How to Hire Your First Autistic Employees
Disclosure: I'm the owner of
, which is currently in YC's startup school trying to solve the autism employment gap.
Autism at work is a hiring program designed to include autistic people in the workplace (it’s much needed since there are almost no jobs for people with autism and Aspergers). Companies like SAP, Microsoft, E&Y and more already hire autistic adults and adults with Aspergers. This complete guide shares their experiences, learnings, and insights. But while we can see evidence from huge corporations who successfully launched this program, I believe there can be a leaner version of that program, that fits smaller companies, startups, and SMBs who want to hire neurodivergent employees. Actually, I think there is probably a better chance that involving neurodivergents in smaller companies is easier (although the lack of resources) since the company is more flexible and it’s easier to raise awareness for autism. I hope the following guide, which is based on the above complete guide (but not endorsed by) + other resources on the Spectroomz blog (like the autistic-friendly employer meter) will help you do that.
1. Sell (and be sold on) the idea of hiring autistic people to your team and decision-makers. Here’re the benefits of hiring autistic people (ROI):
- Autistic people possess many desired skills, but generally have excellent tech orientation, which makes them a great talent for tech companies. There is an increasingly huge need for such employees (see HBR).
- Highly retained employees (to SAP 1% increase in general employee retention worth US$ 50M/year).
- Tens of thousands of $ worth of tax benefits.
- It adds to the general diversity of the company, which according to scholars and researches contributes to the ability to meet customer needs, creativity, innovation, and the accessibility of products.
- It enhances the company’s brand as an inclusive employer, and therefore attracts top talents. Anyone wants to work in an inclusive workplace that is open to everyone.
- Managers of autistic people become better managers to their neurotypical employees as well. They are more inclusive, give better feedback and set clear expectations.
- Existing autistic employees (who kept it confidential so far) will be happier (as indicated by Microsoft). According to a survey by StackOverflow, 2.6% of the programmers indicated they are autistic.
- Many scholars identify autistic people as trustworthy, innovative, attentive to details, analytical thinkers, productive, reliable and more. Many of them become masters of their trade and therefore are immune to boredom. Now, go and search for these keywords in your current job listings and see for yourself you are already looking for such candidates.
- With 500,000 teens entering adulthood in the upcoming 10 years (in the US), and with direct and indirect annual costs of US$ 236 Billion to the American taxpayer, hiring autistic people and providing them with the professional fulfillment is both socially and economically right.
- Being more diverse means getting more diverse customers = more income.
2. How do I even start:
You should start with a pilot, nothing more. That means 1-2 hires in one location to get things going and learn (like startups that need to get to the market as soon as possible in order to get real feedback). Find a self-starter who can orchestrate everything and cares about the cause + see the great potential. Among others they will need to:
- Together with HR, D&I and management decide what roles will you hire for. The goal is to hire the right full-time employee for a meaningful role. A major factor will be the right manager and the right team, which need to be supportive and inclusive as well as dedicate the extra time.
- Decide on which location (if the company has several) will they hire based on the right team, managers and the company’s need.
- Write the job description together with the hiring manager and HR.
- Design a proper screening process of candidates with the hiring managers and HR (more on that below) based on the job qualifications.
- Make sure you are able to accommodate the needs of your autistic employees (e.g. providing noise cancelation earphones, enable modification of the light for your autistic employees if needed, find proper space, etc.).
- Prepare online or offline preparation/education for other employees regarding autism (1-2 hours which can be done by an outsource consultant).
- If needed, form relationships with potential partners who can help sourcing candidates, consulting you on a day-to-day as well as coach your neurodivergent employees.
- Coordinate with legal.
- Secure the budget.
3. Scope of employment:
- Autistic people’s skills are diversified, and so do the roles they can do. These are the roles they were hired to in Microsoft, SAP and more: Software engineers, data scientists, service engineers, finance, marketing, HR, project management, analysts, cyber, robotics, bankers and more.
- In most places, autistic people worked full time. Part-time and internships were also available. You should also consider enabling remote a day or two.
4. Sourcing the talent:
- This is a solution Spectroomz intends to launch soon.
- You can source via potential partners and NGOs.
- Social media.
- Referral from your current employees.
