NACE Journal, February 2017
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficiencies in social communication and restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior. Improved diagnostic criteria and increased awareness have led to an increase in ASD diagnoses in recent years; currently one in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD.1 Increases in specialized support services allow for young adults on the autism spectrum to attend college in greater numbers than ever before. While there are few clear measures of the number of students on the autism spectrum attending college, recent studies estimate that they comprise approximately 2 percent of the current student population.2 The incidence rate of ASD is expected to continue to increase, with approximately 50,000 young adults on the spectrum entering working age each year.3 Many college graduates on the autism spectrum will struggle in their career development: Currently about 85 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are underemployed or unemployed.4
Both career services and university recruiting professionals need to plan to meet the needs of this population. At Rochester Institute of Technology, we serve our population of students on the autism spectrum with a collaboration between career services, disability services, and the Spectrum Support Program, which provides social, academic, and career coaching to approximately 65 students on the autism spectrum per year. The recommendations in this article reflect our findings after providing individualized and group career coaching, designing networking events, and supporting employers who hire students on the autism spectrum.
What Is ASD?
ASD is a “spectrum,” which means that it affects every individual differently. There are unique strengths and challenges often associated with college students on the autism spectrum. Individuals on the spectrum tend to be logical, with encyclopedic knowledge on topics that interest them. They often have incredible focus, or “uni-tasking” skills, and are detail-oriented. Challenges with social communication and interaction are also often noticed: Lack of conversational reciprocity and difficulty perceiving emotional states of others can lead to the individual appearing disinterested or rude. An individual on the autism spectrum also displays restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior. In the college population, this is exhibited as intense interests in very specific topics, difficulty interpreting vague instructions, and a preference for following patterns or routines rather than using novel methods of problem solving. In general, college students on the autism spectrum benefit from clear boundaries and expectations, and from assistance in building routine and predictability and planning and prioritizing large tasks. ASD often also presents with co-morbid disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.5
Employees on the autism spectrum offer unique strengths that many employers find valuable, including above average intelligence, attention to detail, tolerance of repetition and routine, encyclopedic memory, and pattern recognition abilities.6 Those with ASD work successfully in many fields, and are often drawn to computing, scientific research, software testing, and media design and development.
Career Services Professionals: Addressing Needs of Students on the Spectrum
Career services professionals will notice that job seekers on the autism spectrum may require additional support. Above-average intelligence and highly developed technical skills make students on the spectrum strong job candidates for many positions; however, their difficulty with social interactions create significant barriers in the application process. Career services professionals can assist job seekers on the spectrum by focusing specific attention on career exploration, helping students adjust to their interviewer’s viewpoint, and organizing and executing their job-search strategy.
Students on the spectrum often have intense interests, and like many students, seek out majors and careers that include these interests. Unfortunately, their interest does not always translate to the ability to obtain a job in that field. A student on the spectrum may demonstrate rigidity in this decision, leading to difficulty considering other options and elimination of options that do not meet 100 percent of his or her standards.
To assist students with career exploration, career services professionals should encourage students to incorporate their values, personality traits, skills, and talents with career choice, and review the relevant occupational information, including the requirements, for each option. Interest inventories can be used, especially assessments that include intrapersonal scales (comparing one person’s interest level against the individual’s other interests, instead of interpersonal scales that compare the individual’s interests to those of the general population) such as the Strong Interest Inventory or Self-Directed Search.
Career services professionals should also take care to create career exploration opportunities for students on the spectrum. Students with disabilities often do not participate in career development activities at the same rate as their non-disabled peers due to the additional time they often need to manage their disabilities, e.g., they may use their “extra” time to complete tests or attend therapy sessions. In addition, students on the spectrum are less likely to participate in career exploration activities, such as volunteer opportunities, part-time work, summer employment, and involvement in career-related professional organizations.7 Career services professionals should focus on allowing students to explore careers that best suit their skills and abilities. Job shadowing has been identified as especially helpful for students on the spectrum8 because it allows the student to observe both the tasks performed and the work environment. With self-assessment and carefully curated opportunities to explore career options, students on the spectrum can identify occupations matching their interests and personal areas of strength and challenge.
