Autism @ Work: Insights From a World-First Global Study on Employing Autistic Adults

The above video is a presentation of the findings from the world’s first global study on autism employment practices. Presented by research co-leads, Associate Professor Anna Krzeminska of Macquarie University and Professor Charmine Härtel of Monash University, key findings presented include the most effective recruitment practices, workplace satisfaction and the influence of full-time employment, job security, and more. While this video covers several key highlights, the full report, titled Autism @ Work: New Insights on Effective Employment Practices, is publicly accessible through the The Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) at tinyurl.com/GlobalAutismEmploymentReport.
View the Full Report

Since the emergence of Specialisterne, a growing number of multi-national organizations have implemented neurodiversity hiring programs including SAP, JP Morgan, Microsoft, IBM, and several others. Alongside them are the innovative pioneers within the social enterprise and government space that have launched successful programs of their own, such as Aspiritech and the Department of Health and Human Services in Australia. On the surface, this pivotal, societal shift signaled acknowledgement of a dire need while at the same time raising the question for business schools, organizations, and entrepreneurs alike: What are the most effective practices to employing autistic adults?

Anna Krzeminska, PhD

Anna Krzeminska, PhD

Charmine E. J. Härtel, PhD

Charmine E. J. Härtel, PhD

As academics with personal ties to the neurodiversity community, we took an immediate interest in this question. After-all, autism is one of the most researched medical conditions in history1 and autistic adults experience unemployment more than any other demographic sub-group.2 Surely, in addition to the rising interest from global organizations in implementing neurodiversity programs, one would expect a profusion of evidence-based research exists.

As we quickly discovered, however, nominal attention has been given to this crucial topic. The limited literature that does exist is principally qualitative, for example, interviews, observations of hiring programs. No large-scale statistical study existed that identified what authentically helps a neurodivergent employees in the workplace, in particular, one that included the viewpoint of the most important stakeholder: autistic employees.

To address this critical knowledge gap, we partnered with the world’s first national cooperative research center focused on autism – the Autism CRC in Australia – and pioneered to create another world first: a quantitative, global study that explored the most effective practices to employing autistic adults, irrespective of geographical region, job-type, or industry. The end result included participation from 33 organizations representing four organization types: for-profit, nonprofit, social enterprise, and government/education – spread across five continents. Presented below are just a few of the revolutionary findings from our analysis; however, the full report is publicly accessible through the Autism CRC at tinyurl.com/GlobalAutismEmploymentReport.

Everyone Has Accommodation Needs

One of the most prevalent barriers to attaining employment for neurodivergent individuals, and the greater disability community, respectively, is the long-held myth pertaining to accommodations. Perceived worry from owners and managers alike regarding hypothesized high costs and lack of awareness of an individual’s respected condition(s)3 has made accommodation requests a sensitive topic for stakeholders on both sides of the table. Yet, when we surveyed organizations, a startling revelation materialized. The greatest percentage of requests, irrespective of accommodation type, came from both autistic and non-autistic workers. Whether it was doing only one task at a time – autonomy to decide when to work and how to carry out a job task – or being provided support such as a buddy/mentor, the requests were the same.

On a granular level, this information provided insight to the most frequently requested accommodations which included good ergonomics, a comfortable climate at work in terms of humidity and temperature, requesting additional feedback from supervisors and co-workers regarding job performance, and receiving directions in writing in lieu of verbal instructions. Shifting this to an organizational-level perspective, however, a different takeaway is introduced. What differentiates an individual with a neurological condition asking for an accommodation is not the request they’re making, or the fact they’re making a request at all, but our perception in believing such individuals require a greater degree of effort, financial contribution, or interpersonal need simply because of the medical title they unsolicitedly carry: person with a disability. Remove the title and you’ll uncover that accommodation needs are not mutually exclusive to a particular sub-group but are shared amongst us all.

When It Comes to Hiring, Task-Based Assessments Are Best. Or Are They?

Traditional recruitment methods were not designed with the conscious inclusion of neurodiversity or the greater disability community. Individual and group-based verbal interviews, for example, can indirectly highlight an individual’s differences in lieu of their strengths, leading an employer to focus on characteristics irrelevant to the job an employee is expected to perform. In recent years, integrated hiring processes built around task-based assessments have been developed and adopted by leading multi-national organizations, which have since been deemed the gold standard of autism-hiring;4 however, these declarative statements stem from the perceptions of recruiters and managers, not autistic employees. When we tested this lay theory, our analysis revealed 53% of autistic individuals found an individual interview to be very helpful compared to only 40% reporting task-assessment as most helpful. Interestingly, this discrepancy was further illustrated when we accounted for gender, with females preferring verbal interviews over males.

