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Autism in the Workplace: Potential Candidates on the Spectrum

Written by: April J. Lisbon, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise

Talent recruiters and HR leaders are required to find the best candidate who has the skills to do the job as well as fit within an organization’s culture. Your organization may find itself with several hundred applicants who present very well on paper. Yet the true test is during the interview process. With so many advocates fighting for more inclusion of neurodivergent individuals in the workplace, it may be challenging to determine It is easier to plan for a neurodivergent hire who hired via a job placement center. However, what if the person does not come from a job placement center? How do you know if the candidate in front of you is on the Autism Spectrum?


The answer is simple. Unless you know some of the classic hallmarks of Autism or you know someone personal on the spectrum, it may be difficult to spot the signs so that you ensure that your decisions are based on the person’s ability and not their disability.


Recently, I had a conversation with a talent recruiter who shared with me some insights into how the hiring process can be skewed, at times, for neurodivergent learners. The discussion centered around a brilliant candidate who met all of the qualifications of being able to do the job. However, because the candidate failed to provide consistent eye contact throughout the interview process, the candidate was not hired. As a parent of an autistic child and advocate, I was filled with many emotions, from outright anger to a realization that people continue to lack an understanding of what autism is and what it is not.


I could provide an exhaustive discussion on the characteristics of Autism. However, I know that there is a lot of research on the internet that is available.


What I will do is share thoughts as to why Autism works in the workplace. When organizations, no matter the size, fail to capitalize on this talent pool, they are missing out on acquiring dedicated workers who have the potential to outperform neurotypical workers. Here are my top three reasons why I believe that organizations need to take a more objective look at hiring individuals on the Autism Spectrum:


  1. Natural problem-solvers. Whether it is cracking a code or building out a program, many individuals on the Autism Spectrum have a natural curiosity to identify a problem and resolve it without hesitation.

  2. Photographic memory. Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have strong visual memory skills that help them retain information presented two weeks ago to six months later. This helps them to manage and multitask projects with ease.

  3. Structured and detailed oriented. When an organization is considering a candidate to do a job, one question is, can they follow the rules when given? The answer is yes for many on the spectrum. When information is clearly explained and details are given, those on the spectrum will remember every word spoken. Combine this with visual imagery and it is a win-win situation for an organization looking to advance its diversity and inclusion.


Sometimes, there are times where the environment may create levels of stress for a potential candidate who may be on the spectrum. Some signs may be visible, and others may be invisible. By understanding that these behaviors are less about a candidate's ability to perform the job and more about the external environment, HR recruiters should feel more comfortable hiring individuals on the spectrum.


So, what are a few things that may be visual clues that a possible candidate may be on the Autism Spectrum? Well, let me say that one size does not fit all, and there are some individuals on the spectrum who have learned with trial and error how NOT to display these behaviors. Yet others may display these behaviors and me as a workplace autism advocate, desire that you see this as strengths and not weaknesses.


One characteristic used to describe those on the Autism Spectrum is limited eye contact. Limited eye contact consists of watching the speaker for a short period of time while shifting one’s eye gaze in another direction. For those who are unfamiliar with working with individuals on the spectrum, this may come across as either being disengaged or outright rude. Yet this is not the case for those on the spectrum as direct eye contact for an extended period of time creates a level of uncomfortableness.


Why? In speaking with several individuals on the autism spectrum over many years, I learned that it is challenging to focus on what is being said and what the person is seeing. The reality is that individuals on the spectrum have difficulty processing nonverbal and verbal cues simultaneously. If the contextual meaning is lost in the conversation, it creates a level of angst, which then leads to shifting the eye gaze. This shift helps the individual on the spectrum to ‘quickly’ filter out what is being said and provide a response that they perceive is expected of the other party. There are times when they may miss the mark. However, how many of us have gotten a question incorrectly doing an interview process? Many of us, to say the least.


If you suspect that a person may be on the spectrum, remember that limited eye contact is a natural part of their ability to process every facet of their environment. Some have learned the 'art' of providing direct eye contact, but it can be challenging even then, depending on the environmental setting. We all provide limited eye contact from time to time whether it be cultural or out of mere respect. However, for those on the spectrum, limited eye contact may part of their daily lives.


Additionally,individuals on the spectrum are overly sensitive to their environments. Visual, auditory, and/or tactile overstimulation may create a space where it is challenging for a person on the spectrum to focus on what is happening in the now. It does not mean that they are unaware of what you, the interviewer, is saying. It simply means that they are trying to filter out the extraneous barriers to ensure that they hear from you.


For some individuals on the spectrum, this may consist of a long pause or possibly wringing of hands or shifting in the seat. They may do this to reduce the level of angst experienced at that moment.


As the interviewer, it is okay to ask the candidate if they need more time to process their thoughts before responding. It is also okay to offer a mini-break, especially if the interview is more than 30 minutes. Some individuals who are self-advocates may request to use a fidget object (e.g. a small rock or piece of cloth) to help them be centered during the interview process. If they do, allow them to, as it is a simple request. Your goal is to hire the best fit candidate for the job. If a fidgeting object is necessary for the individual on the autism spectrum to put their best foot forward and secure the job, then let them do it.


Another strategy that may help support a possible candidate on the autism spectrum is to reduce the lighting and/or sound within the interview space. Too much lighting and/or noise might make it harder for the candidate to get their thoughts together and respond to questions accordingly. By having one main light on versus two or three can make all the difference in creating a sensory-friendly room. Additionally, if the interview space is highly trafficked, changing rooms where the environment is a little quieter may also be helpful.


With the rise in organizations increasing its diversity and inclusion policies to hire and retain the most talented individuals for one's organization, HR recruiters must be comfortable in interviewing individuals on the autism spectrum. By equipping HR recruiters with a few ‘common’ signs to identifying an individual on the Autism Spectrum, they will be able to navigate the interview process with potential candidates with greater clarity, so they feel confident in their ability to efficiently and effectively hire talented individuals on the Autism Spectrum. When organizations take the necessary steps to create an inviting interview process that is stress-free, individuals on the spectrum will shine throughout the process. The first step, however, is to get through the interview process, and with the right team, it is a win-win situation for everyone.


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Read more from April!

April J. Lisbon, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

April J. Lisbon, Ed.D. is a workplace autism advocate. She helps organizations unlock the benefits of hiring and retaining talented individuals on the autism spectrum. Dr. Lisbon is the parent of a high achieving teen on the autism spectrum. She has over 20 plus years as a PK-12 school psychologist working with individuals from ages 3-22. Dr. Lisbon has been seen in the Washington Post, NBC News, Business Insider, Forbes, Autism Parenting Magazine, The TODAY Show Parenting, Family Circle Magazine, and several other national and international media outlets.

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