Adjusting to the Neurotypical Viewpoint
A successful job search often involves various unscripted social interactions with “neurotypicals,” or people not on the spectrum. Many students on the spectrum are uncomfortable with tasks that require social interaction, such as networking and interviewing. Students who prefer a literal, procedural approach to job searching may not see the point of networking, and may ask such questions as, “Why would I ask someone for job-search advice when what I really want is a job?” or “Why should I attend a career fair to meet a representative from a company when I can just apply online?”
Interviewing is also a challenge, often due to the student’s lack of understanding of social nuance; for example, a student on the spectrum may not understand that smiling is important in an interview as a way to show enthusiasm. A student on the spectrum may be brutally honest in an interview to his or her detriment. Self-promotion skills are also sometimes lacking: Students may feel reluctant to put a positive spin on their experiences because they feel as though they are lying or bragging. Some of the more “quirky” traits of ASD, such as strange vocal quality, intonation, or volume, and flat affect, are often notable during a job interview. Interviewers might mistakenly interpret these qualities as a lack of interest or enthusiasm.
To prepare students on the spectrum for interviewing and networking, career services professionals should focus on breaking the tasks down step by step, focusing on what the student can do to make the interaction most successful. The career services professional must help the interviewee see the interviewer’s perspective and the logic behind the processes the student must follow. For example, when asked “Why do you want to work for this company?” students should be counseled to use the opportunity to describe why they think they would be a good fit at the company rather than providing a brutally honest answer such as “I really need a job.”
To prepare for interviews, students should practice basic job-readiness skills, such as smiling, shaking hands, and making small talk. The focus is not on changing the individual’s communication styles; rather, students should be encouraged to approach the process as if they are an actor in a play or character in a video game. Extensive practice, including mock interviews with clear, specific, and direct feedback, will help students improve.
Students will be most successful if they have a concrete way to show their skills and abilities rather than having to rely on verbal communication skills. Students of all majors are encouraged to develop a professional portfolio that includes a statement of career goals, resume, work samples, letters of recommendation, and academic transcripts. Students find it helpful to refer to their portfolio during interviews to help remind them of the skill sets they wish to highlight.
Organizing and Executing a Job-Search Strategy
Executing a diversified job-search strategy is challenging. Students on the spectrum often struggle with organizing and prioritizing job-search tasks and fall into bad habits, such as not responding to e-mails and voicemails, or limiting themselves to one or two job posting sites.
A career counselor may perceive minimal job-search activity as a lack of motivation, enthusiasm, or desire to work, and not recognize that the student is overwhelmed. Developing a clear and concrete job-search strategy is essential to help keep the student fully engaged in the job-search process. The job-search strategy creates a plan for all tasks to be completed beginning approximately one year prior to when the individual would like to begin work and includes a target company list, contact names, instructions for applying, and a place to record dates of applications and follow-up efforts. The job-search strategy can be shared with the student’s support system to encourage accountability, and weekly check-ins are often necessary to provide feedback and support.
Guidance for University Recruiting Professionals
Some employers feel ill-prepared to accommodate job candidates on the autism spectrum, but a few small adjustments to the recruiting, training, and managing of individuals on the spectrum can help candidates and employers work effectively together.
Vague job descriptions and a lack of transparency in application processes often deter candidates on the spectrum from applying for certain positions. Consequently, job descriptions should be written clearly and concisely, avoiding jargon, colloquialisms, and vague language. It is helpful to identify which skills sets are non-negotiable, and which are preferred, and the skill level requested, e.g., beginner, advanced. Vague requirements, such as “good communication skills,” may cause confusion; more details about the requirements are helpful, e.g., “This role requires daily contact with team members and quarterly presentations to clients.”
In addition, employers should encourage students to request accommodations by providing information on how to do so on their career opportunities website and in the job application.
Interviewing is always challenging for students, but for students with social difficulties, it can be paralyzing. Candidates with ASD may freeze up and not be able to communicate their skills and abilities effectively. When compared against their peers, candidates on the spectrum may come across as awkward, nervous, or even unenthusiastic, although their skills and personal characteristics may be a great fit for the job. Using language carefully and adapting a few steps of the interview process helps job seekers on the spectrum shine.
