United States: Increasing Autism Employment: An Anthropologist's Perspective

Last Updated: June 9 2017
Article by Michael S. Bernick

An Anthropologist on Mars is the title of Oliver Sacks' 1993 influential essay on Temple Grandin — an essay that introduced Ms. Grandin and autism more generally to a broad audience. Sacks took the title from Ms. Grandin's description of how she perceived daily social interactions. What would a non-autistic anthropologist today perceive if she or he were to study autism, and more specifically, autism employment? Is there an anthropology of autism employment, or more broadly, neurodiversity employment? Why should we care?

David Platzer, 34, is a doctoral student in medical anthropology at Johns Hopkins. For the past four years he has been immersed in these questions and others related to autism and neurodiversity employment (a term which indexes a range of other neurological differences that extend beyond autism). He has traveled throughout the United States, spent time in Bangalore, India, and has met with hundreds of adults on the autism spectrum and family members, as well as employers, job counselors and representatives of most of the major neurodiversity employment initiatives and prominent advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks and Specialisterne. He has conducted over 150 structured interviews and compiled an extensive archive of autistic employment histories.

Platzer is concerned with what's going on beneath the surface of autism employment. And under this surface, he identifies three shifts quietly occurring in workplace culture, norms and beliefs that are relevant not only to neurodiverse adults and family members, but to a wider employment community.

  1. 1. Neurodiversity awareness in corporate culture: The concept of neurodiversity employment, for many years a fringe discussion, is slowly entering mainstream work culture. Steve Silberman's best-selling book, NeuroTribes, which in 2015 popularized the idea of neurodiversity, continues to gain in influence, and the book has been joined by a regular stream of articles and essays about neurodiversity employment in venues like the Harvard Business Review, , The New York Times and elsewhere. Conferences and summits devoted to neurodiversity employment continue to grow in size and scope. The recent Autism at Work summit hosted by SAP and Microsoft in April attracted more companies, advocates and parents than in any previous year.

Major firms such as Airbnb, Salesforce, LinkedIn, and Facebook, are adding neurodiversity employment to their other diversity and inclusion efforts. Specific pilot projects are in the planning stages at other global firms. The number of neurodiverse hires so far remains very modest. But the ideas that neurodiversity employment brings value and leads to innovation are spreading among global firms.

  1. A movement to develop an economic case for neurodiversity employment, and more ambitiously, a science of neurodiversity employment: Researchers and consultants from a variety of disciplines — industrial relations, rehabilitation psychology, engineering, even business school faculty — are working to detail, measure and quantify the comparative advantages of neurodiverse adults in relation to neurotypical peers. By doing so, they hope to demonstrate to employers that the skills many neurodiverse adults possess (such as pattern recognition, attention to detail, ability to focus) justify their inclusion as good business, not a form of corporate charity.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in Australia has operated one of the leading autism employment initiatives since 2014, called the Dandelion program, growing to 58 employees as of early 2017. It has sought to capture and quantify the benefits of hiring neuodiverse employees using economic and statistical metrics through partnerships with academic researchers at Cornell's Institute on Employment and Disability and Latrobe University. HPE's Dandelion program employees work in three fields: software testing, data analytics and cybersecurity. The largest number, 37, are in software testing "pods," teams working collaboratively and contracted out to the Australian government's Department of Human Services.

According to HPE's Michael Fieldhouse, the Dandelion architect, the pods of neurodiverse workers are achieving a higher level quality of testing than any software testers in the organization. They are demonstrating greater thoroughness and focus, especially on repetitive tasks that many neurotypical people consider monotonous and often cannot do with accuracy or efficiency. The Dandelion program has also proven a major psychological benefit for the workers involved, who now have social networks that they didn't previously, and, as importantly, somewhere to go every day.

HPE is seeking to augment the observations of Fieldhouse and program managers with more scientific documentation of neurodiversity's competitive advantages. It has enlisted PwC consultants to quantify the economic gains to Australian government operations through this initiative. It has enlisted researchers at LaTrobe to carefully observe and document the greater employee productivity.

Similarly, the SAP Autism at Work program, the largest of the autism employment initiatives with over 120 participants, has launched a research effort, seeking to quantify results, develop a neurodiversity employment cost-benefit justification and even a science of autism advantage in the workplace. A recent Harvard Business School case study lauds the SAP program for its ability to demonstrate the competitive advantage of an autism hiring program, in turn encouraging greater support from senior management.

Platzer notes that HPE and SAP efforts reflect a more general culture shift in recent years. "While diversity hiring initiatives were once considered largely a form of corporate social responsibility and resourced accordingly," Platzer writes, "more recent diversity recruitment initiatives have emphasized the corporate economic value of employee diversity and the value of diversity to the bottom line." In this sense, the emphasis on demonstrating a measurable economic advantage to hiring autistic workers is part of a broader trend. With developments in data science, employers are increasingly eager to evaluate the performance of workers through scientific forms of measurement, rather than the subjective approval or disapproval of management.

  1. A counterveiling movement to argue for neurodiversity employment, apart from measured economic value or science: At the same time that neurodiverse hiring is being put forward in cost-benefit terms, Platzer notes that a counterveiling culture is arising in the neurodiverse community that rejects competitive advantage as the argument for hiring — especially as competitive advantage is usually defined. The emphasis on productivity and autism advantage is seen as leaving out many in the neurodiverse community, who may not bring competitive advantages, particularly in the tech field.

Platzer estimates that at least for the tech hiring initiatives, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the adult autism community may have the skills required for these jobs — the other 80 percent do not. He bases this estimate on his many interviews with adults on the autism spectrum, and on other estimates put forward by practitioners in the tech area, such as Expandability in San Jose and Ultra Testing in New York, a software testing consultancy whose employee base is predominantly neurodiverse and which accepts less than 20 percent of adults who apply for tech positions.

Originally published on www.forbes.com

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