Although there has been some progress in hiring more workers who have autism, most businesses in all sectors are still reluctant to recruit them. A 2015 report from Drexel University found that just 58 percent of young adults between high school and their early 20s have ever been employed. Other sources estimate that 80 percent to 90 percent of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed.
Still, the prevalence of autism in the general population is significant, with an estimated 1 in 68 children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, companies that add autistic workers to their payroll may actually be more in tune with their customers. “Businesses are beginning to recognize that if they can better reflect society and their client base, their bottom line is better off in the long run,” says David Kearon, director of adult services at Autism Speaks, a New York City-based advocacy group.
Companies like Microsoft and the accounting firm EY have taken steps to bring autistic people into their workplaces. “It’s not because they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts or out of some corporate social responsibility,” Kearon says. “It’s because they’ve discovered that people with autism can really help their business.”
You don’t have to be a tech giant to discover the hidden benefits that autistic workers offer. Small and mid-sized businesses can also reap the rewards. Kearon points out that autistic workers are highly loyal, staying longer at companies and boosting retention rates. They show up for work on time consistently, have better overall attendance records, and can focus on tasks for long periods of time.
“They’re also shown to have stellar safety records. Many people with autism follow the rules to a T and will not deviate from it. They’re very much rule bound and strive in repetitive, routinized work,” Kearon says. “A person without autism, like me, would start to lose focus if I was asked to do the same task day in and day out. But many people with autism actually get better over time.”
Business owners need to know that the autism spectrum is wide and can include everyone from people who need help round-the-clock to individuals who can achieve advanced college degrees. While people with autism may be “deficient in social interactions and communication skills, it does not impact their ability to perform most job tasks,” Kearon says.
Autism Speaks co-founded The Spectrum Careers, a free online resource that helps business owners find qualified autistic workers. Employers can post job listings and autistic workers can put up their resumes and even introductory videos that highlight their skills. Perhaps most important, employers can find service providers who can help them make their workplaces more conducive to autistic workers.
From routines to results
The unique advantages that autistic workers bring to small businesses is on vivid display at Spectrum Designs, founded in 2011. The Port Washington, New York-based apparel manufacturer creates custom-designed clothing and promotional items for corporations, organizations, municipalities, private parties, and events.
Currently, 75 percent of Spectrum’s 30 employees have autism. They range in age from 18 to 35 and individuals work between 10 to 40 hours a week.
“It’s not a place where all the supervisors are non-disabled and the workers are disabled. It’s totally integrated with a hierarchy similar to any other company, based on skill set, experience, education, and training,” says Patrick Bardsley, Spectrum’s CEO and co-founder.
Autistic workers seem to be well-suited to the rigors of working with apparel, which involves precise, repetitive steps. That said, starting with a blank product, such as a T-shirt, and flawlessly executing a design that results in a tangible product resonates with his autistic workers.
“There’s a clear beginning and an end. That satisfaction of task completion is enjoyable particularly for our population, who sometimes struggle with what’s expected of them,” Bardsley says. “[But it works out when you say] look—I need you to fold and count these 300 shirts in bunches of 12 and then put them in the box and we’re done.”
While this may seem too rigid and fixed for a general population of employees, Bardsley is quick to point out that the special way his autistic workers think can actually lead to unexpectedly positive results. A few weeks ago, for example, workers were in the middle of feeding a fresh batch of shirts through an electric conveyor belt dryer when the power went out. The machines stopped and work ground to a halt. The non-impaired employees stood around and wondered what happened. But an autistic worker remembered that shirts were still in the dryer under the heat. He cranked the conveyor belt by hand and saved the shirts that had to be shipped out that day from being incinerated.
Echoing Kearon of Autism Speaks, Bardsley finds that his autistic employees are dedicated, hard-working, and stay on task. He often has to remind them to take breaks because they know they’re at the company to work a shift before they can go home.
Bardsley says that small business owners should become more familiar with the characteristics of autism in order to be prepared for obstacles that might come up, such as communication issues. Since autistic people respond better to visual cues than language, Spectrum has outfitted the entire company with images for more efficient comprehension. For example, there are lines on the floor to show workers where to stand and pictures on the machines, such as an octopus on their eight-headed print machine. Instead of telling a worker to go to the Automatic Screen Print Machine, they can be told to go to the print machine octopus.
“We gained some giant clients and have repeat orders because we do a very good job, not because of our charity,” Bardsley says. “Every shirt we print that goes out there is a testament to what people with disabilities can do.”