Autism at Work: How the Simons Foundation is Expanding Efforts of Inclusion in the Workplace
Contributed by the Simons Foundation
One opportunity can change everything. The transition to adulthood, tumultuous for many, can be even more challenging for people on the autism spectrum. While there have been improvements in early intervention and educational support for people with autism, their employment opportunities have not increased at the same pace. Many — even those with advanced degrees — remain jobless. Researchers have estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of people with autism nationally are unemployed or underemployed.
The Simons Foundation, along with many organizations around the world, believes that people with autism have the same ability as others to perform in many different job functions, and also to acquire new skills. Our effort to employ people with autism has not only confirmed this belief; it has had a profound effect on how everyone involved looks at inclusion in the workplace.
When we have an open position that a manager seeks to fill by recruiting candidates on the autism spectrum, we reach out to one of a few organizations that work with job seekers on the autism spectrum. First we identify candidates who meet most or all of the qualifications of the position in question. Depending on the role, the candidate pool will sometimes contain both people with autism and neurotypical job seekers. We then focus our selection process on skills assessment rather than traditional interview questions, which are often a stumbling block for people with autism. As part of a skills assessment, candidates are given an assignment or task to complete which is designed to show their level of proficiency in the skills required for the job. This may involve drafting emails, preparing spreadsheets based on information and data provided, or answering a number of technical questions as part of a written assignment. Once we have selected a candidate, an offer is made.
While the candidate prepares for their first day on the job, the foundation is preparing as well. The employee’s direct manager, human resources staff, and the employees who will be working with the new staff member receive training focused on working with people on the autism spectrum. We work with a training partner on a three-hour training that covers topics such as communication, interviewing, onboarding, mentoring and support strategies. After the training, one manager said she was “just as excited as the candidate” about the opportunity.
For the first few weeks after each new hire, their teams focus on understanding the candidate’s communication and learning style. They set up a routine that allows the new employee to complete projects by breaking them down into smaller, structured tasks. More than anything else, though, the team works to build a relationship with the new employee.
Preparing the incoming employee’s team is one way the foundation has worked to ensure a smooth and satisfying transition. In addition, the foundation has established a mentoring program, so that employees on the spectrum can feel supported by someone who is not directly involved in their day-to-day work. Once mentors have received training, they remain available to provide support and guidance, typically meeting with their mentees twice a month. The feedback on this program from both mentors and mentees has been overwhelmingly positive. Most mentors have described the experience as one of the best things they have been involved in at work, something they would not hesitate to do again.
Since the foundation started this program in late 2016, we have continued to source candidates for select open positions through organizations that help companies recruit and retain qualified professionals on the autism spectrum. We have not limited the type of job a person with autism can perform. Employees with autism are doing jobs ranging from administrative work to finance and computer networking. This has been successfully accomplished without any major accommodations or adaptations.
One of our employees said of his experience, “I am on the spectrum and have been moved by my time here at the foundation. My boss is kind but firm, and any issues are discussed rather than simply having my mistakes pointed out. My mentors have been like friends to me and helped smooth the transition. The environment has been exciting as well as encouraging, and has enabled me to branch out into other fields. What strikes me most is that this is a foundation full of people who earnestly care about other people.”
It is not always possible to place people into full-time employment, of course. Recognizing this, the Simons Foundation has also recently piloted an internship program as an opportunity for candidates to gain valuable work experience while building social and interpersonal skills in a professional office environment. Recent surveys show that 42 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum have not worked for pay since leaving high school, so a paid internship is an important step toward building a professional résumé.
Since the launch, progress for this program has been slow and steady, but it’s an ongoing effort that’s important to us. Of our total employee population, just over 1% have been hired through this program and we plan to host two rounds of internships this year. One senior manager and her staff expressed being incredibly inspired by their new employee’s growth during his first year: He has become a valued employee and an integral part of their team. The manager believes that the experience has helped her grow as a leader, and in the future she says she will definitely seek to employ others on the spectrum.
The following is a list of organizations that we have partnered with for different aspects of our autism hiring program:
- Integrate Autism Employment Advisors
- NEXT for AUTISM
- Adaptations Program at Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
If you are interested in how the Simons Foundation implemented this program, please feel free to contact Maria Adler at firstname.lastname@example.org.