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Setting Up Autistic Employees to Succeed

A new study finds placing autistic adults in more independent work settings may help alleviate symptoms of the developmental disorder. Experts say there is no "ideal" work setting for autistic employees, but HR can help create an environment that enables autistic workers to thrive.

Thursday, January 30, 2014
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As you may know, autistic employees can be valuable contributors to your workforce. And as recent research underscores, autistic workers get value from the employment proposition that goes beyond simply receiving a paycheck.

In a study of 153 adults on the autism spectrum ages 19 to 53, researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that employment may play a therapeutic role for this group.

The study also found that putting adults with autism in "a more independent vocational placement . . . led to measurable improvements in their behaviors and daily living skills overall," according to study authors.

Investigators assessed the individuals involved in the study – largely through interviews with their parents – at two points during the study, at intervals of more than five years. The researchers looked at such autism symptoms as restricted areas of interest, repetitive behaviors, communication impairments and difficulties with social interactions, and found the degree of independence in work activities was uniquely related to subsequent changes in autism symptoms, other problem behaviors and daily living activities.

The results offer preliminary evidence of employment's therapeutic value in autistic adults' development, says Julie Lounds Taylor, assistant professor of pediatrics and special education at Vanderbilt University's Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and a lead author of the study.

The question of how employment provides that value, however, "has yet to be answered," she adds.

"We suspect that the benefits of vocation function similarly for adults with autism spectrum disorder as they do for adults without disabilities," says Lounds Taylor. "That is, having a structure and/or purpose to one's day, interacting with others and maybe even feeling intellectually stimulated lead to positive behavioral development."

But, so far, "research has yet to examine why work is beneficial to ASD [autism spectrum disorder], nor which aspects of work are most beneficial," she says.

Defining the "ideal" work environment for an autistic adult is equally difficult.

"Autism spectrum disorders encompass a huge range of functioning and behaviors," says Lounds Taylor. "But in general, I would say that the ideal work environment would be one that is consistent with the specific skills and interests of the adult with autism, with employers and co-workers willing to make modifications to meet the needs of that adult as necessary."

Indeed, "there is no 'best job' or work environment for an individual on the autism spectrum, just as there is no best setting for someone who has brown eyes," adds Cary Griffin, senior partner at Griffin-Hammis Associates, a Florence, Mont.-based consulting firm that educates businesses on hiring individuals with disabilities.

"We sometimes hear the prejudicial idea that certain people with autism may not adapt well to change, or prefer repetitive tasks," says Griffin. "Of course this is not a symptom of autism. How many bosses have we had who do not like change? How many bureaucrats enjoy repetitive tasks? When an HR professional is hiring an individual – regardless of [his or her] label -- I recommend that attention be given to the 'ecological fit' of that person; that a good match of skills, culture and personal attributes be considered, along with reasonable job restructuring that enhances performance and job retention."

Just like any other employee, most individuals with autism are more likely to thrive when they have a clear understanding of what they are expected to deliver, says Marcia Scheiner, president and founder of the New York-based Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership.

"Most individuals with autism work best in an environment where clear communication is the norm," says Scheiner, "with job tasks and expectations clearly defined."

There are, however, factors that employers and HR should take into consideration with regard to helping autistic employees succeed and feel comfortable, says Scheiner.         

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For example, some autistic individuals may experience sensory issues that can make an especially loud or fragrant work environment difficult to tolerate, she adds, noting that others may need a manager or colleague to provide some guidance on the office's social rules – acceptable attire and appropriate topics of conversation in the lunch room, for example.

Human resource leaders should also be at the forefront of an effort to ensure the company and its employees receive education and training on how to properly manage or work with individuals on the spectrum, she says, starting with the recruiting process right through to performance management.

The HR department can "set the tone," says Scheiner, "by providing training to managers and colleagues of individuals on the spectrum, and by being a resource for managers and employees with autism."

HR is also "extremely important" in developing and implementing the organization's policies and practices around hiring those with disabilities, as well as providing these employees with the necessary support to succeed, she says.

"The training shouldn't be a one-way street," adds Scheiner, "where only the managers and colleagues are trained [on] how to work with colleagues who have [autism]. Employees with [autism] can benefit from communications, organizational and social skills training provided by an employer."

Griffin's firm "works with people on the spectrum who are terrific at solving complex problems, others who excel at math or have remarkable memories and organizational skills," he says. "We work with folks who own successful small businesses and others who drive forklifts in warehouses, assist with inventory management for a local Chevrolet dealer, or who groom horses at the local riding stable."

Most of these employees were "at one time considered unemployable," he says. "It took that good vocational match for success. All work that matches who we are as people is good work."

In the case of autistic employees, making that match may sometimes mean "relaxing or deconstructing a job description . . . and reassembling the tasks that match the person into a new or 'customized' position," says Griffin.

"In the end, someone who is well-matched to his or her job should help the company better meet customer expectations and contribute to the bottom line."

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