Editor’s Note-Opportunities with Autism

Editor’s Note-Opportunities with Autism

Forget Rain Man. People on the autism spectrum can make great employees.

I’ve always been a fan of Dustin Hoffman, whose roles have ranged from Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate in 1967 to the more recent Bernie Focker in Little Fockers. One of his most memorable performances was as Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film Rain Man.

Hoffman portrayed what many of us believed was a realistic example of an autistic adult: childlike, socially inept, and unable to manage daily life. The phrase “Rain Man” became synonymous with autism: If I and people I knew heard somebody’s child or cousin had autism, we pictured that individual being like Raymond. It wasn’t that we were ignorant—well okay, by today’s standards, we were. But back in the late 1980s, little was known about autism, and it was estimated that only one in every 2,000 children might be diagnosed with it.

The experts have learned a lot since then, and the rest of us need to catch up. It’s now estimated that one out of every 91 children may have some type of what is now called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. It’s also believed that the same ratio applies to adults. ASD conditions range from the more challenging autistic disorder through less socially debilitating forms, such as Asperger disorder and pervasive development disorder.

At first blush, one might think this means that there are thousands of Rain Men walking around out there. But in fact, many individuals with ASD look and act like everyone else. While they have difficulty interpreting language nuances (such as sarcasm) and certain social information and nonverbal cues (such as facial expressions and body movements), many have average or above-average intelligence, normal speaking abilities, and incredible loyalty. And these latter traits are making them desirable employees for a growing number of businesses.

Case in point: Best Buy. According to Susan Larson from the company’s HR Communications area, as many as 2,000 of Best Buy’s 180,000 employees could be directly affected by ASD, given the current estimates of people with these disorders.

Best Buy is just beginning to formalize its efforts to hire and better manage individuals with this disability. “We don’t seek to identify people on the autism spectrum,” Larson says. “Instead, we do things through employee communications, talking about the subject and encouraging people to hire and work with people who may be on the spectrum.”

One success story is that of Ryan Hemphill, a young man diagnosed with Asperger disorder as a teen and hired at Best Buy’s Lake Jackson, Texas, store a couple of years ago.

Nearly every company’s job application process includes an assessment questionnaire that can inadvertently eliminate individuals on the autism spectrum. For example, there’s often a question asking whether an applicant has ever stolen from an employer or school.

“A person on the autism spectrum will read that and take it very literally,” Larson says. “If they accidentally took a pen home from work, they’ll answer the question ‘yes.’”

In Hemphill’s case, however, a job coach helped him understand the questions asked in the application process while undergoing the assessment. He did well on it, aced the job interview, and was hired as a cashier, boosting his self-esteem and launching him on a path of independence and career development. Today, he’s earning an IT degree while working at Best Buy’s store in Waco, Texas.

Still, some managers remain wary of having someone with ASD come in for a job interview. “They can be resistant, and that’s equal to fear—fear those managers need to overcome,” Larson says. This year, Best Buy plans to expand its ASD awareness efforts across all employment levels (it’s important for its employees to know how to interact with customers who have ASD, as well as with their work peers) while working on an informational “tool kit” and other support for all of its hiring managers.

As I talked with Best Buy for this column, as well as with 3M about similar efforts underway there, I kept wondering—not to sound crass, but why bother? What’s the business reason and bottom line benefit in doing any of this? It turns out there are quite a few good reasons, besides being the right thing to do.

First, there’s the negative impact that ignorance can have on team effectiveness. Not knowing how to react to somebody, or fearing they may be hard to work with, obviously can throw things off.

“Like every other company, we have to overcome the fear a manager has of hiring someone on this spectrum, as well as others with disabilities,” Larson says. “When they hear autism, they automatically think of Rain Man—temper tantrums, repetitive vocals. But that’s not how people on this spectrum are. In fact, they’re great assets who, with a little bit of effort, will be employees for a long, long time.”

Therein lies another plus. It costs Best Buy thousands of dollars to replace an employee; like most companies, it wants to keep turnover as low as possible. Employees with ASD tend to stay with the same employer as long as possible; they’re also hard working and eager to do better.

Additionally, “the loyalty around this subject is significant, not only from these employees, but from their family, friends, and neighbors,” Larson says. “If they know there’s a company amenable to working with people on this spectrum, they shop there.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit for business, however, is that with some well-designed and well-deployed internal communications, a company can tap into a world of underutilized talent. Given the projected shortages of skilled workers, a better understanding of existing labor pools—especially people with disabilities—will give companies such as Best Buy a competitive advantage over those that remain ignorant and do nothing.

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