The autistic worker – practical advice to recruit unique tech talent

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 13, 2016
Tech firms are looking to tap into the talent pool of autistic workers, but there are some specific challenges that need to be addressed. Cath Everett provides some practical advice.

A Dandelion Leadership Model

In the first part of this two part special feature, we looked at the work done by tech firms such as SAP and Microsoft to bring autistic workers into the industry. But there are challenges to going down this route, but these can be overcome. 

According to Richmal Maybank, employment training consultant at the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS), one of the biggest hurdles for many autistic people, and their potential employers, is simply getting to the interview stage as there are unintentional barriers at every pass.

For example, lots of job titles and job descriptions are unclear and ask for generic rather than specific skills such as being a team player, even if the role is essentially solitary. They also fail to spell out basic information such as salary or working hours.

The problem is though that people with ADS are concrete thinkers and need to know what to expect. So while simple rewording would suffice in many instances, in others, removing clichés such as having “good communication skills” would be yield much better results.

Key challenges

Another challenge is the interview itself. If very open, abstract or hypothetical questions such as “tell me about your life” are asked, autistic candidates are likely to struggle. Instead they respond much better to concrete, unambiguous questions such as ‘what programming languages do you know?”

Many people also find difficulty in making eye contact, despite its connotations of trustworthiness, and struggle to decode facial expressions and body language, putting them at an immediate disadvantage.

But little things can prove helpful in this context. For example, sending out pictures of interviewers in advance helps to reduce anxiety levels as does spelling out how many people will sit on the panel, how long the interview will last and whether there will be a test or exercise. Also pointing out at the start of the meeting that candidates don’t have to make eye contact if they find it hard will help put them at ease.

SAP, meanwhile, has developed its own recruitment process from scratch with the help of specialist autism recruitment services provider, Specialisterne. In the first interview, applicants are invited to take part in a so-called ‘Lego Mindstorm’ where they are asked to build a robot out of lego bricks. They also undertake a number of software development tasks.

This event is then followed by a six-week on-boarding programme, focusing on everything from developing ‘soft’ skills to understanding more about the company and how it works. At the end of the process, both sides then decide whether to offer or take up a formal contract of employment. Stephanie Nennstiel, SAP's senior program manager for diversity,explains:

Typically interview-based recruitment mechanisms don’t work very well due to people’s poor social and communication skills. So we’ve developed a new way to learn about them and get to know them better. We’ve found that spending several weeks on-boarding people works best so that they can see whether they feel safe and that they’re in a trusted environment.

Over the next nine to 12 months, however, the aim is to merge Autism at Work recruitment best practice with the firm’s standard talent acquisition processes in order to reduce the amount of support provided by third parties. Nennstiel says:

External support needs to decrease over time if we want to run this sustainably. If not, the programme will be stopped. So we need to up-skill our recruiters so that we don’t need specific Mindstorm sessions any more and everything can be done via discussion. It’s a huge step but 2016 is the year of sustainability and we have to ensure that hiring people with autism becomes part of our normal recruitment DNA.

Reasonable adjustments

But there are also other considerations once the hiring process is complete. These include discussing with workers what reasonable adjustments need to be made in the face of issues such as sensory sensitivity. For instance, a lot of people with autism cannot cope with bright electric lighting and so benefit from sitting beside a window. Others find commuting during rush hour simply too stressful and may need to change their working hours to avoid it.

But it is just as important to clarify unwritten workplace rules such as the fact that when making tea for colleagues, it is usual to restrict the activity to your immediate team rather than include the whole floor on which you work.

In SAP, to help ASD workers with just such scenarios, managers appoint a (trained) team buddy to help with day-to-day issues. A volunteer mentor, who is not a direct member of the team, also provides support in terms of broader life skills by assisting autistic staff in navigating problems and addressing change.

A job coach from an external local partner organisation is likewise available to assess what adjustments need to be made and to act as a liaison with each individual’s personal support network should SAP be unable to handle any given situation internally.

But training is also provided for both managers and team members in order to help them understand more about the condition, dos and don’ts, what should be in place and what should be avoided. Henrik Thomsen, director and chief operating office of Specialist People Foundation (SPF), the NGO that owns the Specialisterne concept and trademark, offers an example:

You have to modify your language. Irony and sarcasm or black humour don’t work with autistic people. You have to express yourself clearly and in a concrete way. So rather than imply something or use body language, you have to tell them directly.

Another essential consideration, says SAP’s Neinstiel, is ensuring that colleagues understand about the condition and what it means. She explains:

It’s vital to create awareness, so when we launched the programme in each new country, we hosted a so-called Autism at Work Awareness event. We invited internal and external speakers and shared lots of information. But it’s also important when you’re kicking something off in a new location to have a local lead in place. Our programme has a high level of maturity in Germany and the US now, so we no longer need a full-time equivalent there – it’s become about 20% of their job. But it’s important initially.

The most crucial thing of all, however, particularly from a management perspective, says SPF’s Thomsen, is understanding what motivates people in order to get the best out of them. He calls this approach the “Dandelion Leadership Model” because:

It’s a symbolic way of describing the situation. So if you have a dandelion in your lawn, it’s unwanted. But if you put it in your herb garden, it’s really valuable and can be used as a herb or for making wine. It’s really just a matter of finding the right environment for things to flourish.

My take

Tapping into this valuable talent pool makes tremendous sense, not least for the individuals concerned who have a lot to offer but often suffer from low self-esteem. But such a move shouldn’t be attempted without the support of specialist agencies to help guide you through the process and ensure you get it right - for everyone’s sake.

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