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Autism and Tech: Are Your Recruiting Practices Hurting Your Company?

Joe Van Tassel 24 Oct 2023

It’s something of a cliché to talk about autism and tech roles in the same breath—the stereotype of a socially awkward but technically brilliant engineer is one that predates both the modern awareness of neurodiversity and the continuing upward trend of autism identification. (According to the CDC, 1 in 36 children was identified as having autism in 2020, up from 1 in 150 in 2000, and autism spectrum disorder is nearly 4 times as common in boys as it is in girls.) However, although many of the features of autism become notable strengths in the tech setting, it is not at all clear that promising candidates are finding the right opportunities in the industry. As a result, companies are missing out on hires that could benefit them.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a perfect time for organizations to take a close look at their recruiting practices in the context of “invisible” disabilities such as autism. Are your hiring strategies and interviewing practices unwittingly discouraging or excluding autistic candidates who might shine once on the job? Let’s take a look at the strengths associated with autism, the weaknesses that can present a challenge in traditional interview processes, and what companies can do to eliminate unconscious bias in recruiting.

Understanding Autism in the Workplace and Recruiting

Like neurotypical individuals, autistic people have a variety of interests and skills, so it would be misleading to claim that they all show the same aptitude for (or interest in) tech roles. Nevertheless, many of the overarching characteristics of autism lend themselves unusually well to meeting engineering or technical challenges. As noted in Forbes, autism tends to feature:

  • High level of focus: Those with autism have a higher capacity for increased focus, as well as the ability to hyperfocus on areas of interest.
  • Attention to detail/visual thinking: Being highly detail-oriented allows them to spot things others may miss and excel in roles where accuracy is paramount (think software development).
  • Pattern recognition/problem-solving: Autism is associated with enhanced pattern recognition. That, coupled with their unique perspectives, can lead to creative solutions that might not occur to a less diverse team.

It’s clear that these strengths are already inspiring candidates with autism to seek tech jobs. Some studies suggest that 2 to 3% of those employed in the tech industry have autism, compared to the 1% prevalence in the general population. Statistics also show, though, that autistic adults have alarmingly high rates of unemployment or underemployment, even when they have the relevant education and skills for a particular role. So where is the disconnect?

The interview process itself is frequently a barrier to placing qualified autistic candidates, with its emphasis on unspoken social rules, judgments made on body language or physical presentation that have little to do with job performance, and unclear expectations for candidates in a high-pressure social situation. For instance, someone with autism may demonstrate inconsistent eye contact, take what seems an unusual amount of time to answer a question, or show little interest in small talk. They may also have trouble answering questions that are abstract or general. An autistic applicant’s weakness in picking up on social cues or their anxiety at dealing with a situation where they don’t know what to expect can put them at a disadvantage not faced by neurotypical candidates. Think about how often someone your team interviewed has been rejected simply because they didn’t “feel” right—now think about whether the characteristics that caused that rejection might have been due to autism.

Rethinking Recruiting

Tech hiring is always challenging, with companies ruthlessly competing over a restricted pool of talent. If your interview process is unnecessarily screening out candidates based on characteristics that aren’t critical for success on the job, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage in a tough market. Fortunately, it is possible to adjust your recruiting and hiring practices to eliminate unintended hurdles for neurodiverse candidates.

At Integress, we have coached leadership teams on how to prepare for recruiting projects so they’re able to embrace autistic candidates for who they are, looking past superficial weaknesses to fairly evaluate their capabilities for key roles. We can help you achieve a competitive advantage in hiring by thinking outside of the traditional interview box to build a diverse team that will produce long-term benefits for your organization. To learn more about our technical recruiting services, contact us here today.

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