Autism in the Workplace: We Must Leverage What People Have

NOTE: I wrote Autism in the Workplace in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, which was on April 2nd.  This piece was originally published by Inc. on March 7, 2016 under the title “Why We Must Leverage What People Do Have (and Not Penalize Them for What They Don’t)” :

Once upon a time, people with disabilities had no place in business. Now, thanks to innovative programs being introduced at several large companies, those times may be coming to an end. Business leaders are beginning to recognize that people diagnosed with autism, for example, can bring some great things to the table.

Companies, including SAP, Microsoft and HP have all begun programs intended to integrate autistic people into their respective workforces. Besides being highly functional, what has been found is that many on the autism spectrum offer real skills that these companies need in order to continue to grow and to prosper, including a temperament that supports long periods of concentration and a strong ability to recognize patterns and discover irregularities in those patterns–desired attributes needed for programming computer code and debugging software.

Driven by a desire to leverage what people have, and not penalize them for what they lack, these software giants have made a commitment through their programs to provide the support mechanisms and infrastructure needed to enable these employees to perform at their best. Here are some of the elements that have been put into place through these corporate programs:

  • Pre-assignment prep centers that allow these workers to practice working with others in a business setting prior to being assigned to a permanent work unit within the business;
  • Onboarding programs that train new staff on the workings of the office setting. Topics from the use of security ID badges to lunch and meeting areas are all part of the program.
  • Quiet office work settings and sound-softening headphones for those people with sound sensitivities;
  • Offsite work settings that enable employees who may be intimidated by a typical office social setting to test and debug software from their own homes;
  • Buddy systems that pair these employees with internal staff “buddies” who have some familiarity with the disability (perhaps, through family member with autism, etc.). These buddies can act as mentors and be the linchpin for a new employee’s assimilation into the company.
  • An awareness sessions for existing staff, with messaging and training organized around high-, medium- and low-contact interactions, which helps new employees be better integrated and accepted by their co-workers, when they arrive at the job site.

To close, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.5 million Americans are estimated to have an autism spectrum disorder. With about 1 in 68 children affected, it is one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities in the U.S. Clearly, more programs, like the ones cited above, are needed to leverage the skills and brain power that these people can offer.

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