Think about any of the organisations that you have worked for, past or present. Are you aware of any employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? The answer is most likely no. In 2017, Harvard Business Review asserted that more than 80% of the neurodiverse population is unemployed. This represents a hugely under-utilised talent pool with a breadth of highly specialised skills. The question is, how can businesses empower persons with ASD to join the workforce?
Neurodiversity is a huge topic for discussion at present worldwide. Sia’s recent film ‘Music’ has thrown the spotlight back on the autistic community. For all it’s controversy, it has also rekindled some very important conversations. Neurotypical persons are talking candidly about how as a society we can be more inclusive for those with neurological differences. Thankfully, we are starting to see this conversation shift to more work-based conversations. It’s important to understand how companies can accommodate a more neurodiverse staff.
John Elder Robison, a renowned neurodiversity scholar and author, who himself has ASD (formerly diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome), describes neurodiversity as the ‘idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome’. This includes a large amount of diagnosed conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, PDD-NOS, and other neurological conditions. Often people will refer to individuals with neurological differences as ‘on the spectrum’. This relates to the broad range of neurodevelopmental conditions and their varying severity.
People with ASD have a variety of exceptional skills that enable them to thrive in many roles. These are such as analytics, sales, software engineering, computer programming, data science, statistics, and many more technical positions.
As well as their individual strengths and talents, candidates with autism often demonstrate above-average skills in some or all of the following areas:
It is undeniable that bolstering equity, diversity and inclusion has untold benefits at any organisation. These include a clear competitive advantage through new ideas, attitudes and methods. The reward for adding neurodiversity in your company can be significant. Especially in productivity and quality improvements, realised through atypical perspectives that challenge the norm with innovative thinking and approaches to work.
In fact, several large companies have already established recruitment programs to take advantage of neurodiverse candidates including Microsoft, SAP, HP and Ford, to name just a few. Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program began in 2015. The company partnered with PROVAIL and Specialisterne, two firms specialising in job training and support for people with an ASD. The program has since flourished, hiring a multitude of candidates across the organisation as the tech-leader continues to host regular Neurodiversity Hiring events.
Persons with ASD often exhibit a number of atypical behaviours and patterns which can cause challenges in traditional workplaces and social scenarios. According to the American Psychiatric Association, people with ASD can have ‘difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours’.
Autistic persons can have trouble making sense of social signals in real-time. They can also appear unattentitive through lack of eye-contact or a high-focus elsewhere during conversations. They are often meticulous in routine or tasks, and can be more sensitive to sensory input. Therefore, they often require different accommodations to manage stimulation. However, the degree to which each person with ASD exhibits these signs (and more) varies greatly.
Because of these neurological differences, neurodiverse persons are often discounted for employment because of a lack of understanding and support.
Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes – The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, notes in this interview with NPR, how he believes that, while there are more serious conditions within the spectrum, the binary thinking that places neurodiverse persons in either ‘high or low functioning’ categories is outdated. In reality, all autistic persons have talents and skills that are not obvious, and are often overlooked.
Employees with autism may need some, often simple, support within the workplace to maintain competitive and thrive in the workplace. Workplace accommodations can range from specific training for leaders and other employees, setting up autism support systems and processes, and even more basic needs such as headphones to prevent aural overstimulation.
But one of the more difficult challenges that employers face is how to adjust their recruitment and career development policies in order to attract and accommodate autistic persons with the skills they require.
AI and machine learning have become incredibly powerful tools in augmenting the everyday lives of persons with ASD in a variety of ways, and they are also phenomenally powerful in helping them apply for, and keep jobs.
Through online assessments and interactions, insights can be derived by AI on the skills and the specific needs and challenges of individuals with ASD. Machine learning can also help to provide real-time support in applications through educational materials or mentor support. Natural Language Processing (NLP) & Natural Language Understanding can also enhance the ways in which digital resources interact with autistic candidates by quickly tailoring tone and style to their specific way of communicating.
These same powerful personalisation tools can then be applied throughout the career of the individual to customise career development advice and educational materials to promote career growth.
Just as important is the ability to empower persons with ASD to find available opportunities. Through data-processing and analysis, autistic candidates can be automatically matched with individual jobs which suit their identified skill sets. Both employer and candidate can instantly receive notifications about the match, in order to help facilitate any additional support required.
Another final key area where AI can help employers is through education on how to create a work environment where autistic candidates can excel. This can be general to a larger body of candidates, or specific to the individual applying.
Empauwer is a revolutionary digital solution from X0PA AI, with the aim to enhance the employability of neurodiverse individuals. Creating an inclusive onboarding framework for Employers of Persons with ASD, was the original winning idea for the solution developed during the 2019 AI for Accessibility Hackathon by Microsoft in Singapore. Supported by SG enable & Microsoft, the initiative has made real progress in improving the lives of autistic individuals seeking employment.
The Empauwer platform assists both employers and candidates through three key features;
Empauwer leverages Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) capabilities, powered by Microsoft Azure. Azure Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Services enhance the understanding and interactivity of the virtual mentor, as well as develop an effective job matching platform.
Inclusivity is not just about gender, race and sexual orientation. It is time to go beyond to make workplaces inclusive for neurodiverse persons. Let’s help employers understand how to leverage the strengths of the most under-utilised talent pool. Those companies that do will have a considerable advantage through diverse perspectives. This will help them innovate and compete more effectively.
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