Some companies see opportunity in autism

"I am fairly convinced that America is not really aware of the pending tsunami of burden that the current autistic rate will put on our workforce and adult support services in the next 10 to 20 years," said one father of a 14-year-old autistic son.

He's not alone in his concerns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 American children lie along the Autism spectrum. That number is far higher than in years past, likely reflecting greater awareness of the condition and changing diagnostic standards. Still, the overall number of autistic children has increased. And autism is not simply a disorder of childhood -- it follows people into adulthood and into the workforce.

Some companies see this as an opportunity. German software giant SAP wants to have 1 percent of its workforce be autistic by the year 2020. This is not altruism. The company believes autistic employees will benefit their business, according to The Wall Street Journal. According to Jose Valasco, head of the autism initiative for SAP, people with autism have characteristics that SAP needs in software testers or debuggers.

SAP is not the only company that might benefit from people who are sticklers for detail and excellent at following precise guidelines. However, because many companies focus on the "soft skills," such as being able to work as part of a team or handle multiple priorities, they can miss out on hiring people who could do the job at better than a team-oriented person. In fact, companies should be aware that not hiring someone because they lack soft skills, when those skills aren't necessary for the work, could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What other things should companies know about autism in the workplace? Patty Pacelli, author of "Six Word Lessons for Autism Friendly Workplaces," says the preparation should begin in school.

"School-to-work programs foster success" because the preparation readies not only the autistic person but also the workforce for what to expect," Pacelli writes. She also advises that the traditional job interview may not be the best way to evaluate an autistic job candidate. Rather, "Offering a practice activity, such as proofing a sample document for an editing position may be the best way for him to demonstrate his abilities, and can help employers make a more accurate hiring decision."

Of course, it is easier for people on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum to find work, but that doesn't mean work isn't available for people with greater challenges. It does mean that more help is needed, both in educational settings, adult social services and the workplace.


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