I am autistic, and sometimes I feel uncomfortable in settings with elaborate and unclear social norms. But when I researched firms that claimed to actively seek diverse candidates, I discovered that nearly all of these employers excluded disability from their recruitment criteria.
I am part of the 36 percent of autistic students who pursue postsecondary education. But only 58 percent of young autistic people have work experience after high school and into their early 20s, and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have an abysmal 85 percent unemployment rate, according to a 2018 Autism Society briefing.
Closing that gap requires a cultural shift, so that neurodivergent job candidates — a group that includes people with intellectual, developmental or learning disabilities, as well as others whose brains function differently — don’t waste years bouncing between interviews. Employers often focus on perceived deficits: our diagnoses, difficulty making eye contact, sensory and social challenges, or executive functioning skills. They underestimate the competitive advantages of neurodiversity.
Companies that bring in workers with disabilities outperform their competitors, averaging 28 percent higher revenue, according to a 2019 Accenture study, and inclusive employers also report higher shareholder returns. When autistic people were hired to test software in Australia’s Department of Human Services, the neurodiverse group was 30 percent more productive than their neurotypical colleagues, the Harvard Business Review reported. Neurodiverse employees have also assisted with major innovations: Neurodiverse employees at the technology company SAP helped create a technical fix that saved the company nearly $40 million.
With my laser-focus mind and near-photographic memory, I can help comb through close to a million documents and take note of minute details concerning places and names, noticing patterns that others would not. Neurodiverse people can be “less flexible in terms of cognitive abilities,” said Lawrence Fung, director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. But “because of that less flexible tendency, they are persistent on working on certain things to really make them complete.” Autistic and other neurodivergent people often thrive on repetition and routine, and have an eye for detail. As Fung puts it, when neurodiverse people zero in on a specific interest, “they go into so much depth that they are able to create opportunities that a lot of people are not able to find, because they won’t get to the depth of the matter.”
Existing hiring practices tend to disadvantage neurodiverse people. According to a 2015 study, neurotypical people regularly misunderstand and misinterpret autistic people’s behaviors. This can be a huge barrier to employment, considering the importance of traditional job interviews, which can have rigid conventions around what constitutes a smooth or successful social interaction. Eye contact, which can be cumbersome for autistic people, is often taken as a measure of attention, a barometer for gauging the other person’s interest, or even a proxy for warmth, empathy or trustworthiness. An excited flapping of the hands, on the other hand, could be interpreted as unprofessional conduct, when it is an autistic person’s way of conveying enthusiasm. A click of a pen could be perceived as distracting, but for someone with ADHD, it might be a necessary tactic to decrease nervousness or to focus on verbal communication. Support groups, job coaches and vocational rehabilitation services can help job seekers with techniques for appropriately disclosing disabilities during the application process, but bridging the gap also requires that employers normalize that discussion.