As an employer, you may not realise that people on the autism spectrum (including those with Asperger syndrome), can be highly skilled and qualified, and may be extremely employable. Here we explain the benefits of employing an autistic person and offer tips for recruitment and interviewing.
Why employ an autistic person?
Mark joined Max Fordham’s in March 2002 as a drawing filer, quickly grasping the complex procedure. He applies care and attention to detail, constantly using his initiative to improve efficiency. He regularly attends progress meetings, where his input is invaluable and he supervises temporary cover within his group.
M. Jones, Partner/Head of Administration, Max Fordham LLP
Many autistic people have a variety of sometimes exceptional skills that enable them to thrive in roles ranging from sales assistant to computer programmer and journalist to statistician, to name a few. However, they are often disadvantaged when it comes to getting and keeping a job because of difficulties with social communication and interaction, and other people's lack of understanding. Autistic employees may need some simple support within the workplace.
As well as their individual strengths and talents, autistic candidates often demonstrate above-average skills in some or all of the following areas:
- high levels of concentration
- reliability, conscientiousness and persistence
- accuracy, close attention to detail and the ability to identify errors
- technical ability, such as in IT
- detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory.
This means that someone who is on the autism spectrum may well be better at a particular job than someone who is not. By gaining an understanding of autism, you can open up new possibilities for your organisation, and for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, employing an autistic person demonstrates your commitment to equality and diversity and a positive attitude to disabled people. Having a diverse workforce brings benefits to staff and business alike, and managers and colleagues often describe working with an autistic colleague as an enriching experience that encourages them to think more carefully about how they communicate, organise and prioritise their work.
The recruitment process
Recruitment procedures often inadvertently create barriers for autistic people. There are many minor adjustments that organisations can make to their processes that will help autistic candidates to apply for jobs, and enable them to demonstrate their skills as potential employees. Many of these adjustments may also benefit other candidates and enhance overall efficiency in recruitment.
By taking these simple steps, your organisation will be meeting the Equality Act (2010) and Northern Ireland Disability Discrimination Act requirement for employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities.
The job description
Job descriptions often include skills that are not essential for the job to be carried out effectively. Qualities such as 'excellent communication skills' or 'good team player' are often included as default skills, even if they are not necessary – and many autistic people will not apply for jobs demanding these attributes. This can mean that suitable applicants may assume themselves to be ineligible for a job even where they have strong skills that are directly relevant to the tasks involved.
The application form
It is not always obvious what information the applicant needs to provide on the application form. It is important to provide clear guidance on this, and to make sure that the form includes a space for applicants to highlight any support or adjustments they may need at an interview.
The job advert
Job adverts are not always concise and written in plain English. They should list essential skills, and avoid jargon or unnecessary information. The advert should be clearly presented, avoiding complex design. Try to be really objective about what abilities and experiences are genuinely essential for the job to be done well, and leave out any that are not.
The interview process
Interviews rely heavily on social and communication skills, so autistic candidates may well struggle to 'sell themselves' in an interview, even if they have all the right skills. In particular, they may face difficulties with:
- understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact
- knowing how to start and maintain conversations
- judging how much information to give – especially if questions are open
- thinking in abstract ways, or considering 'what if?' scenarios
- varying their tone of voice and finding the appropriate level of formality.
What adjustments can I make in the interview?
Making reasonable adjustments during an interview is essential to allowing autistic candidates to portray their skills and competencies fully, so that you can make an informed choice about who to recruit. If you want to interview the candidate, it is important to realise that asking each applicant exactly the same question does not always equate to equality of opportunity. Consider offering an adapted interview in which you ask 'closed' questions, based on the applicant’s past experiences, rather than 'open' (in other words, generalised or hypothetical) questions. For autistic candidates, you might:
- ask closed questions (eg 'Tell me about any jobs/voluntary work you have done in the last five years') and avoid open questions (eg 'Tell me about yourself'), where the candidate may not be able to judge exactly what you want to know
- ask questions based on the candidates' real/past experiences, eg 'In your last job, did you do any filing or data input?'; 'What processes/procedures did you use to do this effectively?'
- avoid hypothetical or abstract questions, eg 'How do you think you'll cope with working if there are lots of interruptions?' - a better question would be 'Think back to your last job. Can you tell us how you coped with your work when people interrupted you?'
- tell the candidate if they are talking too much, eg 'Thank you, you’ve told us enough about that now, and I’d like to ask you another question' – they may find it hard to judge how much information you need
- prompt the candidate in order to extract all the relevant information and gather sufficient information
- be aware that the candidate may interpret language literally eg asking, 'How did you find your last job?' may result in an answer of 'I looked on the map' or 'I looked in the paper, sent for the application form and completed it'
- be aware that eye contact may be fleeting or prolonged, depending on the individual.
Are there alternatives to the traditional interview?
Yes. If adapting your interview skills to the needs of an autistic person sounds daunting, or if you feel that an interview might not be the best way to gauge the person’s suitability for the post, there are other options:
- Inviting a supporter to accompany the person
Many autistic people perform much better in interviews if they have a supporter with them. This person can act as a go-between to ease communication between the interviewer and the candidate, rewording any unclear questions for the candidate and helping them understand exactly what the interviewer wants. The supporter will not answer on behalf of the person, but may help to rephrase unsuitably worded questions (although ideally the employer should do this in preparation for the interview), or help them to communicate with the interviewees, in order to clarify their relevant knowledge and skills. This does not only benefit the candidate: it can also help employers understand what the candidate has to offer.
- Work trials
Some employers find that a work trial, or a period of work experience, is a better way of assessing skills than a formal interview. This approach may also help if you think that an autistic person is likely to do well in the job but you have concerns about how well they will cope in the workplace. If you would like to take this approach, our Employment Training Service can offer support and advice.
Thomas applied for a position as a filing clerk at Camden Council. He was shortlisted and invited for an interview, which included a short filing test. During the interview, Thomas did not come across well. He tended to take questions very literally and gave 'yes' or 'no' answers to questions rather than elaborating on his experience. However, his prospective employers were extremely impressed when Thomas scored almost 100 per cent in the filing test – significantly higher than other candidates.
Following discussions with The National Autistic Society’s employment service, which was supporting Thomas in his job search, Camden Council agreed to offer Thomas a work trial as an alternative method of assessing his ability to do the job. Thomas completed this with great success and was offered a four-week contract, working ten hours a week. At the end of this time, his managers were delighted with his accuracy and reliability, and his contract was extended. Three years later, Thomas was still working for Camden as a filing clerk, enjoying and performing consistently well in his job.
More from our charity
Recruiting autistic employees training course
Managing an autistic employee
Employment training and consultancy services
Our online training modules
Network Autism: Top five autism tips for employing an autistic person.
Autism Equality in the Workplace
by Janine Booth. Removing Barriers and Challenging Discrimination.
Last reviewed: 24 October 2016.