Neurodiversity Hiring Initiatives: Are They Failing Autistics?

Man in a suit looking out an office window

I work for a technological company that takes into consideration the implications of autism hiring initiatives. We work collaboratively to provide a transparent and fair recruitment process, make available free online resources, and maintain consistent communication with job seekers and employees.

An autistic and a parent of an autistic both largely oversee the recruitment process and sourcing outreach. 70% of our employees are autistic or have a similar profile.

I have served as a community manager, senior recruiter, and outreach specialist. Outside of the company, I am a respected autism advocate, community leader, and author. I am a retired educator and mother of three, one whom is on the spectrum. Personally, I have been diagnosed with Aspergers, giftedness, and I have dyslexia.

Where I work, we have frank and uncomfortable talks about what’s working and what’s not. We strive to make sure the autistic voice is heard and valued.

We don’t always get it right, and there are growing pains, but we try our best. Team members try to understand the autistic perspective. We hope that all the employees, including the autistic employees, will succeed.

Through the years, outside of my personal vocations, outside the ‘walls’ from which I work, I’ve been witness to practices involving autism hiring initiatives that have been upsetting.

I’ve sat back for years, now, and wrestled with the idea of sharing some of my observations. I’ve called out some practices, contacting those responsible, explaining professionally my perception and concerns. I haven’t been silent, but I am only one person, and an autistic woman at that.

I am not meaning to discount the strides being made to empower autistics through employment opportunities and media attention, nor to ignore the true need to support autistics in the job market and beyond; nor do I discount the good intentions of those who truly care about autistics above the bottom line.

Even so, I have serious reservations about what I have seen or been told in confidence. As a person of high integrity, who cares about the autistic population, I don’t choose to remain quiet. I hope you don’t either.

How we are failing autistics through autism hiring initiatives:

