Thursday, September 19, 2019
Tuesday, 20 November 2018 13:08

Neurodiversity: Uncovering a Hidden Resource to Maximize Business Sucess

Written by Scott Fontechia & Dr. Karen Berkman

brain works

From recruiting to hiring, human resources professionals are tasked with finding the best talent to match position vacancies in small and large companies that will maximize growth. On an employer level, identifying a balanced work force with diverse skillsets can make all the difference in a company’s productivity and reputation. The fact is the human capital in any business or organization is its most vital asset. So how do you find those people and support their professional growth to build a dedicated workforce?

If you have not considered neurodiversity when you think about creating a well-composed group of employees, then you have yet to uncover a hidden resource. Neurodiversity is a term that describes people who think differently, see the world from varying perspectives, or who pick up the details of a task that others may have missed. We often use labels such as autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia when describing this group of individuals, and oftentimes we completely miss seeing their assets because of the notions we developed through myths, media, and fears. However, when you look beyond the surface, you will find capacity waiting to be discovered.

Diving Deeper into Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Workplace

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that occurs in 1/59 individuals. It is called a spectrum disorder because of the varied impact it has on each person. However, the similarities that exist across people with this diagnosis are in the areas of social communication skills and restricted interests. That means people may have difficulty with the social aspects of a work environment, such as selling themselves during an interview or making small talk with colleagues. They might not be able to understand how others are thinking or feeling because of how difficult it is for them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They may take things that are said very literally and not be able to read the non-verbal behavior of others. An example of this would be the social cues we put off when we are ready to move on from a topic of conversation, where as the person with ASD continues on the same favorite topic without regard for your body language. But, at the same time, people with ASD present a multitude of opportunities.

Many large companies have seen the benefits of hiring individuals with ASD. Employers have discovered their gifts and talents for problem solving in creative ways and being able to analyze information and situations to find efficient solutions that have saved the company money. In addition, employees with autism appreciate patterns and routines as well as focused interests on certain topics that make their expertise highly valuable. The productivity and innovation that comes from an inclusive work environment cannot be denied.

Moving Beyond Stereotypes and the Competition

What may have started as a passion project for some has now turned into a competitive edge for businesses across the nation. For an example, you need to look no further than our very own Florida back yard: Rising Tide Car Wash, a small business started in 2013 that employs primarily individuals with ASD. Today, Rising Tide employs around 92 associates with autism and they are washing an average of 500 cars per day. Rising Tide went viral for their business model and retained their success due to high quality products and services. JP Morgan released statements on their own Autism at Work program indicating that employees in the program were “48 percent faster and as much as 92 percent more productive.” Large businesses such as SAP, Microsoft, and EY have been pioneers in piloting autism employment programs with great success. Starting in 2013, SAP’s Autism at Work program already employs 140 individuals with ASD across 12 countries. One by one, each company actively recruits from this untapped and underutilized source of talent.

There are no exact employment rates for adults with ASD because that stat is not tracked by the Department of Labor. Overall, as of July 2018, the national unemployment rate is listed at 3.9%. The most accurate and up to date research in ASD and employment, the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, reports unemployment rates at about 67%. When factoring in underemployment, experts estimate these rates climb as high as 80-90%. Considering there are approximately 10,000 young adults with ASD across the country exiting high school each year, this represents a large amount of unused potential.

Tips for HR Professionals

So, how can your business effectively recruit and retain a more neurodiverse team of people?

From writing job descriptions to conducting interviews to implementing accommodations, it may seem like a daunting task. You may be surprised to discover that some very practical considerations and tweaks to already existing processes could be all it takes.

First, and foremost, know that there are supports out there that are available to your business. The Learning Academy is a group of ASD experts housed at the University of South Florida that are able to provide support, often at no cost to businesses of all sizes. Services include consultation, technical assistance, staff training, autism-related presentations, customizing your onboarding process, job coaching, creating/implementing accommodations, and more.

When thinking of your interview process, consider how accessible it may be and if it is truly a measure of a good employee. A skills-based interview may give you more insight to a candidate than a traditional interview. In-person interviews, rather than telephone, may be vital for someone who needs assistance seeing social cues that are not apparent on a call. The wording of a job description may prevent top talent from applying. A neurodiverse job seeker may literally interpret listed job duties, experience, and qualifications that might be flexible on your end.

As you onboard new talent, does your training procedures effectively meet the needs of someone who is neurodiverse? Different people learn in different ways, some auditory, some visual, some kinesthetic, and some in a combination of methods. Learning a training technique such as behavior skills training would not only make you a better supervisor for neurodiverse employees, it would make you a better supervisor for all employees.

Environmental input like noise and light can affect all employees differently and can typically be easily addressed with the use of headphones, glasses, desk placement, or other common accommodations. Think about the work culture of your business and how that could be challenging to learn for someone with social communication complications. Communication between staff is often crucial for workplace success. What established modes of communication occur in your office? Consider if the work environment will be conducive to the success of all.

Considerations in Practice

Real world examples can help put a visual to some of these considerations. A Tampa-based manufacturing company identified a need for good employees. Previously, they were receiving candidates from temp agencies that came with the typical challenges: repeatedly training new people, poor attendance, uninterested and disloyal employees, and poor performance and productivity. With no prior knowledge in neurodiversity, this company reached out to The Learning Academy Services for ideas. The Learning Academy consulted with the company, identified a qualified candidate, and assisted with the on-boarding process. The company was willing to change their traditional interview format to one that was skills-based. The skills-based interview involved setting up a workspace for the individual to assemble a traffic light by following visual instructions given to employees. While the candidate engaged in the task, the employer was able to ask some basic interview questions in a more informal, conversational way that provided much better insight to the candidate. The candidate was hired and in a very short period of time not only met daily production quotas, he far surpassed his production goals and was promoted within the company.

The Vice President of HR at a local non-profit entertainment venue identified a workplace need for their operation have greater awareness about neurodiversity. She had a mission to bring in experts to help in the areas of staff training and event planning. When The Learning Academy Services collaborated with the VP of HR, we all agreed on taking it a step further to create more work opportunities for people who are neurodiverse. The VP of HR personally created a career exploration program internally that allowed individuals to have trial experiences in careers without the requirement of hiring. The experiences involve hands on training, job shadowing, and occur only in areas that have availability to hire. A neurodiverse candidate completed a career exploration experience in the cash office for the company and the VP of HR indicated she was not a good fit. However, due to getting to know the candidate’s strengths and abilities, the HR professional knew she would excel in the accounting department. Years later, that individual continues to be an integral part of the non-profit’s accounting team and the organization looks forward to establishing career exploration opportunities.

These examples demonstrate how minor adjustments in the hiring and onboarding process can lead to successful placements. Because neurodiverse employees stay in their jobs, there can be many benefits and increased efficiencies for a company. More importantly, developing a diverse workforce allows for innovation, creativity, and productivity.

Support Services in Our Own State

There are supports and services available throughout Florida to assist with this process. The 7 Centers for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) are housed in different universities throughout Florida and cover all 67 counties. This is a free resource to individuals, professionals, families, and businesses. The Learning Academy Services at the University of South Florida is one of many vendors in this state that is funded through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and can offer training, technical assistance, placement and job coaching. For more information, call CARD at 1-800-9-autism or The Learning Academy Services at 813-974-1153.

scott fontechia

Scott Fontechia, MS Employment Specialist Job Developer Learning Academy Employment Services at USF

karen berkman

Karen Berkman, MS., MSW., Ph.D. Director Learning Academy Employment Services at USF