Leaders, Celebrate World Autism Month with These 5 Changes by Asha Sreedhar

“What is autism? We don’t hire people with autism.”

Several years ago, this was the response I received from many companies in India when searching for a place of employment. While we’ve seen tremendous progress in the area of corporate neurodiversity efforts that are worth celebrating, the sad reality is that the unemployment rate for individuals with autism is still very high. As recently as 2021, for example, a study from the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that only 22 percent of adults with autism are in any kind of employment.

Simply put, people are being left out because companies don’t understand autism and harbour a reluctance to hire those with autism as a result.

So, what can companies do to better embrace those with autism in their communities and industries? Allow me to answer that question by first spotlighting things I’ve seen change since I started working at SAP and then pointing to things I’d still like to see change to build a more cohesive and collaborative future.

Changes for the Better

Ever since I was hired at SAP Labs India in 2015 through Enable India’s Autism at Work Program, I’ve seen a number of changes for the better in my career and in my working environment:
  • My autism disability is better understood and accepted, and my company and co-workers understand my strengths as well as my weaknesses. 
  • The work environment has improved, with more inclusive meetings, sessions, lunches/dinners, events, team outbounds and more. 
  • I’ve seen an increase in the amount of autism-dedicated events and content, and I’ve had opportunities to host autism events, give motivational speeches about my journey with autism, write blogs on the ‘Autism at Work’ experience (and other topics), meet with other organizations to educate them about autism at work, and participate in many other projects about autism. 

All in all, I’ve been consistently blown away by the amazing encouragement, support, cooperation, consideration, courtesy, friendliness, teamwork, understanding, patience and help/assistance from my manager, mentor, and team members over the years.

But, across the working world, there’s still progress to be made.

Changes to Get Better

What would I like to see companies do more of when it comes to helping and hiring individuals with autism? A few things stand out:

Starting With Understanding - There can be no true support of those with autism without a deeper awareness and understanding of it. Research what it actually is. Read novels about it. Watch movies on the subject (some of my favourites include “Temple Grandin”, “Miracle Run” and “Mozart and the Whale”). Learning what it means to have autism is crucial first step.

Building Diverse, Flexible Roles - Companies must deeply research and examine which jobs interest (and are suitable for) individuals with autism - as everyone is unique and displays different desires, skills and talents. They must use caution, too, because there are some occupations that aren’t meant for individuals with autism, such as those that require extensive multi-tasking, customer service interaction, etc. Articles and books by Temple Grandin are a great resource on this subject.

Training With Purpose - For individuals with autism, training - both job training (i.e. typing, task prioritization, communication, etc.) and other types of training (grooming, hygiene, playing games, etc.) - is extremely valuable and important. There must be fun and interesting training options (with games, activities, etc.) as well as weekend events (like volunteer work, trekking, etc.). Camaraderie and joy are essential to effective training and only help to enhance actual career-related training along the way.

Communicating With Care - Individuals with autism often require specific work set-ups to feel confident and be productive. Ask potential employees if they need a quiet space or a remote set-up in order to thrive. Communicate clearly and deliberately. Make sure you provide every opportunity to succeed.

Providing End-to-End Support - This last point will take up a bit more space. Because even after individuals with autism are hired and trained, a number of initiatives and steps need to be put in place to put them at their most comfortable and confident going forward.
  1. Make sure you’re properly aligned with your employee regarding job title, salary, team, department, paperwork, etc., so they will be prepared and know where to report for duties. 
  2. Assign a very good manager, mentor and team who can help, assist, guide, support, understand and encourage the individual with autism. Focus on providing very good job training and assistance for them until they are confident doing the tasks on their own. Encourage them to share their story. Build camaraderie by dressing up in blue during team meetings in April (Autism Awareness Month).
  3. Continue following up to see how your employee feels about their job and whether they are happy. If they are struggling, find how they can align with the company, even transitioning them to another department if necessary.
  4. Hold annual autism summits to create and spread awareness. Ask individuals with autism to host and speak so that they can build confidence and share their story. 

Changing the Future

I hope this blog serves as a helpful guide and resource to companies and organizations looking to hire and develop individuals with autism. In my experience, everyone would do well to follow the example SAP is setting today by offering many different job opportunities, reducing unemployment for individuals with autism, creating and spreading autism awareness, and not excluding anyone along the way.

~ Asha Sreedhar

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