Post-Covid Workplaces Can Close the Autism Gap

The coronavirus pandemic, with its lockdowns and travel bans, has prompted an unprecedented shakeup of everything we thought we knew about daily labor. How we work, where and when. There’s never been a better time to also reexamine who toils with us.

For many companies, that has meant championing diversity, a crucial consideration for blue-chip employers eager to widen the talent pool, and please increasingly demanding investors. There have certainly been encouraging steps toward far better disclosure around race and gender.

So why are we doing so little when it comes to disabilities, particularly the invisible kind?

Take autism, where employment rates are astoundingly low for a condition that ranges widely, from people with intellectual limitations and restricted speech, to those with milder social challenges. Official statistics from the U.K. suggest that adults with autism are among the least likely to work, compared to other impairments. Australian research puts those with autism and out of a job at three times the overall rate for disabled adults, and almost six times for the general population. Even in countries where awareness is most advanced, the United Nations estimates that more than 80% of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. 

There’s a hefty expense associated with such sidelining — and not just for the individuals, unable to achieve their full potential, underpaid if they work at all, and left struggling to deal with higher-than-average medical bills. Society bears an opportunity cost, too. Those who work can have reduced symptoms and improved daily lives. It’s true that not all people with autism will be suitable for or qualified for all jobs, but that’s not so different from everyone else. At the extremes, some have severe impediments, while savants —  prodigies — are far rarer in reality than in the movies. In the middle, though, there are millions of creative, persistent and capable minds.

Somewhere close to 2% of U.S. adults live with autism spectrum disorder — nearly 4% when it comes to men. Leaving so many of them out is a waste of human promise, just when companies and economies need to be thinking and solving problems differently. 

The good news is that we’re at a unique turning point. The pandemic has been painful for people with autism, who often value predictability, but companies are also more flexible and better equipped than ever to change, accommodate and even seek heterogeneity. 

Post-Covid Workplaces Can Close the Autism Gap

First, some of the problems. There have been big improvements when it comes to children, with early diagnosis and support. Yet we still know astoundingly little about autism in grown-ups regarding, say, how it evolves or what services work best to improve lives and why. There are too few studies that follow people with autism as they age. In the U.K., less than a third of research included adults, and under 15% focused exclusively on them. U.S. figures suggest 3% of all funding in 2017-18 went toward understanding the needs of adults. Research is especially sparse when it comes to autism among non-White populations. Too often, stereotypes and stigma then fill the gaps. 

Then, the practicalities. Interviews can be an insurmountable hurdle, and even if cleared, employees then face the challenge of working in a social environment where rules change frequently and are often unspoken. Not all feel they can come forward and ask for support.

And, of course, there’s the sheer complexity of autism, which includes a variety of conditions including repetitive behaviors, poor social skills, difficulty with eye contact, hyper-sensitivity and more — in any combination and degree of intensity. That’s no doubt why even the most successful autism recruitment initiatives remain modest — SAP SE, a pioneer in this field, has provided more than 600 opportunities through its Autism at Work program, which currently has around 200 people in paid positions across the company. That’s well ahead of the pack (and part of a wider effort), but compares to a global employee base of over 102,000.

Yet adapting to make the workplace a more inclusive tent is inexpensive — and, as Lloyd Adams, senior vice president for the east region at SAP North America, told me, produces benefits for company culture and innovation. A small Australian study of employers published in 2017 supports that. It found no significant additional costs related to supervision or training, but new skills.

Post-Covid Workplaces Can Close the Autism Gap

What can companies do?

To start, educate. Instruct managers, future colleagues and recruiters on what to expect, how to listen, and on what will be easier and more challenging. It can be done in general terms, not linked to individual employees, and extend to all disabilities. Start with the interview panel, when interruptions or failure to maintain eye contact can be off-putting to the uninitiated, and then work through to the job itself. People with autism, for example, may be more reliable, but can require more time, be less flexible about change, or require explicit instructions. Among his tips for employers, Pokky Choi, educational psychologist and a founder of the Edge Development Centre in Hong Kong, urges them to maintain a direct line of clear, consistent communication. 

Bring in mentors or coaches, who may even be provided by outside, government-backed programs, and can be complemented with employee support networks. One of the biggest challenges for autistic people in an office is that rules change, often tacitly. Having a safe environment where all questions are allowed and heard helps, and can ease anxiety.

Then, forget the label and see the person. Sam Crane, legal director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, suggests vocational rehabilitation programs often direct people toward jobs based on stereotypes or existing partnerships, rather than actual talent or interests. Janitorial tasks may work for some, but not for others, perhaps bothered by strong smells that can be challenging for those with sensory issues, or qualified for more. Companies can fall into the same trap: Computer programming is certainly popular, but there are autistic social media managers, graphic designers, maintenance workers. Successfully hiring diverse staff is not about ticking boxes, and that’s only beginning to change.

Post-Covid Workplaces Can Close the Autism Gap

With that in mind, companies can afford to listen a little more. Post-pandemic overhauls are a great time to ask all employees what they require to thrive. That can include the ability to modify working times and place for people with autism who want to avoid rush-hour travel or reduce noise. It can include lighting changes, or mental health-related provision. Ari Ne’eman, activist and senior research associate at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, suggests a centralized accommodation fund to cover the cost of adjustments, allowing companies to present the option as open to all, while ensuring individual hiring departments are not put off by real or perceived expenses.

Finally, firms should keep in mind that there is diversity within diversity. Reaching out to those who self-identify as being on the spectrum is a major step, but many from minority populations and indeed women have lower rates of diagnosis, and may be missed. 

Seeking a workforce where not everyone looks the same is vital. Now, we need to make sure they think differently, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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