  • Putting PR before people: High focus on diversity initiatives and diversity hiring practices and models, with limited focus on what true workplace inclusion looks like for autistics. Heads of diversity departments not interested in investing time to learn about best workplace inclusion practices for autistics but very interested in others passing along tips about quality candidates.
  • Using and misrepresenting a marginalized minority. Creating a disabled people campaign to increase a company’s brand awareness and appeal to investors and clients. Repeatedly depicting stereotypical autistic Caucasian male who is tech savvy, and not depicting autistics of color, LBGTQ autistics, and autistics across the gender and age spectrum. No representation of autistic individuals who are nonverbal/mute or physically disabled.
  • Promoting the (stereotypical) strengths of autistic for public relations, without addressing autistics challenges, and how challenges affect job performance and job retention and quality of work life. Not publicly sharing the pitfalls and dangers of diversity hiring initiatives, such as employee turnover, employee depression, employee isolation, and employee suicide, nor offering ideas and solutions to these pitfalls.
  • Recruitment initiatives aimed at autistic job seekers who have the support of parents and are able to attend establishments of higher learning. Not focusing on autistics who are in high need of support services: those without educational opportunity, without transportation, without refined resume or experience, or those who have been struggling to find sustained work for decades.
  • Limited support once an autistic sets foot through the workplace door. The at-risk autistics, with coexisting conditions of PTSD, mood disorders, and suicidal thoughts, being swept into the workplace without forethought to how they might respond, what supports will be needed.
  • Depicting autistics as less than in visual graphics, literature/language, and charts, such as cartoon images with the labeled HR person, manager, and CEO standing above the lowly seated autistic, who is labeled nothing more than ‘autistic’ worker. With the assumption that the autistic can’t be the HR person, the manager, or the CEO. This is Ableism: a form of social prejudice and discrimination based on a non-disabled person believing they are better or superior to a disable person based solely on one’s disability
  • Discrimination in equal representation and opportunity: Disabled population as low wage earners, while high wage earners are not disabled. Management positions frequented by non-autistics employees, while employees on the autism spectrum are in lower-tiered positions. Not having any autistics on the advisory board or board of directors. Not making job opportunities for autistics available in the fields of leadership, human relations, and communication.
  • Having managers watch videos or presentations about helping autistics in the workplace, with no videos/presentations about veterans, the elderly, chronically ill, women reentering the workforce, LGBTQ, dyslexics, second-language citizens, etc.
  • Segregated trainings based on a disability or lack of disability: Support agencies encouraging other companies to provide social skills training and emotional IQ training for the autistic employees.
  • The mentality that teaching about autism isn’t any different than teaching about ADHD or mood disorders, so there isn’t any need for an autistic to be involved as the trainer.
  • Using a very narrow scope for inclusion training, and teaching about autistics (more so AUTISM) before teaching about general inclusion. This implies autistics are either more important to learn about/care about/do something about (creates division) or in more need of understanding/help, than other minorities (creates bias).
  • Managers seeking out support strategies on their own time/dime from autistics and autistic literature, outside the company walls, because the company didn’t provide adequate training or materials.
  • Thinking most autistics are best suited to STEM fields, when there are many other types of job roles in a given company. (How is this any different than having an Asian hiring initiative where . . . ) Forgetting some autistics are doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, speakers, and in other leadership and service-oriented roles.
  • Not revamping performance reviews or company wide procedures and policies (unspoken norms, communication rules, participation expectations, etc.) to adjust to the neurodivergent population.
  • Turning to questionable vocational agencies to find autistic job candidates, when the agents have little to no training about autistic culture and the autistic experience, and implement discriminatory and damaging practices, such as pressing autistics to make eye contact and to ‘shut up’ and talk less at interviews.
  • Not checking stereotypes and implicit bias at the door: Videos of corporate leaders speaking about the autistics in a less-than manner, about how they help autistics, and perpetuating stereotypes. Non-autistic supervisors acting as spokespeople for the autistics, as if autistics can’t represent themselves.
  • Hiring agents’ bias: Documenting quirks and personality traits (immature, big talker, over confident) instead of objective skills and experience. Autistics, who are docile and more likely to conform, hired, while the outspoken ones are declined positions. Hiring autistics that are more likely to serve in subordinate roles. “Autistics can never be managers; they don’t understand the politics of communicating with clients.”
  • Hired autistics sitting on a conference panel representing a company, so thankful for the opportunity to at last have found long term employment! Praise the company! Celebrating hired autistics, while not offering autistic job seekers, who were not hired (rejected), ample resources, encouragement, or support.  (Need help with this one? Visualize a panel of all women or all individuals of color, etc. sitting on a token panel, “Oh, thank you for hiring me!”)
  • Creating a cohort of one marginalized minority group, and corralling them into one room, and subjecting them to separate hiring processes than the mainstream. Observing said group for days. Not realizing, if this was done with people of color or women or gays it would be blatant discrimination. But somehow it’s okay, because they’re autistic and they need our help and a different way to get hired. Plus, interviews can’t work. What other choice do we have? Answer: Maybe treating everyone the same and having all your employees be screened the same; if you don’t think interviews are fair, then they’re likely not fair for other neurodivergents either, or introverts, or PTSD folks, etc. Revamp your interview process or come up with a plan that doesn’t segregate.
  • The hope of obtaining work through a hiring program tailored exclusively for autistics, only to be rejected by a hiring program tailored exclusively for autistics.
  • Justifying practices, even if they are far from perfect, because, after all, the intentions are good, and progress is being made, and how dare we criticize such a huge effort and important mission. And look at all the publicity we’ve created, and all the people following in our footsteps. We ought be thankful they care at all. (But are those footsteps the right ones to follow?)
  • Autistics attending high-priced, tech programs aimed at the vulnerable autistic population and desperate parents, where a three-month course earns no valid degree and costs more that two years of state college.
  • Being told ‘everyone is a little autistic’ and ‘we are all neurodivergent.’
  • Uneducated and uninformed trainers joining the bandwagon to make money $$$ (rich) by providing (poor) workshops specifically aimed at teaching about autism, where trainers dish out false, detrimental information, “Just talk frankly to them,” or provide little to no practical strategies or lived autistic experience.
  • Autism certificate programs that teach outdated, stereotypical incorrect information and typically don’t involve any autistic perspective or any firsthand accounts. Coaches and trainers using those certificates to claim they are experts.
  • Corporation leaders (who are not autistic) teaching other corporation leaders (who are not autistic) what they think is best for autistics, such as hiring job coaches to support autistics on the job. (The best means of supporting autistics is other autistics—training by actual autistics, job coaches who are autistic, mangers who are autistic, bosses who are autistic. The best way of supporting autistics is not having autistics in all the low tier positions and by doing the opposite of much of what is listed on this page.)
  • Thinking non-autistic mental health professionals know more about the autistic experience than actual autistics. “To be honest with you, I’d trust a trained psychologist to teach me about autism, over you.” Not realizing that the majority in the mental health profession are perpetuating generalized stereotypes about autistics, misdiagnosing, and causing distress in autistics lives, e.g., lack empathy, can’t dress right, bad hygiene, can’t have friends, can’t be married. (Yea, I’d trust an eye doctor with 20/20 vision to teach me what it’s like to live as a blind person over an actual blind person– that’s logical.)
  • Not providing a clear avenue to request accommodations or workplace adjustments during the hiring process, during onboarding, or before the first day on the job. Not having job accommodation forms.
  • Creating a ‘we’ and ‘them’ culture wherein the autistics are singled out as better than or less than, or both.
  • Thinking it is best to ask business leaders what they want to know about autism, instead of asking autistics what they want business leaders to know about being autistic.
  • Calling it ‘autism in the workplace’ instead of ‘autistics in the workplace.’ What exactly is ‘autism in the workplace’? The need to label it at all . . .
  • Knowing what is read online (or in books) about autistics isn’t necessarily accurate, particularly when the topic of interest is a hot commodity.
  • No progression to leadership roles. No delegation of increased responsibility. No professional growth opportunities. No clear definers of career mobility.
  • Marked against, demoted, not promoted, or fired based on an inability to adhere to an insurmountable expectations (not adhering to social norms). Business norm mandates despite neurological or physical capabilities (e.g., required to work in shared office space, required to make sustained eye contact, expected to say ‘good morning.’)
  • Previously bullied autistic spectrum employees being subjected to workplace bullies, with no bullying intervention or anti-bullying policies in place.
  • Sharing the statistics about autistic employment rates, when they don’t even know what the study is based on or how many autistics exists, and that most surveys are based on young, Caucasians in special day classes, or a very limited representation of the autistic population. (Yes,  of course autistic folks out there are struggling. But what about all the positive autistic role models who are successful? What about promoting them to raise the hope and self-esteem of the young autistics?)
  • The need, as an autistic, in today’s day and age, to even have to point these things out . . .

