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Professor Larissa Suzuki and Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley CH discuss how AI can help those with autism in the workforce.

Around 75 million people worldwide are affected by autism or one of its associated conditions – more than the number of people with childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. In all probability you have a friend or a colleague with autism. And yet, in many cases, you may be unaware of this, for autism is often a hidden condition.

Also hidden is something else: the enormous potential which the autistic community represents for employers. Some people with autism are severely disabled, but many are not, and they often possess skills of considerable value. 

Yet, too many still languish in poorly-paid jobs which fail to make use of their abilities, while others cannot find jobs at all. This is a travesty, when people with autism, employers, the economy and society at large would all benefit if we could make proper use of their talents.

We ourselves have first-hand knowledge of autism. Steve Shirley’s only son Giles was severely autistic, and she is the founder of several autism charities. Larissa Suzuki is herself on the autism spectrum. Both of us believe passionately in the need to rectify an injustice and capitalise on a valuable opportunity by integrating people with autism into the workforce. One of Steve Shirley’s own charities, Autistica, demonstrates what can be achieved: 40% of its employees, including the chief executive, are on the autistic spectrum. 

But Lara’s experience demonstrates some of the problems. One is finding jobs for autistic people which match their potential. When she first started out, she found herself in a role that was, as she puts it, fundamentally incongruent with her passions. Equipped with a degree in computer science and a masters in electrical engineering, she joined a team of seasoned professionals in the tech industry, but the tasks she was given failed to gratify her desire for learning and applying advanced skills. She was engaged only in mundane activities and it left her unmotivated and profoundly disillusioned with her choice.

She has since proved thoroughly successful in her career, operating at a high level in several challenging roles. But it has not been easy. Moving to another job brought problems of its own, not least because it involved going for interviews. Autistic people can be slow to pick up on unspoken cues and struggle with many kinds of social interaction. Interviewers expect candidates to make eye contact, to engage, to respond to abstract questions: all things which present challenges for the neurodivergent job hunter.

Lara’s solution was to disclose her autism during interviews. Doing so was both an assertion and a plea. She was haunted by the fear of misunderstanding what was expected of her, and also of being misunderstood herself. Her approach was to ask explicitly for clarity.

Autistic people offer employers extraordinary focus, a profound capacity for concentration and an unwavering work ethic. They possess logical acumen, a meticulous eye for detail, the intuitive ability to recognize patterns in extensive data sets and an innovative approach to problem solving. They are good at imposing order on chaos, at streamlining processes and at enhancing efficiency. These are all skills of real value to businesses, especially in financial services and IT.

But employers need to meet them halfway by understanding the challenges autistic people face, and not just during the recruitment process. Many are hypersensitive to noise and other environmental factors: things that seem insignificant to most people, like the hum of fluorescent lights, can be acutely distressing. They thrive on structured routines, but find it hard to grapple with sudden changes or disorder: even hot-desking can be unsettling. 

The situation is particularly difficult for women, because, paradoxically, many are exceptionally good at masking their condition: autism in girls often eludes detection as a result. Larissa exhibited behaviours deemed ‘acceptable’ for a girl, but that meant the struggles she faced with communication, sensory sensitivities and grasping social dynamics went unnoticed for a long while.

It is high time we all learnt to foster a workplace and employment culture that not only accommodates, but actively makes the most of differences. Enlightened employers already recognise this and nurture a supportive environment in which neurodivergent and autistic people can thrive.

Enlightened employers adjust where and how people work, catering for diverse preferences in communication and meeting structures. They may take simple steps to help. That infuriating hum from the fluorescent lights? A simple pair of noise-cancelling headphones can cost only £37.99 from Amazon, and can make all the difference.

Artificial intelligence can assist neurodiverse people. AI can help track behaviour patterns and identify the triggers of behaviour problems. It can similarly help those with language difficulties to communicate effectively. Further virtual assistants or chatbots can provide clear task breakdowns and even help to simulate conversations, which in turn can help to alleviate stress and other mental health challenges that autistic employees face.

Managing autistic people need not be difficult if employers keep a few simple rules in mind. One is to offer regular structured feedback and performance reviews, making explicit what might otherwise be unspoken — the rest of the workforce might appreciate that too. Another is to ensure that the autistic employee’s colleagues know what to expect, and are discouraged from leaping to conclusions. In Lara’s view, assumptions are the adversaries of understanding: the solitary figure in the corner engrossed in their work may be seeking a sanctuary from sensory overload, but might also welcome an invitation to lunch or an open door to companionship. 

Recruiting and managing people with autism can be complex. But then, all management is complex, and within complexity lies an opportunity to harness a rich resource. Wise employers know this. They recruit people for jobs not despite their differences, but because of them. The reward is a steadfast employee with an exceptional commitment to their role. 

 

Professor Larissa Suzuki is Google’s youngest technical director. Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and author of ‘Let It Go.’

This article was published in the latest edition of Centre Write. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue. 

Read more from our June 2024 Centre Write magazine, ‘Generation AI?’ here.

[Image: Jake Hills]