Autism as an asset in the workplace


During the Second World War, the allied intelligence services utilised unique talents of colour-blind people to their benefit. Aerial photographs of enemy positions had to be analysed to identify the movement and location of troops and weapons. Whether the photos were black and white or colour, camouflage made the positions almost impossible to distinguish. But colour-blind people had spent a lifetime noticing visual differences that are not related to colour, so they spotted camouflaged positions with ease. What had previously been seen as a disability was suddenly recognised as a powerful advantage.

Michael Fieldhouse, the director of federal government and emerging business opportunities for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), recalls being told about this by his father. It is a story that stuck with him, and is one he uses to illustrate the potency of the project that has been his passion ever since he read a fascinating case study several years ago. The paper was co-authored in 2007 by Professor Rob Austin, at the time working at Harvard Business School. It profiled a Danish not-for-profit called Specialisterne (The Specialists in Danish), which placed people into software testing jobs and roles that were recognised as monotonous and repetitive, but which required great accuracy. Three out of four of Specialisterne’s employees had been diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism is defined in the research paper as “a brain condition characterised by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour.” But people with autism often have great memories and attention to detail – perfect skills in software testing roles.

Fast forward to today and Specialisterne now has a presence in Australia, partnering with several major players in software and IT. HPE has partnered with the Australian Government Department of Human Services to bring more people with autism into the organisation. And software company, SAP has helped to promote World Autism Awareness Day, featuring its employees with autism on its website, and committing itself to having one per cent of its global workforce made up of people with ASD by 2020.

What does any of this have to do with the HR function within organisations? Quite a lot, actually.

Hiring the individual

“For this to work, you need to make small changes throughout most of your organisational processes, and that can be quite intensive,” Fieldhouse says. “But that shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. Organisations need to be representative of society, which has so many different flavours. We need to work out how organisations access all of those flavours.”

Around 80 per cent of people with autism are unemployed, Fieldhouse says. Yet a search on Seek for jobs in software testing, at the time of writing, reveals 1704 job vacancies in Australia.

“People with autism are typically very good at repetitive tasks. In fact, they sometimes find such tasks quite comforting. That could be a menial job but it could also be very advanced. In cyber security, looking through logs to find potential threats is a very high-tech task, but many people don’t have the patience to do it precisely or correctly,” says Fieldhouse.

One of HPE’s employees was dux of his school and got first-class honours in science at university, but then couldn’t find a job. “And yet people with ASD are falling out of the employment system because they don’t interview well,” he says.

John Craven, chairman of Specialisterne in Australia, says some HR processes are “stereotyped and programmed.”

“If an applicant doesn’t get nine out of 10 on the checklist, they don’t get in,” he says. “These checklists often include things such as team sports, or having a wide range of friends. These are characteristics that may not apply to a person with autism.”

Another example, Craven says, is a young man employed in Adelaide by HPE’s software testing division. Having graduated with honours in engineering, he had then not worked for more than two years.

“He told me that in an interview he frightens off the interviewer because he’s a bit loud,” Craven says. “He gets excited and sometimes stands up and waves his arms around. So he never gets the chance to tell them who he really is. The assessment processes are biased against autism. Businesses have traditionally been built around optimising the norm and getting rid of anything on the fringes. We’re harnessing the fringes and integrating them with the norm so you have a much more diverse workforce.”

This isn’t charity

Professor Rob Austin, co-author of the paper that introduced HPE’s Fieldhouse to the work of Specialisterne, says this is a good news story about recognition of talent which also serves a strategic purpose. This movement has not been set up to bring lowly paid, ‘special needs’ staff into an organisation out of charity, Austin says. It is quite the opposite.

Now that we’re transitioning towards an innovation economy, we have to come up with things that are original. We need people who are different to come up with ideas that are different and recognise the value in new ideas. Business history is full of people who’ve invented stuff but didn’t realise they had something valuable.”

One of the many exciting things around employing people with autism, Austin says, is the clarity around how they contribute to business value. If innovation comes from the edges, then people who think differently to the norm will be integral to that innovation.

What are the obstacles?

Discrimination, whether positive or negative, is always going to be a problem for organisations when they hire. Austin says none of the companies currently involved with Specialisterne felt qualified to diagnose or choose a candidate who may have been determined “on the spectrum”. That is why they sought the help of agencies such as Specialisterne, who in turn rely on the diagnosis of medical professionals and locate candidates through social agencies.