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“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and the helpless, and see that they get justice.” – (Proverbs 31:8, 9 NLT)

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12 Responses

  1. Samantha, you are amazing. I love how detailed and articulate this post is. I had no idea it was THIS bad, but I haven’t been in the typical work force in almost a decade, so… Wonderful post. Thank you for informing everyone and holding those in positions of power accountable.

  2. This is amazing, and captures my thinking as well. As one of the non-autistic providers of services (though mom to an autistic son), we try to walk the line between getting more competitive jobs (and not just in tech) and selling our soul.

    Part of my ‘charm’ is to stand up and ask tough questions and make pointed comments, as I did at the AaW program in Seattle recently. While it may make some people uncomfortable, we have to all keep doing this — where are the non-tech jobs, how can we place people outside of a set program, please let us work with your talent acquisition people directly, what about career management, what about life after reorgs, what about social integration, what about company-wide training, what about ongoing support?

    It’s tough in Silicon Valley, where the job market itself is super tight, despite the incredible growth. We have a very long way to go, but I’m in for the long haul. Thank you for giving voice to these important aspects.

  3. I especially love it when businesses go out of their way to hire autistic people and then, as you say, refuse to adjust employee review metrics and call accommodations (like a quiet work area instead of a loud smelly shared area) unreasonable and so not an option, and then fire the autistic employee saying something like “well, any employee has to meet the (neurotypical-standard) requirements and perform the duties to (neurotypical) standard levels, and you aren’t so we’re gonna have to let you go”. Like, wtf did they think “neurologically different” meant? A new and fun way of saying “the same except please talk down to us even more than your average employee”?!

  4. I have experienced one of these hiring initiatives and I don’t have any desire to go through that again. Instead of a single interview, I was put in a room with a bunch of other neurodivergent people, and we worked through various tasks (they were actually quite fun) for several hours, but then we were each called out in turn to do an interview. If we were expected to do an interview anyway, then what was the point of the hours of tasks? I asked that in the interview and was told that they were watching us for our behaviour and interaction as we worked on the tasks. So, basically, they just assumed we had problems with interaction and needed to be observed in this regard. Then, the “successful” applicants had to go through an additional month-long training program, after which we still might not end up employed. This extra “training” was designed to teach us how to work together while working on “projects” that had a loose association with what we’d be doing in our jobs (should we actually end up getting hired at the end of it), again assuming that none of us already had the ability to work with others. When I asked whether neurotypical candidates would have to go through the extended interview and the month of training, and not find out until the end of all of that whether they would actually be hired, I never got an answer. It was then that I said thanks but no thanks. Why do they pretend to be helping neurodivergent people become employed when what they are actually doing is putting the neurodivergent candidates through a more grueling process involving tests of behaviour and working with others in order to weed out the ones that diverge the most from the neurotypical profile? Even after all that, they still have a probation process, so it’s not as though they’d be stuck with anyone they didn’t like anyway. All I could think was how can they not see that it is blatant discrimination. I have had too much of that from other people to want it from people professing to be helping people like me. It also didn’t help that the positions available at the end of the process were either short term or entry level with no prospects of advancement.

    1. Thank you! This is exactly what’s wrong with these approaches. I’d actually mentioned these exact discriminatory practices to some of the folks that were leading these initiatives. I am surprised there hasn’t been litigation issues.

  5. I would add to the above list of failings … placing autistic candidates on temporary internships (even those long out of university) and saying “it’s a start”, without providing any guidance to assist said candidates in finding more secure employment to follow on from the placement. A six-month internship is hardly “a start” if it’s followed by twelve months of unemployment. Of course, this is a win-win situation for the employer. If the candidate does succeed in landing a proper job at the end of the placement the employer can claim credit for that and if not – “well, the job market’s very tough at the moment”.

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