autism in the workplace
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In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, Paul Modley, Director of Talent Acquisition and Diversity & Inclusion at Alexander Mann Solutions, highlights the importance of autistic employees in a time of skills shortages

World Autism Day is all about spreading awareness and increasing acceptance, and while doing this is important across all of society, every day, it is particularly vital in the workplace right now. Out of the estimated 700,000 people diagnosed with autism in the UK, just 16% of them are in full-time employment. With the ongoing ‘war for talent’ getting progressively worse, and more businesses aiming to become truly diverse, organisations must acknowledge the value that autistic individuals can bring to the workplace and open their doors to neuro and cognitive diversity.

What is autism?

One of the main reasons why there is a dearth of autistic talent in the workplace is due to employers’ poor understanding of what the Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is and how it can impact an individual’s behaviour and thinking. ASC is a lifelong, developmental condition that affects individuals to varying degrees, from how they experience the world around them to how they interact with others. Unfortunately, modern workplaces are often not designed well for neurological and cognitive difference. Sometimes it’s the ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ that recruiters and employers can adopt which wears down individuals on the Autism Spectrum, rather than their different ways of working.

How autistic people can add value

While some people on the Autism Spectrum may have difficulties with social skills, others may process above-average and unique skills that make them valuable candidates. For example, autistic individuals may have above-average problem-solving skills the ability to maintain sustained levels of concentration, attention to detail and be highly independent and loyal – attributes that any employer would appreciate

Many of these skills are particularly needed in STEM, which are industries infamously known for suffering from talent shortages. Unfortunately, despite many people on the Autism Spectrum being excellent workers, individuals from this talent pool are often overlooked as potential candidates. Recruitment processes are not always designed to assess the strengths of neurodiverse talent and can in some cases prevent individuals from demonstrating their full capabilities.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has been on the corporate agenda for years now. However, where most employers fail is encompassing a true three-dimensional approach to diversity. Being inclusive towards different genders, races and religions has now been accepted by most as the ‘right thing to do’, but encompassing real cognitive diversity – variances in lifestyle, culture, political beliefs and thinking – and neurodiversity – is where business growth really happens.

Neurodivergent and cognitively diverse teams can pool their skills together to approach problems faster and with more creativity. This also helps avoid ‘groupthink’, allowing businesses to stay fresh and agile.

An untapped talent pool

PwC research has revealed that 63% of global CEOs are concerned about not being able to find employees with the necessary skills and innovative mindsets to fill vacancies. This is unsurprising as demand is beginning to outstrip supply for a number of professions — especially for experts with digital skills. In fact, McKinsey has estimated that there will be a shortage of about 85 million qualified workers by 2020.

With just 16% of individuals on the Autism Spectrum estimated to be in full-time employment, businesses are missing out on access to highly skilled individuals from this group, which could help alleviate talent shortages and support business growth.

Organisations taking the lead

There are a number of companies which are now actively opening their doors and working on how to better support autistic talent. Alexander Mann Solution’s partner, auticon, a unique, multi-national IT consultancy and social enterprise, which exclusively employs autistic adults as IT consultants, is just one of them.

Auticon recognises autistic individual’s potential and is the first enterprise to exclusively employ autistic adults as consultants. By creating autism-positive work environments and offering highly individualised and sustained support mechanisms to autistic employees, auticon provides its corporate clients with a means to tap into the amazing talents of autistic people while creating well-paid long-term careers for its team.

By taking the time to get to know each autistic colleague’s skills, interests, and challenges, and carefully matching those with the right tasks and support mechanisms, auticon creates careers that allow autistic people to not only work, but also more importantly, work to their full potential. The significance of employment for mental health, confidence and quality of life from this move is widely acknowledged.

Gordon, an autistic IT consultant who found a role at RBS through Alexander Mann Solution’s partnership with auticon, said: “I have applied for jobs previously but have never been successful. I have found the interview process very stressful and I have even been turned down for jobs I have been overqualified for, [however], auticon focused on looking at the skills I had rather than an interview.”

For individuals like Gordon, it’s important that employers adapt the recruitment process, putting less emphasis on traditional interviews, and finding creative ways to truly test skills and capabilities. Autistic Spectrum Condition individuals can offer a breadth of fresh ideas and above-average skills, and if companies want to tap into this talent, employers must abolish their one-size-fits-all approach. By celebrating the value that autistic talent brings to teams, and starting the dialogue on the need to create work environments that work for people as individuals, we can move towards a better, genuinely inclusive, and more equal workplace.

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