In Australia, Austin says, it is possible that businesses will need to apply for permission to positively discriminate in hiring. When employing people with autism, businesses are plucking talent from a pool of largely unemployed people, to take on roles that others do not naturally excel at, so it is unlikely to be a problem.

More specific obstacles include physical workspaces. Often noise, bright lights or excessive social contact can upset some people on the autism spectrum. While it doesn’t have to be individual offices, spaces can be shared by two, three or four people, but they need to be quiet says Specialisterne founder, Rhorkil Sonne. “The formula for success is to set out expectations with tasks clearly defined and planned, with a contact person to go to if the person with ASD has a question or feels uncomfortable.”

Education of people already within the organisation to dispel myths around what people with autism are like and how they behave is another issue. In Denmark, fellow employees have learnt how to adapt to people with autism. “Everyone has to say what they mean and mean what they say, no sarcasm or irony, and just be nice to each other. Often that softens the way people communicate in an office – and people appreciate it” says Sonne.

How you attract people with autism into the workforce and hang on to them, will impact on advertising and on-boarding processes as well.

“A lot of the text books or business school HR practices aren’t as conducive as they could be to hiring people with inspired peculiarities,” Austin says. “At SAP, for example, they are revisiting a lot of their HR practices with an eye to improving them.”

In the end, such diversity is good for everybody involved. It takes people out of unemployment, offers them a sense of value, and improves the quality and profitability of a business’s output.

“The advantage of this program is it takes a disability and turns it into a special ability,” Austin says. “That’s kind of exciting.”

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the March 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Special Ability”. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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Damien Hutchens
Damien Hutchens
8 years ago

Great article. I worked for several years with a wonderful young autistic man who thrived in a file-room job that we had previously had non-stop turnover in. Not only did he enjoy and grow in the job, he did the job far better than anyone before. It just took a little open minded thinking to see the opportunity!

Wayne
Wayne
8 years ago

This is a really interesting article and makes you think. What is someone put a list or dictionary together of the different conditions or “disabilities” and what value or strengths they offer the workplace. That would help employers find the right fit, type and aptitude of person that is best suited for the job, rather than the most qualified and most likely to get bored with it. This list or dictionary would also help create employment opportunities for people who are otherwise looked down upon because they have not been seen as the value that they can bring to the… Read more »

Brendan
Brendan
5 years ago

Are these articles permitted to be used as a resource on a website?

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

Autism as an asset in the workplace


During the Second World War, the allied intelligence services utilised unique talents of colour-blind people to their benefit. Aerial photographs of enemy positions had to be analysed to identify the movement and location of troops and weapons. Whether the photos were black and white or colour, camouflage made the positions almost impossible to distinguish. But colour-blind people had spent a lifetime noticing visual differences that are not related to colour, so they spotted camouflaged positions with ease. What had previously been seen as a disability was suddenly recognised as a powerful advantage.

Michael Fieldhouse, the director of federal government and emerging business opportunities for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), recalls being told about this by his father. It is a story that stuck with him, and is one he uses to illustrate the potency of the project that has been his passion ever since he read a fascinating case study several years ago. The paper was co-authored in 2007 by Professor Rob Austin, at the time working at Harvard Business School. It profiled a Danish not-for-profit called Specialisterne (The Specialists in Danish), which placed people into software testing jobs and roles that were recognised as monotonous and repetitive, but which required great accuracy. Three out of four of Specialisterne’s employees had been diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism is defined in the research paper as “a brain condition characterised by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour.” But people with autism often have great memories and attention to detail – perfect skills in software testing roles.

Fast forward to today and Specialisterne now has a presence in Australia, partnering with several major players in software and IT. HPE has partnered with the Australian Government Department of Human Services to bring more people with autism into the organisation. And software company, SAP has helped to promote World Autism Awareness Day, featuring its employees with autism on its website, and committing itself to having one per cent of its global workforce made up of people with ASD by 2020.

What does any of this have to do with the HR function within organisations? Quite a lot, actually.

Hiring the individual

“For this to work, you need to make small changes throughout most of your organisational processes, and that can be quite intensive,” Fieldhouse says. “But that shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. Organisations need to be representative of society, which has so many different flavours. We need to work out how organisations access all of those flavours.”

Around 80 per cent of people with autism are unemployed, Fieldhouse says. Yet a search on Seek for jobs in software testing, at the time of writing, reveals 1704 job vacancies in Australia.

“People with autism are typically very good at repetitive tasks. In fact, they sometimes find such tasks quite comforting. That could be a menial job but it could also be very advanced. In cyber security, looking through logs to find potential threats is a very high-tech task, but many people don’t have the patience to do it precisely or correctly,” says Fieldhouse.