So, What Does This Mean for Organizations?

The renowned phrase, if you met one person with autism, then you met one person with autism takes on refurbished importance here; what worked for a multi-national organization specializing in information technology does not imply transferability to other work types. That said, giving job applicants the option to decide what type of assessment they prefer can provide reciprocal value to both parties. Applicants are given agency and provided an equitable opportunity to showcase their abilities in a manner that is conducive for them while organizations ensure the needs of the job, which aren’t dependent on the interview type, are met.

Inclusion Exceeds Diversity

Workplace inclusion is a significant factor to employees feeling part of an organization, positively influencing job performance5 and subsequently driving business performance. On the contrary, experiencing ostracism can lead employees to experiencing physical pain or harmful workplace behaviors including harassment.6 Put succinctly, the importance of inclusion is insurmountable.

When we surveyed autistic employees to inquire what are some of the behaviors of their co-workers that makes them feel included or inadvertently excluded, overwhelmingly make social chit-chat was reported as having the strongest influence on feeling inclusion by both male and female respondents; however, females did rate this significantly higher than males. This was followed by let me know when I’ve done or said something that was socially not ok or could be taken the wrong way; understand that I sometimes say the wrong thing; can see when I’m getting stressed and let me know; and show me they want to understand how autism impacts me.

Given that communication and social interaction differences are symptomatically associated with autism, we recognize these results could be perceived as unexpected; however, a salient theme exists. Showcasing a genuine desire to understand others in an effort to facilitate a positive, working relationship while encouraging social engagement promotes a culture of acceptance and embracement. In other words, these are not behaviors of diversity, but inclusion.

Professor Dr. Charmine Härtel is an acknowledged preeminent scholar-practitioner in her field, evidenced by election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences (ASSA), the (U.S.) Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM), the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), and Society for Organizational Behavior in Australia (SOBA). Her awards include the inaugural 2019 HR Academic of the Year Award from the Australian Human Resources Institute; the Australian Psychological Society’s Elton Mayo Award for scholarly excellence, the Martin E. P. Seligman Applied Research Award, and 19 best paper awards. Her research appears in over 200 publications. For more information, email charmine.hartel@monash.edu.

Anna Krzeminska is an Associate Professor and Engagement & Impact Coordinator in the Department of Management at Macquarie Business School in Sydney. She is also a Research Fellow at the Leuphana University Research Center for Entrepreneurship Evidence, Germany, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland (UQ) and the co-founding Director of the Neurodiversity Hubs at UQ and MQ. After completing her PhD (first class honours) in Germany, Dr. Krzeminska held academic positions at Leuphana University in Germany and the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, The University of Queensland Business School as well as the HULT Business School in London, UK. Her award-winning research explores the management issues of social impact such as neurodiversity and autism employment, intercultural tensions and immigrant (social) entrepreneurs, management of hybridity paradox, legitimation of new social impact markets, social impact business models, and leadership and governance for social impact. For more information, email anna.krzeminska@mq.edu.au.

Footnotes

  1. Wolff, S. (2004). The history of autism. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 13(4), 201-208. doi: 10.1007/s00787-004-0363-5
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2019, October 24). Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings. Australian Bureau of Statistics. www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/disability/disability-ageing-and-carers-australia-summary-findings/latest-release
  3. Nevala, N., Pehkonen, I., Koskela, I., Ruusuvuori, J., & Anttila, H. (2015). Workplace accommodation among persons with disabilities: a systematic review of its effectiveness and barriers or facilitators. Journal of occupational rehabilitation, 25(2), 432-448.
  4. Holland, R. (2016). Neurodiversity: The benefits of recruiting employees with cognitive disabilities. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 11.
  5. Chen, C., & Tang, N. (2018). Does perceived inclusion matter in the workplace?. Journal of Managerial Psychology.
  6. Robinson, S. L., O’Reilly, J., & Wang, W. (2013). Invisible at work: An integrated model of workplace ostracism. Journal of Management, 39(1), 203-231.

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