- PR - notify the local press on your pilot, this could drive lots of candidates. Here’s how to do your own PR.
- Universities and colleges:
- Career services.
- Work readiness program.
- Academic units.
- Disability units.
5. Interview and selection process:
- At Microsoft, some of the autistic candidates who got accepted in the autism-tailored process, were rejected previously in the traditional process, which doesn’t work for many autistic people. Generally, the ideal hiring process requires more resources (several days-weeks of doing actual work (paid) with the candidates + preparing them for the work environment). Below is an alternative, lean, process.
6. Initial screening:
- Set a different email for autistic candidates’ CV submissions. Be less judgmental, and if you feel someone might be promising, make a quick call to uncover relevant experience which might have not been mentioned clearly enough in the resume.
- If the job requires technical skills, send candidates online tests that assess these skills. Be reasonable, this is a preliminary stage.
7. Interview and assessment process:
- Determine the skills needed for the role and design an activity to test each skill and the ability to learn it.
- Have the hiring managers conduct the interviews, and try to design the activity so it will be a mutual working session. Educate the managers about autism and increase their awareness before the working sessions.
- It’s best to simply have the candidates come over for 1-7 days of paid ‘working sessions’ in which you assess them (big corporations do that for several weeks). Interviews can cause stress, and have people arrive for a few days to experience what’s it’s like to work at your company is a good way to reduce that stress. This helps to assess soft skills as well.
- Set clear expectations about each working session and be specific, don’t be vague. Also, be clear about the time each working session should take. Make sure the candidates understand the instructions.
- Ask candidates for their environment preferences and try to accommodate (e.g., reduce lightning, quite rooms, noise cancelation headphones). If they want to work on their own laptop and not use a whiteboard, let them.
- Prior to the interview, send an itinerary of the assessment process with a clear structure (including who will be present).
- If you have autistic employees, try to have them involved in the process (and get their help designing it).
- Provide unstructured time during the working sessions for candidates to deal with cognitive overload.
- Conduct working sessions of 45 minutes, but be flexible if the candidate asks for more time. Have a debrief before and after each session.
- Avoid surprising your candidates, but show them you are flexible to accommodate their needs.
8. Your decision:
- If you decided not to continue with a candidate, give them useful, actionable feedback on-site or on a video call (please please, treat people nicely). Tell them you are okay with having another person on the call (relative, job coach, etc.). Don’t just send your regular email. Candidates need to be able to benefit from the process.
- Ask for feedback about your process (send a survey as well as on-site).
9. Training autistic employees:
- Technical skills: Focus on the specific technical skills and tools needed for the job. This can be done as part of the assessment process, regular employee onboarding or dedicated training for autistic employees.
- Orientation to the organization and soft skills: Give an overview of the company’s values, mission, etc. Tell employees about the support and services intended to support them. This can all be done during the hiring process or as part of the regular onboarding process.
10. Training existing neurotypical employees:
- Create a welcoming and inclusive environment for autistic employees by raising awareness and educating current employees about autism. This training can be done in house or by external vendors. This should happen prior to the employee’s starting date.
- In-person training is better, but a leaner way would be online training.
Privacy is super important. Share people’s needs, not identity.
- Keep an internal mailing list or a Slack channel about neurodiversity and update it with new materials.
- Set a date that works for the employee and the team to start.
- Talk about the dress code if necessary, as well as other rules.
- Explain who do they report to (preferably the person who does the onboarding will be the hiring manager who is the most significant player in creating an inclusive workplace).
- Consider having a welcome-mentor for the initial period (preferably someone from the team). If there are other autistic employees, consider having them as mentors as well.
- There are federal-funded job coaching programs that you might want to involve in the onboarding process (for 90 days).
- Have the manager give the employee constant feedback (bi-weekly launch, in the beginning, could be a good format).
- Changes can cause stress. If the direct manager or team members are changing, communicate it clearly and don’t surprise the employee. Make the proper intro to the new manager and make sure they are well educated about autism.
- There are several online groups in which managers can ask feedback and advice from other autistic adults (check out for example in item # 5). In addition, there is this Facebook group.
Based on the above plan, I have created a free Trello board (a free task management tool) for you to use in your company, you can get it here.
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