Hiring from the Spectrum

By J. Mark Bade

January, 2017

All across the United States — and around the world — are intelligent, talented individuals with the abilities to focus intently, think outside the box, and pay attention to detail. But because these individuals are on the autism spectrum, they often find it difficult to get corporate jobs because of social and communication difficulties that make the interview process challenging to interviewer and interviewee alike. If they can find a job, it might be difficult to keep because, to succeed within a corporation, they will need supports on navigating the work environment and the job culture. As a result, many bright people on the spectrum are almost certainly underemployed — or simply unemployed.

On the other hand, all across the United States — and around the world — corporations are looking for talented individuals with the abilities to focus intently, think outside the box, and pay attention to detail. Those abilities can be especially valuable in certain information technology jobs, but also in other areas of the corporate workplace. And over the past few years, some companies have begun to actively seek out and recruit individuals on the autism spectrum — IT firms such as Microsoft, CAI, and SAP, as well as firms such as Ford, Vodafone, and Freddie Mac. Doing so means changing the way the companies find job candidates, changing the interview process, changing the onboarding process, and providing ongoing support to the new hires.

The Prospect Pipeline

Appropriately qualified job candidates on the spectrum can come to the attention of a corporation in a variety of ways. One way is through recruiting at universities, often through campus disability offices. Another way is through partnerships with staffing companies that specialize in placing people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Specialisterne is a Danish company with offices in the United States, and it serves Microsoft, SAP, and Willis Towers Watson, among other companies. On its website, Specialisterne describes the “the autism advantage” that employers can gain through “extraordinary talents that can be utilized by employers, with the right understanding of how to accommodate and manage people with different personalities and skills.”

In the Pacific Northwest, the service agency Provail works with Specialisterne to implement the Danish company’s model for interviewing and employment. In addition, advocacy organizations such as Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autism Alliance of Michigan also help bring prospective employees together with employers.

Getting Hired

A typical job interview might include a little small talk, maybe a joke or two, and some good eye contact — all of which can be problems for an interviewee on the spectrum. In addition, some companies — Microsoft, for example — are accustomed to asking interviewees to solve coding or design problems on the spot, under pressure, perhaps with a series of managers. For getting to know candidates on the spectrum, however, Microsoft and other companies, like SAP, use an extended, lower-pressure schedule. That schedule is described this way in a Fast Company article from September of 2016: “[C]andidates…hang out on campus for two weeks and work on projects while being observed and casually meeting managers who might be interested in hiring them. Only at the end of this stage do more formal interviews take place.” SAP, partnering with Specialisterne, allows even more time, using a six-week hiring process.

While the skills of hires on the spectrum often lead them to technical jobs in IT or related fields, employers may find them a good match for jobs in other fields as well, such as graphic design, project management, HR, benefits administration, finance, or marketing.

After the Hire

Any successful program for hiring those with ASD includes training and support after the hire. Mentors may help with logistical and social challenges. Co-workers and managers might receive training on what an individual on the spectrum needs to succeed, both in job tasks and socially. Help might also be provided in the activities of daily living — sleeping, eating, or being on time — so frustrations there don’t disrupt job performance. The supports need to be ongoing, preferably backed up by lasting corporate cultural change.

In its article, Fast Company says of the Microsoft program, “So far, all of those hired through the new program have performed at or above expectations. None have left Microsoft.” Microsoft is increasing its program, and SAP intends to hire with the goal that one percent of its global workforce is from the spectrum.

Why Hire?

The players in this scenario that is creating more jobs for highly able people on the spectrum have varying motives. For employers, having skilled employees who help achieve outstanding business results is one motive. For advocacy groups, social justice is a motive.

There can be a more personal motive as well. In articles on the topic of hiring those on the spectrum, a recurring theme is that of an executive having a child with special needs and thus, presumably, seeing a problem more intimately and from a different perspective than others see it. Several Microsoft officers are in this category, according to Fast Company. And according to an article in The Huffington Post, the executive director of Specialisterne’s U.S. division has a child with autism. So while numbers and social justice are important, perhaps the most important motive in hiring individuals on the spectrum may be one with which anyone in the 2e community can identify — doing what’s right for the young person you know.


The following sources were used in the development of this article:


The following resources might be of use to those on the spectrum who are seeking work.

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