In terms of questions, a combination of open and closed questions to solicit skill sets and abilities is best for a candidate on the spectrum. In addition, asking the candidate questions about his or her experience (“Do you have experience with C++? Describe your experience.”) rather than about how the candidate would handle hypothetical situations will yield better results.
A few adjustments to the interview process can be helpful in accommodating candidates’ social challenges. For example, giving candidates opportunities to demonstrate their skills—instead of simply describing them—allows interviewers to confirm candidates’ abilities. Employers are encouraged to include assessments or simulations as part of the interview, or request work samples or a portfolio to be discussed during the interview.
Employers can improve the candidate’s comfort level with the interview process without providing an unfair advantage by providing the candidate with a copy of the questions prior to the interview, conducting interviews by phone or online, and providing the candidate with a tour of facility during the interview to help the candidate assess the work environment and identify accommodations that may be needed.
Training and Managing New Employees on the Spectrum
New employees on the autism spectrum often exceed their managers’ expectations in terms of their technical abilities, but require extra support in navigating communicative and organizational tasks related to their work.
Employers can help their employees succeed by giving clear directions, identifying the appropriate individual(s) to ask for help, and providing extra training and support in prioritizing work. Assigning a mentor is especially helpful in assisting the new employee with understanding the organization’s culture—especially the unwritten rules, which may be vague and difficult to understand. In addition, managers can help ease the employee’s transition by providing instructions in writing, making social events optional, and assigning priority to assignments. New employees also benefit from a “cheat sheet” for high-priority activities, people, and projects.
Targeted Recruiting Approaches
Several companies, including ULTRA Testing, SAP, Specialisterne, and Microsoft, have noticed the unique perspectives and skill sets offered by employees on the autism spectrum and have adjusted their recruitment processes to help increase their number of job candidates and employees on the spectrum.
Microsoft’s inclusive hiring program for candidates on the spectrum includes three crucial steps: work environment fit, a modified interview process, and mentorship. Microsoft identified potential roles for employees on the spectrum by matching the natural strengths of this population—such as detail orientation and technical skills—with anticipated openings in such areas as UX/UI design, data analysis, and software testing. Microsoft’s inclusive hiring program has amended the organization’s application process to include more team-based projects and assessments, which allow candidates to show their skills rather than requiring them to articulate their abilities. Lastly, Microsoft provides ongoing social support by assigning job coaches and mentors to help employees on the spectrum understand the unwritten rules of the workplace and support transition to their new roles. The program has been a resounding success since its inception in 2015, and all initial hires into the program are still employed by Microsoft.9
Managers often have questions about how to accommodate employees on the spectrum. There is no established set of accommodations to use; required accommodations depend on the individual employee. While some employees may need accommodations to complete their jobs, others will need none at all. Work directly with your employee to discuss which, if any, accommodations may be helpful.10
Following is sampling of the accommodations available to address common challenges.
Managing sensory stimulation: People on the spectrum often can exhibit strong focus on one task at a time. They may experience intolerance to distractions such as office traffic, employee chatter, and common office noises, such as fax tones and photocopying.
- To reduce auditory distractions, provide noise canceling headsets, sound absorption panels, white noise machines, and office space that minimizes audible distractions.
- To reduce visual distractions, use space enclosures and reduce clutter in the employee’s work station.
- To reduce tactile distractions, ask co-workers to approach an individual in a way that is not startling (e.g., avoid approaching from behind or unexpectedly touching the employee).
Managing stress: Situations that create stress can vary from person to person, but could likely involve heavy workloads, unrealistic time frames, shortened deadlines, or conflict among co-workers. To assist with stress management, provide positive reinforcement, offer modified or flexible work schedules, encourage the employee to take breaks, refer the employee to your organization’s EAP (and allow time away to attend counseling appointments), offer telecommuting options, assign a mentor or manager to answer questions, and provide disability inclusion training or ASD-specific training to your work force.
Organizing, prioritizing, and multi-tasking: Individuals on the spectrum may have difficulty getting or staying organized, and may need assistance with complex behaviors like planning, goal setting, and task completion. To assist the employee with organizing, prioritizing, and multi-tasking, provide feedback to help the employee target areas of improvement, reduce distractions from the work area, enforce performance standards such as completion time and accuracy rates, allow paper-and-pencil tasks to be completed electronically, and provide procedure manuals and other such resources.
