Hiring And Coaching The Neurodiverse: How To Provide Support In Your Organization
My son has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. While he is intellectually gifted, he faces challenges people with “neurotypical” brains do not. “Neurodiversity” accounts for the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, whereas “neurotypical” describes someone who is considered “average” in brain functionality.
As a psychologist and executive coach, I guided my son through the confusing maze of “neurotypical land,” taught him to self-advocate and found coaches, mentors, school and work buddies to help him develop soft skills to improve his social interactions and understand professional norms. Together, we explored ways to turn his interests into marketable skills.
Having little knowledge of careers in computers, his primary interest, I asked friends who worked in the technology field to mentor him. Today, he has a master’s degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is a software programmer for one of the premier technology companies in the world. Without the support system we provided, I believe it is unlikely he would have achieved this success.
When he had his first job interview, I suggested he start the interview by saying, “May I say something before we begin? I may be one of the most awkward people you have interviewed, but I may also be one of the best junior programmers you have ever met.” The interviewer laughed and asked why it would be awkward, and my son told him about his Asperger’s. He got the job based on his abilities and potential, not on how well he interviewed.
The success of our self-initiated coaching support environment motivates me to help others on the autism disorder spectrum find and keep a job. There are three important components of this support system:
- Providing coaching, mentoring, school and work buddies.
- Recognizing that traditional interviews can be an impossible hurdle for the neurodiverse.
- Recognizing that the gifts and abilities of the neurodiverse can provide a wide variety of benefits to employers.
The Challenge And The Opportunity
An increasing number of organizations have set out to address the extremely high unemployment rate that adults on the autism spectrum face. Although some might need a bit more support in the workplace, I believe it’s also important to note that people with autism have been said to think more creatively and give businesses a more competitive edge.
“Employers are increasingly finding fresh ideas and insights by recruiting workers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” according to a Harvard Business School article. The article discussed a case study on autism in the workplace, which explained that many adults with ASD have advanced technical degrees and patents, “but little, if any, work history.” The article suggested that society has an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the neurodiverse in a way that does not impede business results, but rather, strengthens them. For example, my son has an uncanny ability to spot bugs in computer programs and is known as his team’s “bug catcher.”
Traditional hiring, onboarding and training processes are often ineffective for the neurodiverse. But dramatic workplace accommodations are often unnecessary. I believe there are simple, common-sense adaptations you can make to support individuals in the workplace who have ASD.
For example, people with ASD might struggle with “selling” themselves during interviews, so provide them with non-traditional ways to communicate their strengths. This can help you identify how well they perform on the job, rather than just how well they interview. I have found that behavioral assessments identify strengths more effectively than traditional interviews. These types of assessments are completed by the applicant prior to their job interview and are valuable because they reveal strengths that might otherwise be hidden by their neurodiversity. As an added bonus, assessment results can help coaches and mentors focus on specific areas of strength and development.
I believe businesses should also consider building a network of external resources, such as job coaches and vocational counselors, and integrate them into their ASD employment programs. Resources, such as the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment and Autism Speaks, provide helpful guidelines for building a network of resources. Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE), like The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University, are also helpful.
The Harvard Business School article also observed that a crucial component of effective recruitment and retention practices for team members with ASD includes autism awareness soft skills training for neurotypical employees. I believe this is a key factor in gaining buy-in from all staff, especially direct managers and senior leadership. I have found that understanding neurodivergent thinking and learning styles facilitate the assessment of individual needs and the application of the most effective management style for each individual with ASD.
In my experience, when neurotypical employees understand the everyday life challenges faced by the neurodiverse, they are better able to help their peers along the autism spectrum to navigate them. These simple accommodations allow colleagues with ASD to use their gifts and abilities to the benefit of their employers.
Another best practice is to pair neurotypical and neurodiverse employees in a buddy system. Sharing their unique strengths and thoughts is mutually beneficial. It is also important for your human resources team to stay connected with managers and employees to provide coaching to help navigate new issues that arise.
The story of my son’s education and career journey has been a happy and fulfilling one. This year, we celebrate his 31st birthday. His employer uses the supports recommended in this article and has found that everyone, not just the neurodiverse, benefits. I have heard it said that we have a moral imperative to prepare individuals with ASD for the workplace because they are the ones who will change the world. Of course, I have a personal bias, but that does not make it untrue.
Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches. Do I qualify?