How Autism at Work Programs Can Benefit From Autistic Leadership

A rainbow infinity sign, representing the diversity of the autism spectrum.

Recently, I was fortunate to attend Microsoft’s Autism at Work Summit. It was a great experience, in large part because it afforded me the opportunity to connect with other autistic adults who are discussing, writing, and doing advocacy work related to employment. However, it also made me think a lot about power — who has it, and who doesn’t. Specifically, I spent a great deal of time at the conference reflecting on who in society is granted the right to self-determination, and who is expected to trade away portions of their autonomy for a chance at a career.

While the targeted “Autism at Work” programs at Microsoft, SAP, EY, and other well-known companies are a recent invention, having gained significant traction in under a decade, the idea of specialized programs for disabled workers is not a new concept. The mid-20th century saw the widespread creation of sheltered workshops as a means of keeping disabled people occupied and as an alternative to full-time institutionalization. Sheltered workshops — which continue to exist — segregate disabled people from the broader community, often dramatically underpay workers, and almost universally fail to transition people to a competitive workplace (despite ostensibly existing, at least partially, to provide workplace training and support individuals in attaining work in an integrated setting).

There are ways in which Autism at Work programs perpetuate these flaws and reinforce the paternalistic attitudes that accompany them. Few autism employment programs support job seekers in applying to any role that fits their interests and skills, meaning that in most cases, applicants are forced to sacrifice some degree of self-determination in order to participate. This isn’t to say that neurotypical people don’t make compromises to secure employment, but rarely are the trade-offs so explicit. Additionally, few autism employment programs provide options for people who are not looking for entry level jobs. People with advanced degrees — autistic or not — are not entry level, and it does them (and the companies that hire them) a disservice to shoehorn them into pre-selected positions and grant them limited responsibility when their skills could be put to far better use.

Even for those candidates for whom an entry-level role is appropriate, there is a pervasive lack of opportunity for advancement within the context of Autism at Work programs. In some cases, companies have established siloed divisions into which autistic workers are hired, and a promotion out of that department can result in a loss of accommodations and accessibility. More often, autistic workers simply do not receive the same support and consideration for promotion as their neurotypical coworkers, or are passed over on the basis of misconceptions — that they lack the social skills to be a manger, or struggle with the flexibility required for a more senior role.

Despite some similar faults, Autism at Work programs aren’t sheltered workshops, and that’s absolutely an argument in their favor. That said, great harm has been (and continues to be) done to autistic people simply by applying tactics that non-autistic experts perceived to be the best possible option. For all the good they strive to do, autism employment programs display some concerning characteristics that require an honest assessment, and potentially, revision.

One of the biggest issues with these programs is the near complete lack of autistic leadership. Although there are other instances when a group is represented and has decisions made for them by outsiders, it’s rare to see such a dynamic applauded. Yet when companies discuss their employment programs, it’s uncommon to hear from autistic people unless they are talking about their experience of being hired through a targeted program (or by a company that offers one). Microsoft’s Autism at Work Summit did have a panel of autistic employees at the end of the first day of the conference, and multiple panels representing the “Voice of the Autistic Community” on the second day. However, discussions about creating and running programs for autistic people were dominated by non-autistic voices.

The exclusion of autistic people from work to create and maintain these programs is of concern for multiple reasons. On a fundamental level, employers should question why, if it is not appropriate for an all-male group to determine the roles that women are hired for, or for an all-white group to create trainings to help people of color acclimate to a mostly white workplace, they celebrate efforts to hire more autistic people that exclude autistic people as a source of leadership. While it is great to see autistic people hired for competitive, community-based employment, companies must question the methods employed, and the overall effectiveness of these programs.

To date, there has been very little examination of the impact of autism employment programs. Programs can vary considerably, but in nearly all instances, the overall structure as well as the specific training provided is created and led by neurotypical people. The result is that the focus is too often on traits or behaviors that create problems for non-autistic managers and coworkers. Even programs that view autistic people from a difference (rather than deficiency) perspective typically do not ask autistic hires what training would be most helpful in order for them to succeed. Instead, companies stress non-traditional interviews and soft skills trainings, rather than addressing open offices or other barriers to successful long-term employment of autistic people that can’t be solved by teaching coping mechanisms.

There’s frequently a divide between the strategies and focus chosen by autistic people with regard to increasing autistic employment versus those picked by neurotypical people. Ultimately, companies need to reexamine the balance between training autistic people to fit in, and training neurotypical employees (and especially managers) to accept difference. When thinking about accessibility, it’s imperative to realize that acceptance is the precursor to access. No amount of growth mindset is going to change the fact that my way of being in the world is fundamentally different than that of a neurotypical person, but improving other people’s understanding of and comfort with differences leads to a world that is easier for me to be in.

