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Awkward? Autism shouldn’t be a barrier to employment

In the UK, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid work. What is more, this figure is worse than our global peers and hasn’t improved since 2007.

It is widely agreed that approximately 1% of the world population has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For employers, the case for recruiting a neurodiverse workforce may not be immediately obvious. After all, autistic people can struggle with social interaction, many have a literal understanding of language and are less able to read expressions and / or body language.

All of this makes forming social bonds and dealing with the inevitable office politics profoundly challenging. Consequently, they may not even make it past the interview, or if they do, they can misread social cues and therefore be judged variously as insensitive, odd or even rude. Exposure to factors such as noise, light and textures can add to the aforementioned cocktail of pressures.

As a result, a candidate’s true potential can go unrecognised, something that needs to change if companies wish to build a genuinely diverse talent pool.

“We strive to be a vibrant business that values inclusiveness and embraces difference, where our employees are engaged and empowered to deliver business results because better business decisions come from a diverse set of views” (Legal & General)

So what can be done?

As with most diversity issues, part of the solution lies in raising awareness and educating people to look beyond stereotypes to see an individual’s true potential. I’d be the first to acknowledge that opportunity for this group is a matter that’s close to home. My nine-year old daughter Clover has ASD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Sensory Integration Disorder. Yet contrary to what many recruiters may believe about the current autistic employee pool who are able to work, she, like many others, is high functioning, in mainstream education and academically capable, hence my enthusiasm to write this blog.

There is increasing research to show the positive sides of autism. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal, has studied autism for decades and has found that people with autism concentrate more on visual processing. The result according to the research is that autistic people can be up to 40% faster at problem-solving and are also superior to neurotypical people at identifying complex patterns. Other benefits can include high levels of concentration, attention to detail, technical ability (e.g. coding), factual knowledge and excellent memory.

I would also argue those on the autistic spectrum are often extremely creative, bringing great diversity of thought to any discussion or project – something that is clearly required, for instance, if we as investors wish to overcome many of the traditional behavioural biases we face when putting our clients’ capital to work. A different study at the University of Chicago on the effects of the amount of information on judgement accuracy and confidence shows that more information results in more confidence but not accuracy in neurotypical people.

Employers can tackle this issue by having greater flexibility in recruitment practices to foster a more open-minded approach when hiring; for example, by making widespread unconscious bias training accessible to existing employees. Traditional interviews are often social constructs that rely on an individual’s ability to build immediate rapport with the interviewer and express themselves confidently and clearly in a short space of time – an environment that is often exactly the type of situation that people with this condition may find profoundly difficult.

I believe autism shouldn’t be a barrier to employment and would appeal to companies across the UK and beyond to consider what steps they could take to offer autistic candidates an opportunity to thrive, whether during recruitment processes, or in subsequent employment. On the positive side, the world is slowly changing, and autism is beginning to be recognised by certain corporates, including Willis Towers Watson, Deutsche Bank as well as Microsoft, Vodafone, SAP and EY.

This is not about political correctness. Employers who recognise that human brains are wired in different ways can enable neurodivergent employees to realise their potential and also help businesses maximise their chances of success. I believe that autistic people like Clover would be a valuable resource for any company that can look beyond the label and see the value they could bring to their business.

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