Often, career services and university recruiting professionals alike would prefer to know when they are working with a student with a disability. At RIT, we encourage job seekers to be open with their employers about any accommodations they might need and share any information that would be helpful for their manager to know. The information that they do or do not share is up to them. Unfortunately, many students fear discrimination and have felt stigmatized at other times in their lives, and are reluctant to disclose. Career services professionals should assist students by reviewing the pros and cons of disclosure, determining what is in their best interests, and helping them practice their disclosure script. (Please note: While this depends on the specific situation and student, we suggest that job seekers disclose after the interview—not during. Not only is the interview stressful enough without the added pressure of disclosing, but waiting until afterward provides the candidate with the time to customize his or her disclosure to the position and work environment.)
For university recruiting professionals, having a disability-friendly culture, supportive supervisors, multiple opportunities for disclosure in the application process, and communication about how disability-related information will be protected are all steps that increase the likelihood that students will disclose.11
Building Relationships With Individuals on the Spectrum
It’s also often the case that career services and university recruiting professionals are concerned that communication challenges will prevent them from forming positive advising relationships with individuals on the spectrum. However, the following steps can help facilitate mutually rewarding relationships:
- Identify interests. Everyone enjoys talking about their favorite topics. Individuals on the spectrum are no different, and often have highly developed areas of interest. Finding out their passions, showing curiosity, and allowing time and space for discussion of these topics is a great start to relationship-building.
- Use alternative communication. In addition to phone calls and e-mails, encourage alternative forms of communication like texting, Slack, and video conferencing. Follow up your verbal instructions with an e-mail that the individual can refer to later.
- Be concrete and specific. Your communication with someone on the spectrum should be very clear and direct, identifying exactly what you want. For example: “Let’s get lunch later” is vague. “Join us in the cafeteria at noon if you would like to eat lunch with us” is clear and specific.
- Redirect when necessary. Difficulty understanding social cues is a common challenge for people on the spectrum. Clear feedback is necessary if an individual asks too many questions or interrupts. For example, instead of glancing at her watch several times after an interview has gone over its scheduled time, a recruiter should state “Our interview has gone over our allotted time; let me stop you so we can discuss next steps.”
- Avoid abbreviations, sarcasm, and idioms. Every industry has its own abbreviations and industry-specific jargon. Use of these, along with sarcasm and idioms, can be very confusing to someone with difficulty interpreting social interactions and should be avoided.
- Use a holistic approach. Remember that ASD can be accompanied by challenges with time management, anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. Be prepared to offer relevant accommodations or referrals to other service providers as necessary.
2 Cox, Bradley; Mintz, Amanda; Locks, Taylor; Thompson, Kerry; Anderson, Amelia; Morgan, Lindee; Edelstein, Jeffrey; & Wolz, Abigail. 2015. Academic experiences for college students with autism: Identity, disclosure, and accommodations. http://myweb.fsu.edu/bcox2/_pdf/AERA2015paper.pdf
4 Scheiner, 2011. Tackling the Unemployment Crisis for Adults with Asperger Syndrome
5 Romeroa, Aguilarc, Del-Rey-Mejíasd, Mayoralc, Rapadod, Peciñae, Ángel Barbanchob, Ruiz-Veguillaf, & Larab, 2016. Psychiatric comorbidities in autism spectrum disorder: A comparative study between DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 diagnosis.
6 Montgomery, C.B., Allison, C., Lai, MC. et al. Do adults with high functioning Autism or Asperger Syndrome differ in empathy and emotion recognition?J Autism Dev Disord (2016) 46 (6): 1931.
7 Hennessey, Roessler, Cook, Unger, and Rumrill. 2008. “Employment and Career Development Concerns of Postsecondary Students with Disabilities: Service and Policy Implications”
8 Rigler, Rutherford, & Quinn. Developing Identity, Strengths, and Self-Perception for Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder
10 Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://askjan.org/media/downloads/ASDA&CSeries.pdf
11 Do ask, do tell: Encouraging employees with disabilities to self-identify. http://www.askearn.org/wp-content/uploads/docs/do_ask_do_tell.pdf