This Autism-Majority Workforce Proves the Business Case for Disability Accommodations

One of my all-time favorite books is “The Speed of Dark.” I’m not the only one who thinks it’s great, as it was a best-seller and won some major awards for science fiction literature. Many of the book’s ideas still pop up in my mind a decade since I first read it. In fact, I even published an academic paper about it during my graduate studies.

A major theme of the book is the ongoing question of whether a person with autism should learn to cope with the world as it is, or whether the world can change a little to accommodate the needs of people with autism.

Moon’s main character works in high-level mathematics in the tech sector with a group of other people with autism. Collectively, the team brings in millions and millions of dollars. The cost? Some relatively simple accommodations that make the work environment friendly to a person on the autism spectrum.

It took some time, but a workplace for people with autism is no longer limited to works of fiction. It’s a real place, as this NYT profile shows.

Auticon, a merger of two different tech start-ups with the same premise, is leveraging the talents of a workforce primarily made up of people on the autism spectrum to do high-level, in-demand IT work. A less innovative or flexible workplace might simply turn those talents away.

The Americans with Disabilities Act essentially requires reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, both when it comes to accessing services or goods sold to the public, and when hiring a person with a disability to an organization. This “duty to accommodate” is broadly defined in legislation, but it hinges on whether a person can meet justifiable minimum criteria to perform a job, and also whether they can perform the job with accommodations that do not put an undue hardship on a company.

Most of this is common sense, but sometimes common sense is lacking.

Say a company decided to refuse to allow a person missing part of or all of their right arm to work or continue to work in sales, because the manager thinks “a firm handshake is key.” That’s not really an authentic example of a minimum criterion for working in sales — and since there’s no authentic reason to think a person with a missing limb can’t be an effective salesperson, this would be a violation of the ADA and illegal discrimination.

On the other hand, what if a person with a severe brain injury that affected short term memory decided he wanted to be a teacher? If he can’t remember student names, plan and implement a lesson, or remember or implement school safety procedures, there isn’t a reasonable accommodation available. Even hiring two teachers for one classroom probably wouldn’t be considered reasonable, since it puts an undue financial hardship on the school district.

Many companies have put people with autism in the latter category. Excepting those prospective employees near the milder end of the spectrum, it’s been more or less accepted that any accommodation for a person with the social challenges that come with autism — difficulty with social cues, anxiety about linguistic ambiguity and behavioral norms, and a general difficulty in quickly adapting to a culture or hierarchy with a lot of unspoken rules — would be more than a company could reasonably bear.

But Moon didn’t think this was true, particularly when considering the exceptional talents that many on the spectrum have. And at least two different sets of start-up founders who would eventually come together in today’s Auticon agreed.

But one of the more interesting lessons isn’t just the need to be innovative and think outside the box in terms of what an office, work schedule or manager-employee relationship has to look like. It’s an idea that’s obvious in retrospect: So much of what’s reasonable or not reasonable has been decided on the basis of an office built for a particular kind of employee – one that expects every incoming person to force themselves into that mold.

If you start with employee diversity first and design the office around that principle, suddenly the per-employee cost of being a good workplace decreases, and the availability of hirable talent increases. And if this works for employees with autism, it could work for all kinds of disabilities across diverse workplaces — so long as employers aren’t planning for a single token individual.

Photo credit: Getty Images

41 comments

Diane E
Diane E2 days ago

Celebrate diversity and use people's talents.

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danii p
danii p6 days ago

TYFS

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danii p
danii p6 days ago

TYFS

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danii p
danii p6 days ago

TYFS

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N T
N T8 days ago

Just a reminder that autism is a neurological disorder one is born with, not a disease. You don't call someone who can't see "a person with blindness," you call them "a blind person." Similarly, someone on the autism spectrum should be referred to as "an autistic person" rather than "a person with autism." The language referring to the disability matters just as much as accommodations for it. Thanks.

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Peggy B
Peggy B8 days ago

TYFS

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Debbi W
Debbi W8 days ago

I commend companies that accommodate autism spectrum people. Many have special talents and they should be hired for that.

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Renata K
Renata Kovacs8 days ago

Thank you for sharing,,,

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Diane E
Diane E8 days ago

Thank you. Use everyone's talents.

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David C
David C8 days ago

thanks

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