Hiring Autistic Employees

It’s all the rage for companies such as SAP to seek out autistic employees for software development or testing positions. But, when I read about this trend, I have mixed feelings. It’s an improvement from the charity model where we’re hired for, in general, only low paying jobs (link via NFB) or to do jobs that only exist as a form of adult day-care.

And I do think autistics can be good software people! I’ve worked in computers since I first started working and I do think my autism makes me a good worker – I think it gives me a different insight into how things work, a different point of view. I think it’s good for employers to recognize that.

So, people being paid good wages for software development or testing is a good thing. That said, I do get a bit nervous anytime a company starts seeking to specifically hire a minority group – often wages are less than the prevailing wage, a charge that has been leveled against the US software industry’s usage of foreign workers on H1B visas. After all, someone might be willing to take a less-than-fair wage if it is either more than they make in their home country or if it is in a location want to be at, but couldn’t normally achieve. In other words, the competitive wage market pays people less if they have a harder time getting employment (after all, not every company is is interested in H1B visa holders). Do you know who else has a harder time getting employment? Oh, yes, autistic people!

Now I’m not saying that SAP or others are paying autistic people less – I really don’t know. But it’s certainly something ASAN and similar organizations should closely monitor. We should not become a cheap form of highly productive labor (albeit cheap for SAP is nothing like cheap for Goodwill). So let’s keep the pressure on to make sure we’re treated right, not as a new low-cost employee class. But this is not the main thing that bothers me with the autistic employment programs.

There are other things that bother me more. First, most of these programs are “trials”. Rather than creating employment situations where employees with disabilities can succeed (often required under today’s laws for all jobs), the companies feel the need to prove that we’re not only productive, but that we’re more productive than other employees. What happens if we’re not? What happens to the autistic person who isn’t? Certainly, we have some extremely talented people in our community. But at the same time, not every autistic is going to be better than the average NT at software testing or any other random job.

That’s the second thing that bothers me. It substitutes the old “we can’t do anything” myth about autistics with one of “but there are geniuses among autistics” idea. While, absolutely, there are geniuses among autistic people, I suspect that we have tons of people who can work but probably won’t quite be considered a genius. They might not have a skill that closely aligns with a highly commercially valuable occupation, like software testing. They may be like anyone else walking down the street. They might be the greatest garbage truck driver in some sanitation company’s employ, but they might also be an average garbage truck driver! That’s not a bad thing – my guess is that most of the sanitation company’s drivers are average – and that’s plenty good to make good money for the company.

So I don’t like the idea we have to be geniuses. We shouldn’t have to be.

I also don’t like the idea that we can employee autistics as software engineers, but positions as garbage truck drivers are ignored.

But, finally, more than the above, I want to see all companies examine their culture and practices to see how they are excluding people from employment for reasons other than job skills. I don’t know if SAP’s internal culture is good or not (I hope it is), but plenty of software companies could expand their doors to women, LBGT people, older people (meaning “older than 25” in some cases!), and, yes, autistic people, by simply getting rid of some of the cultural garbage – as others have written. I imagine other industries could do similar things.

We don’t need companies to seek out autistic people to work. We’re not being denied jobs generally because we’re diagnosed autistic or we have “autist” stamped on our forehead, so we don’t need that targeted. We need the things that keep us from getting work targeted. Why not have jobs for people who have trouble working the 9-to-5 schedule, rather than calling that an “autistic” job (some autistics might need that change, others don’t, and certainly plenty of unemployed non-autistics would work if there was more flexibility in scheduling for positions). We’re being denied jobs because we come across badly in interviews, don’t fit the normal environment, are too much trouble to deal with, or we don’t fit the “culture.” We need the companies we already have, with jobs unfilled, to take a good hard look at their culture and learn to be a bit flexible with everyone. We need companies to quit forcing people into a certain mold (which typically has nothing to do with what they do – what does having a brightly lit office have to do with writing computer code, for instance?) and fight their employees over stupid stuff (like an employee that finds light painful). We need companies to look at their managers and figure out, “Are these people treating our employees good? Even employees that don’t socialize and interact the same way? Even employees that might need an occasional workplace adjustment?” We need companies to quit violating the ADA (in the USA; substitute your local law outside the USA) and other laws, and instead embrace not only the law but also the spirit of the law. We need companies recognizing that not everyone is cut out to work a 40 hour-per-week job, but that person that can work 20 hours is still worth hiring and not just outright excluding.

If you want to make work good for autistic people, and encourage autistic employment, here’s some things to start on:

  • Do you accommodate people who ride public transit and are thus sometimes late? Is your company close to a public transit hub? Do you have accommodations to help me get home if I stay late or work shifts?
  • How about medical care? Does it start on day one? Does it exclude any pre-existing conditions (thank you Obama for fixing most of that)?
  • Once a disabled person starts making money, they often will lose government benefits. If they lose their job, it may be a while before they can convince agencies that they are still in need. How can you reassure the disabled person that the risk of working for your company is worth it, that their life (literally) is not at risk?
  • Can I call in sick because I’m overloaded? Can I go home early for that reason?
  • Speaking of health, what if I’m not perfectly healthy? What if I need more than the typical amount of time-off?
  • How am I going to manage my home, personal needs, and work? A neurotypical person might struggle with this, but an autistic person exhausted from work may go home and straight to bed – without dinner – because of the stress. You might say it’s not your problem, but it is what keeps some of us from working!
  • How about communication and meetings. Is your culture meeting-centric? Can it handle someone that needs space and quiet? Do I really have to go to 6 hours of meetings a day (like many technology people, for instance)?
  • Is it okay for me to skip the company social events? Or do I get pressured to come lest I not be a “team player”
  • What buzzwords are you into? (For software shops, I’ll give a hint: agile isn’t necessarily enjoyable for anyone, but particularly not for many of us)
  • If I complain about noise, light, or smells that don’t bother any other employees, will you believe me and do something about it? Or will you tell me that you don’t have any way of fixing it? What if I end up needing a private office (you know, that mythical thing with a door)?
  • How does your training work? What if I don’t learn the same way that the other 99% of your employees learn? What if I need to you to train differently?
  • If I am getting bullied by coworkers or a boss, will you do anything? Will you do it before I have to go to HR? Will I get penalized when I do go to HR?
  • Do you expect me to do the job just like everyone else, even if one part of the job is something I’m really good at and another part is something I’m really bad at? Or can I be put in the position where I’m doing what I’m good at without failing at the stuff I’m bad at?
  • Can you assign me work in a clear way? If you expect me to use “common sense” meaning “figure out what I should have told you,” I might not do great.
  • If I’m overloaded or provoked, and do something unusual but not dangerous, are you going to react in fear and consider it a safety risk, or are you going to actually figure out what I need to succeed?

I’m sure there are other things. But these things do matter. And, yes, they are complex. It’s hard to do this.

But let’s focus on that. Instead of finding the autistics that fit well into your culture and advertising the “autistic friendly” jobs, let’s find ways to make the culture inclusive of as many people as possible – including the autistics that have the skills and desire to work, but can’t get in the door anywhere. These aren’t the easy-to-hire autistics who can fit into a standard 9-to-5 office environment (sorry, we have an 8-to-5 environment in most places) but also the people that can’t find for all sorts of other reasons – not because the word “autistic” is on their resume, but because they interact differently socially, have sensory differences, don’t typically multitask great, and may have skill patterns with a different set of peaks and valleys than typical employees.

Hopefully SAP and others are doing that (and if so, I am thrilled!). Let’s hold them accountable to make sure.

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