Dear Hiring Manager: Here's Why you Should Hire that Candidate with Autism
Dear Hiring Manager:
This is Autism Awareness Month, and one of the areas where "awareness" is most lacking is probably in your human resources department. If you have spent any time at all interviewing candidates for positions at your company, you have encountered some with autism. You might have seen them come and go without even knowing that AUTISM was the reason they talked a little different, struggled with their words or failed to look you in the eye.
Why am I so sure you have already interviewed someone with autism? Because roughly one percent of the population has autism.
Most of those, you probably rejected immediately. In fact, employment rates for people with autism -- even autistic college graduates -- is discouragingly low. Lower than those in any other disabled group.
And yet, research also shows that people on the autism spectrum make great employees.
They are honest, dedicated and punctual. In addition, many autistic people have skills and talents that are in high demand in corporate America. They offer innovative solutions to problems and they are unusually honest.
So why can't they get those jobs?
One of the problems is that interview practices are designed specifically for people who are excellent at oral communication.
And guess what? That's the area where autistic people struggle most. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of an autism diagnosis.
Your first thought might be: Well, if they can't communicate well, this isn't the job for them.
But is that true, or is it just the easiest assumption to make? Because fifty years ago, you might have assumed the same thing about a blind applicant for a computer programming job, right? But over time, and with advocacy and anti discrimination laws, we as a society have learned that blind people can do many of the jobs that sighted people can do. They simply need accommodation.
But what if the first thing you asked a blind candidate to do was pass a vision test? That is essentially what you are doing when you interview an applicant with autism and ask them to answer a string of questions. They are failing your interview process before they ever have a chance to prove whether or not they could do the JOB for which they are applying.
So what can you do to make your company more friendly to autistic job applicants?
1. Understand that autism is invisible. Your applicant might choose to tell you about his autism, or he may not. And, obviously, it is not your place to diagnose anyone, but here's where your skill as a perceptive hiring manager will come in handy.
- Does the applicant sitting across from you just seem a little different?
- Maybe he fidgets
- Maybe she doesn't make eye contact
- Or maybe he talks a lot, but focused in an unusual way on particulars of the job
- Maybe he takes awhile to answer your questions
- Or has difficulty arranging his answers in a typical way
- Maybe she has a worried look on her face and your first thought is: Grumpy!
- Maybe he walks slowly into the room and your first thought is: Lazy!
- Maybe his clothing or hair isn't as polished as a typical applicant
- Or maybe she is dressed impeccably, but holds herself in a stiff manner
But wait a minute. Am I suggesting you stereotype mannerisms and label potential employees?
No not at all. Because the fact is, if you have a candidate who demonstrates some of these quirks or characteristics, but is NOT actually autistic, well, I would still rather you give them a chance to prove their worth on the job rather than simply with their interview skills.
2. Understand that by hiring autistic employees, you are not performing an act of charity, you are adding value to your company. Rather than regurgitate someone else's research, I will recommend you read this article: "Why Employing Autistic People Makes Good Business Sense," which points out several advantages people with autism have over neurotypical individuals, especially when it comes to jobs that require great attention to detail and highly accurate work. It is only a starting place. Follow up on the companies listed, like Microsoft and Specialisterne, maybe even contact their human resources people to find out more about what hiring spectrum employees has meant for their companies.
3. Understand that every human you hire is unique, whether they have autism or not. There is a saying in the autism community: If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. People are unique, whether they are autistic or not. If you have had one experience with an employee on the spectrum, do not assume you will have the same experience with the next autistic person you hire. (Yes, by the way, that would be just like assuming that one deaf employee was like another, or that one black employee was like any other. Just so not cool.) The patterns or characteristics we see in individuals with autism are there, yes, but they are not the same for everyone, which is why it is called a spectrum. Please understand that as you begin to know more people with autism.
4. Understand that a candidate with autism has already proven their grit. You have no idea what an autistic person had to do to be in a position to be across from your desk at an interview.
- He may have been nonverbal as a child. (In fact, nonverbal adults with autism make excellent employees too, so please don't count them out!)
- She may have had to struggle with bullying and other tangent learning disabilities
- His entire life has been spent trying to manage the sensory overload he gets from lights, smells, textures, foods and white noise
- He had to navigate school designed for typical children
- She may have had to deal with the isolation of having no or few friendships
- If he went on to college, he probably had to adjust to learning without the kind of accommodations he benefited from in high school
And if, on top of that, he's not even telling you he has autism, he is hoping to compete with his typical peers for the position, without any special advantage. Consider how those traits will benefit your company, should you hire such an individual.
Consider how much they outweigh the ability to smoothly answer questions like, "describe a time when you took a difficult situation and turned it into something good." (His life is the answer to that question, by the way.)
Finally, I want to remind you of other people you have hired over the years. In particular, think back to that candidate who was perfect. He was dressed well, had a firm handshake and looked you in the eye. He smiled and laughed at the appropriate times. He was the perfect blend of confidence and humility and his resume! Of, if only every candidate had a resume like his! So, of course you hired him and couldn't wait for him to put all that wonderful charisma to work for your company.
And then... And then he turned out to be the biggest pain in the neck you have ever had to deal with. You were left feeling like he played you during that interview: knowing all the right answers, knowing just how much to praise you and the company without seeming like a suck-up, when it was all just an act. And now you're stuck with him.
This kind of thing happens, doesn't it? For all those carefully chosen interview questions and personality assessments, sometimes applicants learn to play the system and you end up with someone who was not as advertised.
Please think of that the next time someone awkward answers your ad. Please remember this post the next time a candidate doesn't look you in the eye. Please remember that first impressions don't always indicate how well someone will do the job and please, please be open to neurodiversity in the workplace.
For more information on hiring autistic individuals, please do some research. This handbook is a good place to start.