Many companies with Autism at Work programs currently require autistic hires to participate in weeks-long trainings. Some, like EY, ask applicants to come to a week-long event on site as part of the application process, with successful candidates given a soft job offer at the end. While many autistic people are unemployed, there are also plenty of autistic adults who are simply underemployed — who already have jobs, even if those jobs are not an adequate match for their skills, abilities, and interests. Asking people who often struggle to find and keep a job to potentially lose employment they do have in exchange for the possibility of a better job puts an unfair burden on people who are already at a disadvantage. If companies wouldn’t ask other applicants to spend a week or more on site without pay in order to get a job offer, or to spend as long as six weeks in training before a soft offer converts to a full hire, then it’s exploitive (and discriminatory) to require that of autistic applicants.

Even if these trainings were universally paid, there’s still the question of their content. Training candidates in soft skills is not a substitute for a robust, easy to navigate system that allows autistic employees to request and receive job accommodations. Additionally, when employers single out autistic hires for soft skills training, it reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes about autistic people — that we are deficient in social skills, lack empathy, and have no filter, among others. These ideas about autistic people have repeatedly been shown to be misconceptions and over-generalizations, so it’s important that employers engaging with the autistic community take an active role in countering them, rather than tacitly signaling that a little extra training is all that separates us from our neurotypical coworkers. Focusing on soft skills, while not unimportant, takes valuable time that could be spent on other topics that are of greater relevance to many autistic employees — topics that should ideally be based on feedback from these employees themselves.

This mode of training — and its focus on what autistic people are perceived to lack, rather than on how to equip employees with tools to navigate an environment that is rarely designed with them in mind — also furthers a conception of autistic people as useful only insofar as they can be molded and changed. It’s hard to fully include people if the reason for including them at all is intrinsically linked to focusing on removing the ways in which they are different from everyone else. That doesn’t mean that autistic people don’t need accommodations, just as many neurotypical people do. However, being autistic is not something that can be (or needs to be) fixed, nor is it a determinant of worth or general capability.

A similar issue is basing Autism at Work program scope on limited ideas about what autistic people are capable of and interested in. Neurotypical people are not expected to excel at programming or data analysis if they want to find meaningful employment. Neither do companies decide for neurotypical people as a group which roles they are and are not eligible to be hired for. Yet many autism employment programs continue to seek out neurodiverse candidates because “autistic people are so great at X”, where X is usually some combination of accuracy, hyperfocus, and computational skills. Most continue to hire people with a very specific skill set for a narrow range of jobs, and tout autistic employees’ ability to perform repetitive work while making few errors, with an underlying assumption that they will do this work without complaint.

Treating autistic people in this way — as valuable outliers, rather than as simply another type of successful employee — perpetuates the structure of autism employment programs as something done for autistic people, rather than by and with autistic people. Additionally, when autism employment programs are centered around technical roles and require participants to have a college degree, they automatically exclude many autistic applicants. Research has shown that autistic people are already employed in a broad array of jobs, and although many of the companies that have created formal autism employment programs are in the technology sector, those companies have plenty of non-technical departments in which they could offer employment. Additionally, it’s important to recognize the difficulties that autistic people can face in attending and completing college, which are not related to ability to succeed in employment, and create flexible program and hiring requirements in response.

At the Microsoft Autism at Work Summit, more than one panelist commented about pipeline and supply issues, with respect to sourcing candidates for their programs. As long as autism employment programs maintain limited ideas about autistic employees — selecting the roles that candidates can apply to through their program, requiring applicants to complete unpaid training, and failing to fully engage autistic people as leaders — companies will likely face challenges in recruiting, hiring, and retaining significant numbers of autistic employees.

Fortunately, there is a (relatively) easy solution: make autistic people the go to source in designing and implementing Autism at Work programs. There are already many talented autistic people and autistic-led organizations involved in advocacy and strategic work to increase community employment options for autistic people. If we are valuable enough to hire, and the goal is truly to accept neurodiversity within a company, value us enough to engage us in creating and improving recruiting, onboarding, and retention practices. If there was ever a job in need of innovative thinking, this might be it.

As they currently exist, Autism at Work program serve a very limited number of people and in a very limited capacity. Autistic people are well-positioned to change this, especially since the autistic community has been discussing the unique strengths that often accompany autism since long before the word “neurodiversity” started entering mainstream discourse. Additionally, even the most successful among us often have intimate knowledge of the challenges and obstacles that we face in finding and keeping employment. But in order to support our neurotypical colleagues in improving Autism at Work programs, we need to be treated as the experts we are, and companies need to stop looking to parents and non-autistic professionals in lieu of engaging with us directly.

The way programs are now is an improvement over the past, but we cannot allow it to be the end goal. If your company wants to employ autistic people, start by involving us in the process. Engage with us directly and welcome our feedback. Question your assumptions. Autistic people add more to a company than just return on investment. Hire us and find out for yourself.

Passionate about sound methodology and real-world implications. Twitter: @more_ian_moura