Dan Swearingen | September 23, 2009
For many people on the ASD spectrum entering adulthood, finding appropriate gainful employment is a challenge.
This is unfortunate because people with ASD have skills that can be profitable for an employer. Our experience in Autistry Studios has been that there is an astounding range in skills and interests in the people we work with so generalities always have exceptions but there are some common threads that we agree with:
- good memory for details.
- ability to focus on a particular task for extended periods of time.
- comfort with structured tasks and situations.
- poor communication skills.
- poor social skills.
- discomfort with rapidly changing dynamic situations.
Again, these are very broad generalizations. Your mileage may vary.
I’ve worked my whole professional career with folks like this except we called them “software engineers,” “digital artists,” or “QA testers.” If this is so, why such a gap between the people I work with and people with ASD having trouble getting work?
The problem is that people who have been assessed to be on the ASD spectrum got there because their particular mix of strengths and weaknesses is acute enough that they encounter failure to perform well in “normal” circumstances.
What it takes to hire austistics and aspies is some assistance in the job seeking process and appropriate job assignments and delegation.
Appropriate jobs and their structure
I’m going to discuss the “appropriate job assignments and delegation” part first because there are some concrete examples handy.
This month’s Wired magazine has a short piece Thorkil Sonne: Recruit Autistics about Thorkil Sonne’s company Specialisterne, a QA testing company Thorkil started to take advantage of the strengths of ASD workers. Here’s another article about Thorkil’s company at the Harvard business Review.
Thorkil’s business (a for-profit company) has a structured training process and takes time making sure each employee is in the right role and that their points of contact within the business and with customers are well managed.
In my business, while we do not overtly seek to hire people with ASD, we know that many of our employees prefer what we call “individual contributor” roles, small teams, a quiet workplace, and well defined tasks. As a manager I know that I will get the best work (and therefore best profit) if I take care in how people are managed. Internal business communication is largely handled by people who have stronger communication skills. We call them “Tech Leads” if they are also programmers and we call them “Producers” or “Project managers” if they are less technical. The Producers handle the bulk of the actual interaction with customers and the programmers by far prefer it that way.
I think these are models that could work in other kinds of workplaces.
The job seeking process.
Find a job, interview for the job, get the job.
Actually, practically everyone knows this is a hard process. For people with ASD there are particular difficulties.
To find a job you need to hear about a job or read a job listing, imagine whether you could do the job and imagine whether you’d like doing that job. This is precisely the kind of unstructured imaginative creativity people with ASD can find very difficult.
To interview for a job you need to successfully put on a social performance – for a stranger. This part in itself is very stressful and can be a challenge. In the course of the interview you need to hear the questions the interviewer asks and deliver answers that simultaneously are: a) what the interviewer wants to hear; b) cast a favorable light on you the candidate; c) truthful. This difficult communication challenge is beyond most people who have an ASD diagnosis unless the employer is incredibly accommodating.
I think a solution to the job seeking difficulties is to do something similar to what seems to work in the workplace: matching technical people with “people-skill” people. We could call these people “Recruiters.” By this I mean that a recruiting company that specializes in placement of people with ASD might be a good model to address this problem.
One of the recruiting firms I work with today meets with every candidate and they often escort the candidates to our office on interview days. In the event of a hire they escort the new employee to their first day of work. What I am proposing for ASD folks is that the recruiters stay with the candidate deeper into the process.
This needs some cooperation from the hiring firm but as an employer, if a placement firm consistently brings me good candidates — and even in tough economic times like now good software engineer candidates are scarce — I’m willing to be a bit more flexible.
Practical Next Steps
One of our driving principals at Autistry Studios is that our students and their parents teach us what is needed. We have initially focused on getting our kids ready for life, college, and work. We are increasingly feeling the push to extend our work into helping our students get work and successfully stay at work.