In the past decade there has been a considerable turnaround in the number of job opportunities being made available to people who are regarded as neuro-atypical, often with diagnosable disorders such as autism or dyslexia.
Associate Professor Anna Krzeminska from the Macquarie Business School says neuro-atypical individuals have historically experienced unemployment or underemployment rates as high as 85 to 90 per cent in developed nations such as the United States.
In Australia, the labour force participation rate of adults with autism is approximately 40 per cent, accounting for the greatest percentage of underemployment of any subgroup.
Krzeminska says many neuro-atypical people possess highly desirable work-related talents and are capable of functioning productively in organisations, but are often barred from work opportunities.
The problem is not with neuro-atypical people, but with hiring processes that define talent too narrowly.
“The problem is not with neuro-atypical people, but with hiring processes that define talent too narrowly and that rely heavily on job interview formats that are biased against people with atypical manners of interaction,” Krzeminska says.
“This view accords with early criticisms of employment perspectives viewing diversity as ‘the problem’ rather than the problem being the inappropriate management of diversity.”
Workplace and societal benefits
Krzeminska’s ongoing global research program, co-led with Professor Charmine Hartel from the Monash Business School, finds new workplace initiatives not only benefit neuro-atypical individuals, but also their colleagues as well as society and the businesses which adopt them.
“Some hiring and training methods adopted by companies rely less on interviews and more on exercises allowing autistic people to demonstrate their talents.”
She says that despite a slow implementation of neurodiversity-inclusive practices, their validity is being established globally and with prominent Australian companies and government organisations such as IBM, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services and most recently Auticon, an international IT firm backed by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
“These companies are implementing employment initiatives that de-emphasise interviews in favour of new inclusive recruiting approaches that have proven celebrated successes in hiring neuro-atypical people.”
Research found people with autism have special abilities to complete exacting and repetitive tasks.
One of her articles on the topic, The Advantages and Challenges of Neurodiversity Employment in Organisations, was published as part of a Special Issue on the Topic of Neurodiversity in the Journal of Management and Organisation, and emphasises the importance of gainful employment to neuro-atypical individuals.
Krzeminska and the co-authors – Robert Austin, Susanne Bruyere and Darren Hedley – say employment is an integral part of life that offers individuals both economic security and the chance to contribute their talents and skills to society. Research shows that having a job is an important determinant of intangible benefits such as self-esteem and provides a critical link between an individual and the world at large.
“From a societal perspective, obvious tangible benefits are created through the employment and integration of highly talented, but previously excluded parts of the population, creating budgetary improvements by reducing public assistance costs and increasing tax payments each time a previously unemployed person becomes employed,” the research says.
The World Bank and World Health Organisation estimate that individuals with disabilities make up at least 15 per cent of the world's population – that is, 1 billion people. Within Australia, approximately 1 in 5 individuals have a disability (4.3 million) with the prevalence of autism estimated to be 1 in 70 (353,880).
Despite this equating to one in five or six people globally, people with disabilities are half as likely to be employed as their non-disabled peers. According to 2015 data from the ABS, the labour force participation rate of people with a disability was 53 per cent compared to 83 per cent of their non-disabled counterparts.
“Barriers to the employment of people with disabilities parallel those of other minority populations – namely, negative attitudes and stereotypes from supervisors and co-workers, which in turn impact access to work experience and skill development,” the paper says.
Philosophical shift needed
Krzeminska says disability advocates advanced the theories of normalisation, protection and advocacy, independent living, and civil rights and empowerment for people with disabilities.
“Regulatory environments that prohibit discrimination and support vocational training and educational opportunities constitute a critical first step toward addressing these needed philosophical shifts in how people with disabilities are viewed and also ultimately toward their economic independence.”
Krzeminska argues that businesses stand to benefit by adopting employment practices that are fairer. “Many of the people hired, despite supposed disabilities, perform well in their jobs,” she says.
Businesses also benefit when the specific character of neuro-atypical conditions are applied to certain roles. For example, research found people with autism have special abilities to complete exacting and repetitive tasks, to observe and to recall detail, and to recognise patterns that allow them to do valuable work for which others lack patience or a similar ability.
“In some contexts, the ability to focus single-mindedly on a task has been observed to generate substantial productivity benefits. In others, the visceral discomfort some neuro-atypical people feel when they encounter disorder or illogic in a business system usefully triggers process improvement efforts,” the paper says.
Krzeminska says that managers of neuro-atypical employees in the future will have no choice but to manage these employees as individuals, based on the belief that such a philosophy is beneficial for business and society as a whole.
Dr Anna Krzeminska is an Associate Professor at the Macquarie Business School