine myth, and supporting treatments such as electric shock therapy for autistic children. The organisation claims to be supportive whilst strongly pushing for a cure rather than helping people manage their symptoms and, in the meantime, advocates efforts to force autistic people to behave "normally" to the detriment of the autistic person.