Autism and Employment: How Even Small Companies Can Successfully Employee Staff with Autism
By Albert Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO of Visions Publishing, Inc.
Adults on the autism spectrum face a challenging transition into adulthood. Let's face it. In order to succeed as an adult, there really are only two critical elements – being able to support oneself financially in order to live independently and being able to establish nurturing, meaningful relationships.
I will focus my comments on the former – being able to support oneself as an adult. Many adults on the autism spectrum are highly intelligent. They are detail oriented. They follow directions to the letter. They are loyal to companies and can make excellent employees. Then why is it so typical that adults – especially young adults – with autism are either unemployed or underemployed?
In Employment, Perceptions Are Reality
A lot has to do with how adults with autism are perceived by current or prospective employers. Those with autism typically have challenges in communication and have weak social skills. For example, let us talk about an accountant. Being technically competent is not sufficient to keep a job if you cannot deal with your co-workers. You may be the brightest accountant in the city but if you come across to a prospective client as "clueless," your expertise never shows.
But why do adults with autism oftentimes come across as unknowledgeable? Why do they seem to be day dreaming or uncooperative when just the opposite is true? A lot has to do with their inability to interact with others – especially in the area of passive listening.
The Extra Social Skills Training Required is Worth Every Ounce of Our Time
At Visions Publishing, Inc., a publishing company focusing on books about those with special needs, we have hired several teens and young adults with autism. I often find that the challenge is not getting quality work out of these young adults with autism, but getting them to understand how to communicate – what they are doing, where they stand, and how to tell us if they need more help. In other words, their work quality is great but their communication skills are poor.
As an example, one of our hires (I'll call him John) was being trained. I explained to John how to add information to our website – a highly technical and detailed task. As I explained what to do, John simply stared. He said nothing. Basically he was frozen. I began to feel very uncomfortable. Was John paying attention? Was he sleeping? Was I losing him or was I boring him to death? Honestly, it was very disconcerting getting NO FEEDBACK at all as I spoke. No nods. No eyebrow movement. No "uh huhs." Nothing.
It was amazing how uncomfortable I felt. John did not understand the concept of active listening. When I speak with a neurotypical person, I get feedback. Most people at a very young age realize that when someone speaks to them they nod, perhaps display body signals that show they are paying attention, or occasionally say something like "OK, I get it." But not John.
To ease my discomfort and to ensure John understood my instructions, I asked him, "John, I want to ensure that I am communicating clearly. Would you repeat back to me what you think I said?" To my amazement, John was able to repeat back everything I had said...virtually like a tape recorder.
And So Lies the Problem...
Because John has poor communication skills, he was not able to communicate to me through non-verbal communication that he was: a) paying attention or b) understanding what I was telling him. This is a major problem for those on the autism spectrum. I know that John has autism and I expected some challenges with communication. But even I was really put off by speaking to a person who gives no feedback whatsoever when spoken to.
Training Our Staff and Gaining Talented, Loyal Employees
We take special efforts at Visions Publishing, Inc. to train our staff members who are on the autism spectrum. We understand that they typically have some communication challenges. If we can overcome these challenges, we will have efficient, high quality employees. Here are some of the steps we take when employing adults with autism.
Steps to Ensure Employee Success for Staff with Autism
- Take Responsibility for the Communication: When I speak with John (or any of our other staff members with autism) I take extra steps to ensure that I am understood. I do not rely on John to tell me verbally or non-verbally that I am being clear. I ask, "John, please repeat back what you thought I said so that I can be sure I communicated clearly." I take the responsibility. I do not blame John for his communication style.
- Put Your Players in the Right Positions: When coaching a basketball team, one should not assign the shortest player to be the center. Likewise, do not ask adults on the autism spectrum to do jobs that require skills they do not possess. We consciously assign positions like programming, adding content to our websites, and editing video – tasks that require virtually no interaction with others – to our employees with autism. Recognize what those on the autism spectrum are good at. Many individuals are detail oriented. Others can do repetitive tasks with ease and do not get bored. Generally, employees with autism are very consistent and can do the same task the same way over and over again. These are the perfect skill sets for our increasingly high-tech web-oriented society.
- Put Instructions in Writing: Verbal instructions are well and good. But those on the autism spectrum tend to do better if we, as employers, document what we want. Telling a staff member to "get working" without specifying exactly what you want her to do and by when is often a mistake. Again, as an employer of staff on the autism spectrum, we must take responsibility to ensure communication is clear. Not all those with autism are the same. The profile of challenges is individual. Some can manage jobs that require social interaction. Some like routine but not repetitive tasks. The point is that in the right positions – and with effective training and supervision – they are outstanding employees.
About the Author
Publisher Albert Fitzgerald is a father and entrepreneur who has been in the trenches with autism for nearly two decades. After struggling for years to help his own son, Fitzgerald dedicated himself to helping moms and families with special needs children by founding Visions Publishing, Inc. which publishes books, videos, e-books, CDs and newsletters – primarily on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Not only are Visions Publishing's books (such as the Craig Kendall series) becoming a household name but the company's "Aspergersguide" YouTube channel has over ONE HALF MILLION views to date. Get his latest release "New Hope for Autism—15 Successful Strategies Moms Don’t Know" on www.amazon.com.