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Amy Brown headshot

How to Create a Pilot Program for Hiring Workers on the Autism Spectrum

By Amy Brown
neurodiversity hiring pilot

This article series is sponsored by DXC Technology and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

With U.S. unemployment at its lowest rate since 2000, nearly 60 percent of American companies now struggle to fill job vacancies within 12 weeks. Globally, knowledge-intensive industries like finance and tech are facing widespread talent shortages. If left unaddressed, the global talent crunch will create more than 85 million unfilled jobs by 2030—costing companies trillions of dollars in lost economic opportunity, according to research from the Korn Ferry Institute.

Neurodiverse individuals—or people with neurological differences like autism, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia—represent a talent pool that is often overlooked by top companies. For example, a staggering 85 percent of college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed in the U.S., compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.

“The tech sector and other industries are crying out for people to put into jobs, and here we have a largely untapped pool of talent that can be identified and trained to meet their needs,” said Susanne Bruyère, director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. 

A growing number of firms are recognizing this opportunity: DXC Technology, SAP, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft and EY all have initiatives to employ people on the autism spectrum. But more companies need to follow suit, said Bruyère, a leading expert in the field of employment disparities for people with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum.

To help, Bruyère outlined seven ways to launch a successful neurodiversity pilot that welcomes people on the autism spectrum and empowers them to succeed. The numbers show that initiatives like these can go a long way toward helping companies recruit top talent while celebrating the entire range of diversity. 

1. Be clear about your vision

A pilot program is a good way to begin engaging with neurodiverse individuals such as those on the autism spectrum, as many companies are not familiar with recruiting and retaining these workers. But clarity is essential from the outset, Bruyère told us. “You have to be very clear about the vision that you have for the initiative and really think through what it is you hope to accomplish,” she explained. 

Are you looking to build your team today, or bolster your pipeline for the future? Will participants have the opportunity to join your team after the pilot? And which departments in your company seem like the best fit for these new hires? It’s important to work out the details up-front so everyone is on the same page and prepared to help your pilot participants succeed. 

2. Make it part of your business strategy

Your pilot is not likely to go very far unless it is part of the business strategy, Bruyère advised. “If your neurodiversity pilot is isolated from the fabric of the organization, it can be problematic, as people may not understand it is part of the overall business strategy,” she noted.

She cautions that “there will be some unforeseen challenges, but a clear strategy articulates that any problems will be worked out and that there is a bigger picture long-term. Supervisors understand that support is there, and they won’t be left high and dry.” 

3. Get buy-in from the top

Bringing leaders on board as champions of the program is critical, Bruyère said: “It is so important to have a statement from top management that articulates an expectation that people on the spectrum will be welcomed and supported, and that employees should be encouraged to discuss with their supervisors what that might look like.”

4. Prepare your employees and workplace culture

It’s natural for people to feel uncomfortable in situations that are new or different. In the case of a neurodiversity pilot, people on the autism spectrum may be unfamiliar with workplace social interactions, and their colleagues may be unsure how to relate with them. 

“Training of recruiters and hiring managers is imperative, to make sure that they are prepared to interview in ways that will support and not needlessly screen out candidates who might not interview well in traditional interview approaches,” Bruyère explained.

A welcoming workplace environment that allows everyone to succeed—regardless of their neurological differences—does not happen by coincidence, Bruyère said. “It is critical to prepare your workplace culture and let people know your intentions, that this is part of the business strategy and why,” she explained.

5. Tailor the way you attract talent 

Think about your recruitment processes and how you attract top talent. “It is important to be clear that you are affirmatively recruiting people who are members of the target population of neurodiverse individuals that the company is recruiting for,” Bruyère said. 

And be mindful that the language you use does not exclude potential applicants. “Make sure your job descriptions are not so narrowly conscripted that you might be eliminating people on the spectrum,” she advised. For example, a job description that emphasizes “working effectively in teams” or “socially interacting with others” may serve to discourage those who see themselves as social isolates. 

6. Support neurodiverse colleagues to stretch and grow

On-boarding people of different skills and backgrounds doesn’t mean much if they’re not properly resourced. “It’s important to be aware that people who are neurodiverse also have the same aspirations as all of us,” Bruyère told us. “Give them stretch assignments and opportunities to explore their potential, as we would do for any job candidates or employees.” 

Create the opportunity for pilot participants to build new skills and test out various functions within the company. And provide feedback—clearly and often—as they move through the program, Bruyère suggests. “Preparing a person on the spectrum for his or her job is not just about training, but also about giving good feedback that is supportive and clear,” she explained. “It might need to be written down and require reinforcement. Ambiguity may be difficult for people on the spectrum. Set very clear expectations.”

7. Tap into your community’s resources

One in every 59 Americans is on the autism spectrum. People on the spectrum—and their families—are your neighbors, meaning your community is a valued ally when it comes to sourcing talent. “You will find that some family members, neighbors or friends of employees may bring candidates on board,” Bruyère said. Likewise, knowledgeable nonprofit organizations can help identify candidates who “can support companies in an enduring way,” she added.

And don’t be surprised if some of these stakeholders soon become vocal proponents of your program. “Companies have found that the public has rallied around their efforts and the pilots have engendered a lot of community support,” Bruyère told us. “A high degree of people in the community are touched by neurodiversity, and it has captured the imagination of communities that companies will step up and put these kinds of programs in place. “

The bottom line: Measuring impact 

When done well, these programs can pay dividends. For example, JPMorgan Chase launched its Autism at Work program in July 2015 as a four-person pilot. Since then, it has grown to 85 people representing 10 lines of business in six countries. And, according to company analyses, those hired through the program were 48 percent faster and up to 92 percent more productive compared to their peers. 

Similarly, DXC Technology’s neurodiversity initiative secured jobs for more than 100 people on the autism spectrum—in fields like cybersecurity, data analytics and software testing—and has a 92 percent retention rate.

In each of these case studies—and many others like them—what began as a search for talent soon became much more. “These programs have touched the hearts and minds of many individuals [within organizations], who have said, ‘This is terrific, how can I help?’” Bruyère told us. “Companies have found people willing to champion neurodiverse individuals being welcomed into the workplace because their own lives have been touched.”

Image credit: You X Ventures via Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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