Neurodiversity. It’s a term that’s increasingly familiar to those in the workforce diversity and inclusion sphere, and for good reason. It’s about the strategic integration of people with neurological disabilities into all workplaces, and its practice can yield exceptional results for both employers and employees, including those on the autism spectrum.
This issue has been at the forefront of my mind this month, which is National Autism Awareness Month. As someone who’s spent most of my career researching effective workplace practices for people with disabilities, I find embracing neurodiversity to be an exciting paradigm shift. Years ago, employers often hired people with disabilities for altruistic, charitable reasons, believing it was “the right thing to do.” Later, when the D&I movement emerged, employers began to appreciate bottom line benefits from embracing disability as diversity. Today’s increased focus on neurodiversity indicates even further progress on the part of employers—and refreshingly, it’s all about skills.
That’s right. Numerous businesses that already have a good foundation in disability inclusion are beginning to plan recruiting and onboarding activities that target people in similar professional networks to meet their business needs. These companies are recognizing and proactively recruiting the skills and talents that people with unique neurological characteristics, including those on the autism spectrum, can offer. It’s a concept that’s gaining steam in many industry sectors, such as manufacturing, telecommunications, finance and information technology. In fact, an article on neurodiversity in the current issue of Harvard Business Review takes an in-depth look at this alignment of skills to workforce needs. One of the companies featured in the article, enterprise software developer SAP, emphasizes hiring people on the autism spectrum for their skills and abilities—and the results speak for themselves.
Launched in 2013, SAP’s groundbreaking Autism at Work program set a corporate goal of employing 650 employees on the autism spectrum by 2020 across a wide range of job categories. One of the first steps has been changing the way the company interviews people with autism, offering something more akin to a trial work period rather than just structured interviews.
“Out of a hundred resumes I would send, I would only get one response back. And when I did apply, because I was a bit monotone or stiff during the interview, they overlooked me,” says Patrick, a current SAP employee on the autism spectrum whose life was changed by the Autism at Work program. Today, Patrick works as an IT project associate, having joined SAP through the successful program that has employed nearly 120 colleagues in nine countries.
SAP is not alone. Earlier this month, the company jointly hosted an event with the support of the Olitsky Family Foundation, the Stanford University Autism Research Center and my organization, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The Autism at Work Summit showcased how companies have implemented programs to harness the power of the untapped talent pool of adults on the autism spectrum, such as through initiatives at Microsoft, EY and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. In fact, the ILR School’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability has proudly partnered with HPE to facilitate the distribution of materials to help interested employers globally develop initiatives to provide skilled employment opportunities for job seekers on the autism spectrum.
We were also very pleased to be joined at the summit by colleagues from the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, because these companies’ experiences have broader implications, providing meaningful insight into workplace policies and practices that facilitate success for all employees, including those with disabilities. One clear example was a reaffirmation that matching job candidates’ skillsets to open jobs leads to better business outcomes.
But of course, facilitating employment success for people on the autism spectrum extends beyond hiring, just as it does for all workers, to career advancement and skill enhancement up the full corporate ladder. Summit participants with whom I spoke emphasized the importance of workplace supports to help employees thrive and integrate successfully into workplace cultures, such as job coaches, mentors, and social and recreational events.
After all, the long-term success of talent acquisition requires not just hiring, but keeping, the best employees. More and more employers are discovering this means advancing a broad range of employment opportunities for people who come from neurodiverse backgrounds, including those on the autism spectrum.
Dr. Susanne M. Bruyère is Professor of Disability Studies and the Director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University’s ILR School.