I recently joined a virtual job fair for autistic career seekers that included a connection to employers like Microsoft and other tech companies. I noticed one thing immediately: the recruiters were falling over themselves to recruit men (yes, only men) with technical and coding experience to get a job with their organizations. These men had other things in common, too. They were, most likely, very close to the definition of what Rosemarie Garland Thomson calls the “normate” — white, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, male, and otherwise non-disabled (no other physical, emotional, psychological, or learning disabilities.)
I spied a post by a young woman looking for a customer service, non-technical role with Microsoft. She received no answer whatsoever. A young man below her inquired about a data scientist position; a recruiter responded immediately, asking for his resume and sending him the direct contact information of a hiring manager. I then tried a chatroom for another major employer and sponsor of the career fair. Similarly, I discovered a post by a young man with an ethnic name searching for a non-technical career with the sponsor company. A recruiter responded thirty-three minutes later, telling him to send his resume into the void (a general e-mail address.) Exactly like the other board, young men with white-sounding names looking for technical careers were almost immediately contacted with specific connections to network themselves into a job.
We have known for some time that our sisters in the Autistic community have been under-diagnosed. The same is true for Autistic people of color. Moreover, Autistic people often have co-occurring disabilities that might include physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, OCD, PTSD, learning disabilities, and more. Employment discrimination (including sexism, racism, and ableism toward co-occurring disabilities) is a known issue, especially in the tech industry, and there is little at work within Autistic employment programs to combat these biases. By focusing on technical careers — careers that are already underrepresented for PoC, women, and other disabled people — these programs reify harmful stereotypes, overrepresent their positive impact on the community, and come very close to exploitation rather than support.
For people like me with a mathematics learning disability, a technical job is mostly out of the question. I certainly will never be a coder. That’s not to say that I do not have other skills, some of which are constantly touted by Autistic-friendly companies: excellent rote memory, superior analytical skills, natural organization and administration abilities, a good mind for policies and procedures, and ethical direction in work. It’s discouraging to see recruiters gloss over Autistic candidates who don’t fit into narrow, predefined roles.
This is not to say that these programs can’t be successful, but we need to be more critical before we hand them more accolades (and associated business) without questioning what it is their program is doing — I mean beyond the weaponized, commercialized inspiration porn produced by their respective PR departments. For example, the puff-pieces touted by Microsoft’s Autism hiring program feature all white, presumably heterosexual, cis-men who have found work through the program. One story mentions one woman working in customer support, and one video features a non-Autistic female with an Autistic son. No other Autistic women are mentioned, nor do they feature any Autistic people of color. Also, all the men work in data science or coding positions.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Microsoft has bad intentions. Despite 35% of Autistic adults having attended college, the unemployment rate for these Autistic adults is 85%. And while the unemployment rate of adults with other disabilities is now dropping, they continue to be higher than in the non-disabled community. Furthermore, the new employment opportunities for disabled adults appear to be mostly low-paying, menial jobs that no other employee wants to do. Before we start handing out humanitarian awards, and the related business entailed therein, we need to do our due diligence in asking critical questions.
First, we need to ask about the demographics of these programs. How many employees have been hired? How many of these new hires are women, LGBTQIA, or PoC? How many have other disabilities? What is the average age of these new employees? Next, we need to know more about the specific positions. What’s the pay rate? How does that compare to others with similar positions? Most importantly, do women and PoC get hired at similar rates for similar positions? Are all positions within the company available to and offered with the same eagerness to candidates within the program? Finally, what are the opportunities for advancement?
We also need to be critical of the recruiting companies that get paid a pretty penny to onboard these Autistic employees. First, these companies actually tend to do little to get Autistic candidates hired, contrary to their rhetoric. These companies often masquerade as charities, featuring puzzle-piece imagery that Autistic people find dehumanizing and offensive, and aligning themselves with Autistic hate groups like Autism $peaks. These companies are almost always owned and operated by non-Autistic and non-disabled “experts.” These organizations have done very little to help any individual Autistic person while making a great deal of money for themselves, all while procuring massive amounts of undeserved public support.
As an Autistic person, I am, of course, concerned with the dismal state of employment for highly capable Autistic adults. We do need programs to help companies of all sizes (not just major employers) in all sectors to help hire, onboard, and keep disabled workers. But we do not need these companies to reinforce harmful (sexist, racist, and ableist) stereotypes. We need these companies to affirm that they are aware of matrices of marginalization. Autistic people have multiple identities: we are sometimes LGBTQIA, Asian, African American, Latinx, Indigenous, or multiracial. Sometimes we have other disabilities in addition to Autism. Not only do we all, equally, need jobs; we need good-paying jobs, in multiple roles, with companies of all sizes. We need the opportunity to advance our careers. We need to hold employment programs like Microsoft’s to higher standards. I do not support the Autistic hiring program at Microsoft, and I will not support it until I have honest, acceptable answers to all of the questions herein… and neither should you.