One of HPE’s employees was dux of his school and got first-class honours in science at university, but then couldn’t find a job. “And yet people with ASD are falling out of the employment system because they don’t interview well,” he says.

John Craven, chairman of Specialisterne in Australia, says some HR processes are “stereotyped and programmed.”

“If an applicant doesn’t get nine out of 10 on the checklist, they don’t get in,” he says. “These checklists often include things such as team sports, or having a wide range of friends. These are characteristics that may not apply to a person with autism.”

Another example, Craven says, is a young man employed in Adelaide by HPE’s software testing division. Having graduated with honours in engineering, he had then not worked for more than two years.

“He told me that in an interview he frightens off the interviewer because he’s a bit loud,” Craven says. “He gets excited and sometimes stands up and waves his arms around. So he never gets the chance to tell them who he really is. The assessment processes are biased against autism. Businesses have traditionally been built around optimising the norm and getting rid of anything on the fringes. We’re harnessing the fringes and integrating them with the norm so you have a much more diverse workforce.”

This isn’t charity

Professor Rob Austin, co-author of the paper that introduced HPE’s Fieldhouse to the work of Specialisterne, says this is a good news story about recognition of talent which also serves a strategic purpose. This movement has not been set up to bring lowly paid, ‘special needs’ staff into an organisation out of charity, Austin says. It is quite the opposite.

Now that we’re transitioning towards an innovation economy, we have to come up with things that are original. We need people who are different to come up with ideas that are different and recognise the value in new ideas. Business history is full of people who’ve invented stuff but didn’t realise they had something valuable.”

One of the many exciting things around employing people with autism, Austin says, is the clarity around how they contribute to business value. If innovation comes from the edges, then people who think differently to the norm will be integral to that innovation.

What are the obstacles?

Discrimination, whether positive or negative, is always going to be a problem for organisations when they hire. Austin says none of the companies currently involved with Specialisterne felt qualified to diagnose or choose a candidate who may have been determined “on the spectrum”. That is why they sought the help of agencies such as Specialisterne, who in turn rely on the diagnosis of medical professionals and locate candidates through social agencies.

In Australia, Austin says, it is possible that businesses will need to apply for permission to positively discriminate in hiring. When employing people with autism, businesses are plucking talent from a pool of largely unemployed people, to take on roles that others do not naturally excel at, so it is unlikely to be a problem.

More specific obstacles include physical workspaces. Often noise, bright lights or excessive social contact can upset some people on the autism spectrum. While it doesn’t have to be individual offices, spaces can be shared by two, three or four people, but they need to be quiet says Specialisterne founder, Rhorkil Sonne. “The formula for success is to set out expectations with tasks clearly defined and planned, with a contact person to go to if the person with ASD has a question or feels uncomfortable.”

Education of people already within the organisation to dispel myths around what people with autism are like and how they behave is another issue. In Denmark, fellow employees have learnt how to adapt to people with autism. “Everyone has to say what they mean and mean what they say, no sarcasm or irony, and just be nice to each other. Often that softens the way people communicate in an office – and people appreciate it” says Sonne.

How you attract people with autism into the workforce and hang on to them, will impact on advertising and on-boarding processes as well.

“A lot of the text books or business school HR practices aren’t as conducive as they could be to hiring people with inspired peculiarities,” Austin says. “At SAP, for example, they are revisiting a lot of their HR practices with an eye to improving them.”

In the end, such diversity is good for everybody involved. It takes people out of unemployment, offers them a sense of value, and improves the quality and profitability of a business’s output.

“The advantage of this program is it takes a disability and turns it into a special ability,” Austin says. “That’s kind of exciting.”

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the March 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Special Ability”. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

4 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Damien Hutchens
Damien Hutchens
8 years ago

Great article. I worked for several years with a wonderful young autistic man who thrived in a file-room job that we had previously had non-stop turnover in. Not only did he enjoy and grow in the job, he did the job far better than anyone before. It just took a little open minded thinking to see the opportunity!

Wayne
Wayne
8 years ago

This is a really interesting article and makes you think. What is someone put a list or dictionary together of the different conditions or “disabilities” and what value or strengths they offer the workplace. That would help employers find the right fit, type and aptitude of person that is best suited for the job, rather than the most qualified and most likely to get bored with it. This list or dictionary would also help create employment opportunities for people who are otherwise looked down upon because they have not been seen as the value that they can bring to the… Read more »

Brendan
Brendan
5 years ago

Are these articles permitted to be used as a resource on a website?

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM