The Autistic spectrum and Employment

By Ifat Baron Goldberg, Founder and CEO itworks

Published in Calcalist, April 5 2018

April 2nd marks the Autism Awareness day around the globe. In recent years, public awareness has been on the rise to the issue- many are aware Autism is a very wide spectrum of inter-personal communications disorder. We now know that the phenomenon has varied representations and those on the spectrum display different functioning levels. Improving the understanding of Autism is important since it’s the key to integration in society: better acquaintance with an inner world and unique needs, allows us to adapt and facilitate the surrounding environment and the society we live in. This is the path to an equal and fair society, giving a fair chance for integration to all its members.

Indeed, today we witness a growing understanding of the unique needs of people, mostly children, on the Autistic spectrum. For example, children's theatre plays are adapted to fit special needs of autistic children- the lights remain on during the show and there's no use of flickering lights; the theatre is usually not filled to capacity, allowing free movement; ushers receive special training and more. the educational system isn’t lagging behind and devotes specific teaching hours educating children about accepting others whom are different (and Israeli society has plenty of "others"…) and the awareness that the other is actually myself.

However, in the "world of adults" matters seem different: the occupational world, one of most central and meaningful areas in adult life, isn’t friendly to those with special needs. Many workplaces and organizations are managed in a manner that isn’t congruent with the needs of people on the autistic spectrum, rendering their integration almost impossible. Adults with ASD whom have integrated in the occupational world, due to their high functioning levels, are describing difficulties stemming from the non- adaptability of the workplace to their special needs, resulting in a discernable sense of frustration. For example, situations involving different social interactions can be particularly challenging, as well as the ability to grasp and comprehend norms and codes of organizational culture.

Despite all that, the employee living with ASD brings to the organization more than hardships and adaptation difficulties. In the past, the realm of science and research has done great injustice in evaluating the intelligence of those living with ASD. However, researches conducted in recent decades shed a light on many characteristics of those living on the spectrum, characteristics that are invaluable to the employment world. For example, we now know that when it comes to noticing details, templates and shapes, people living with ASD display skills much higher than average. Reality teaches that creativity, imagination and good intentions, are positive characteristics that can be funneled towards their integration in the workforce.

In a news article from the NY Times in 2012, Thorkil Sonne and his wife were told their 3 year old son Lars, was diagnosed with ASD. Sonne went on a self- educating journey to learn about the diagnosis. But the gloomy and pessimistic descriptions he encountered were contradictory to the child he knew. Sonne thought his son's special skills- focus and memory- define him much better than the downfalls he read about. Sonne realized these are skills he was actually looking for in his employees in Denmarks largest Telecom company, TDC.

That's when it dawned on him: many companies struggle finding good and skilled workers for data entry and QA positions, which are considered tedious and eroding. Sonne understood that individuals with capabilities similar to Lars would excel in such positions. Sonne quit his job and founded Specialisterne- an innovative company which trains people with ASD in fields such as QA, programming, software testing and more.

Sonne's initiative proves that with creative thinking, training and counselling, individuals with ASD can be integrated in employment in a manner that creates value to employers as well. But in order for this to work, employers must display willingness and openness to recruit people with ASD.

People with ASD often find it difficult acclimating to social norms and organizational culture in the workplace. Additionally, they may experience difficulties understanding their worker rights and asking for what they are entitled to. To succeed in the workplace, employees with ASD need a mediator that could voice their special needs to those who don’t understand them. They require someone who acknowledges the challenges they face in different social situations and interactions, the sensitivity to stimuli such as flickering lighting, noises and textures- challenges the normative employee doesn’t face. When the employer acknowledges these special needs- he or she can provide for an optimal work environment. For example, if an employer knows that an employee living with ASD will have difficulties adapting to an office set as open-space, he or she could provide for a quiet workspace with little surrounding stimuli.

Itworks is an Israeli not- for- profit that also promotes the integration of people with ASD in the Israeli workforce. TAP (Technology Accessibility Placement) program trains candidates with disabilities and ASD for positions such as QA in a rich and professional training. At the end of the training, participants benefit from job placement services in one of the numerous companies itworks partners, in conjunction with assisted integration in the new workplace. This creates an optimal setting where the employer gains skilled and committed employees and the latter realizes their potential. The process is long and intricate but it brings us closer to a more just society, little by little. World Autism day is a great opportunity to acknowledge the challenge in workforce integration.