How Companies Are Increasing Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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Wharton's Peter Cappelli and Drexel's Paul Shattuck discuss how companies are increasing efforts to employ adults with autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. For those on the spectrum, the odds are against them going to college and working. The unemployment rate for autistic adults remains disproportionally high, with nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism never having held a job.

Some companies are now hiring more individuals on the spectrum, recognizing that autistic adults can be valuable employees, and neurodiversity can be beneficial to the workplace. But doing so requires a lot of support and training for these young people, some of it starting at the high school level. The Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM invited two experts to talk about this employment trend and what it means for both autistic adults and the companies that hire them. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) Paul Shattuck is an associate professor of health management and policy at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and director of the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Peter Cappelli is a Wharton management professor director for the school’s Center for Human Resources.

The following are key takeaways from the conversation.

There’s an Increased Awareness about Autism in the Workplace

 As the number of people diagnosed with autism grows, so does the recognition that those on the spectrum have valuable contributions to make in the workplace. It just takes a little extra training.

“It’s big news,” Shattuck said. “Twenty years ago when I started in this field, autism was a condition that few people had heard of unless they had seen the movie Rain Man. But since the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed, we now include more people under that umbrella term than ever before.”

About 70,000 teenagers with autism enter adulthood each year, he said. That translates to roughly 700,000 adults over the next 10 years who need jobs.

To be sure, people with autism face discrimination in the same way that minorities and women do. But there’s an added layer of bias that stems from a certain level of discomfort. Cappelli has spent time with the U.S. Department of Labor to research discrimination against people who are differently abled and found that it’s a problem for people with all kinds of conditions, although it tends to be greater against those with physical limitations. That discomfort, he said, can create an “us versus them” stigma.

“Sometimes they may think there are a lot of accommodations required, but typically, the accommodations are pretty trivial,” Cappelli said. “The complication they’ve got is [other people] just feel uncomfortable around them. And the heart of that seems to be, frankly, the perception that people with disabilities are uncomfortable or in pain or struggling.”

Shattuck said he often tries to reframe the ideas around disabilities so that employers and co-workers see their differently-abled counterparts as equals, not objects of pity or sympathy.

“I click into professor mode a bit and I educate them about what we call our life course perspective. If you look over the life course, the vast majority of us will experience at least one episode of disability or severe health impairment,” he said. “The fact of disablement, if you live long enough, will likely happen to you as well, if you’re not already disabled.”

Shattuck said such conversations help everyone connect the dots and move past the stigmas. For example, people with autism often have repetitive physical behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, which may be off-putting to co-workers. But those co-workers must understand that repetitive movement is a form of fidgeting, a way of self-soothing the same kind of anxiety that everyone feels at work from time to time.

“You have to help people get over this ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he said. “We’re all human beings. We all have dreams to pursue and contributions to make. Fundamentally, these conversations are about unleashing human potential and creating robust communities that are the kind of communities and the kind of workplaces that we all want to be a part of.”

“This is not a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism; this is about having a more inclusive workforce because we value diversity in our society.”–Paul Shattuck

Hiring Efforts Are Underway

Shattuck thinks it’s “an exciting time” as more private-sector companies and public-sector agencies adopt initiatives to hire people on the autism spectrum. His campus has been working with the City of Philadelphia as well as large corporations through the Drexel Transition Pathways, a collection of programs designed to place people with autism in jobs. Part of the work includes helping employers understand what they need to do to get and keep workers with special needs.

“We have this convene, catalyze and coach model where we’ll work with groups of partners in the community, say a large employer like the airport. Then we bring in the school district and maybe the state vocational rehabilitation and Medicaid agencies, and we convene the conversation,” he said. “We have a way of working with groups around problem-solving so that their resources are aligned in a better fashion to achieve better employment outcomes.”

Budget neutrality is one of the most important aspects of the process, Shattuck said. That’s because most companies aren’t opposed to hiring people with autism per se, but they don’t want to spend extra money. Instead, the Drexel program helps companies realign resources, which often leads to better workflow and efficiencies across the board.

“We go into all of these conversations assuming that no one has extra money to put into this,” he said. “I just always start conversations with our business partners like, ‘Look, this will not cost you money. If anything, it will enhance your bottom line because it’s going to make you better at your business.’”

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.8% in February, and many employers report difficulty in finding qualified employees to fill positions. That’s a good reason for companies to think beyond the conventional applicant pool and consider employees who have been overlooked in the past, such as people with autism, Cappelli said.

“Sometimes they may think there are a lot of accommodations required, but typically, the accommodations are pretty trivial.”–Peter Cappelli

“One of the ways you could meet your recruitment problems is by raising your wages. But if you don’t want to do that, you’ve got to get more creative on the recruiting side,” he said. “There was a time when [employers] didn’t want anybody who didn’t have a job already. So, this is a good sign, in that sense, for us to make progress in including all kinds of people who have had difficulty getting jobs before.”

The professors also encouraged employers to think more broadly about how and where to employ people with autism. They should not be confined to the back office or the mailroom; they can be great front-office staff.

Shattuck recalled going to renew his license at the Department of Motor Vehicles in suburban Philadelphia and being greeted by an unflappable, extremely pleasant employee with autism who directed him on what steps to take next.

“He was amazing,” he said. “It was actually good for me to see that because I suffer from my own stereotypes and biases, and I need to be challenged on those as well.”

Employment Is Not Charity

Hiring people on the autism spectrum is not something to do out of a sense of guilt or kindness, Shattuck emphasized. He wants employers to understand the deep benefits of having a diverse workforce.

“This is not a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism; this is about having a more inclusive workforce because we value diversity in our society,” he said. “It’s about connecting with your customers.”

Both professors agree that neurodiversity — which expands the definition of diversity to include neurological, social and cognitive function — creates a greater “ecosystem” at work and even helps supervisors become better at their jobs. After all, if they can manage someone who is cognitively different, they can manage anyone.

But Cappelli worries that organizations are confused about neurodiversity and want to hire only people who are a “cultural fit.”

“They rarely define it — what does cultural fit mean? And they can’t agree as to what it would look like,” he said. “It just ends up being code for hiring people who I think are like me or that I’m comfortable with. And for a variety of reasons, we’re more comfortable with people who are more similar to us, at least initially. So, that’s pushing in the other direction. I think it is important for employers to think this through and think about what they really need and go from there.”

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