The Autism Underclass

Joshua Rivera

Among the 1 in 68 U.S. children who are now estimated to be on the autism spectrum, there are a large number who are classified as high functioning, who achieve higher education, and who are capable of joining the workforce.

Almost all of them are unemployed, and it’s because the way we hire leaves them out in the cold.

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Of the 35 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum that go on to pursue postsecondary education, 75 to 85 percent are unemployed when they graduate—about half a million people, according to Marcia Scheiner, president and founder of the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP), who took part in a panel Thursday as a part of Internet Week New York.

“Today’s interview process is largely based around the concept of socialization: Your ability to network, your ability to interact with others,” said Scheiner. “This can be one of the biggest challenges for individuals on the spectrum.”

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Further, there are few of the crucial networks of support available to those on the spectrum as they prepare to enter the workforce. While most neurotypical students enlist their institution’s career-services office, Scheiner says students on the spectrum often only have mental-health or disability offices to turn to, in both their education and beyond. 

“They don’t go to the traditional venues where you would be introduced to employers. They’re not going to show up at job fairs and be terrific networkers.”

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Through ASTEP, Scheiner’s approach has been one of support and education—persuading hiring professionals at Fortune 500 companies and beyond to expand their calculations about what makes a good candidate—to not place so much value on eye contact or a strong handshake or a typical interview.

But another way to help get adults on the spectrum hired is by proving that theirs is a talent pool with an enormous competitive advantage.

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“People that already appreciate difference believe that by being more tolerant and being able to see different kinds of people, they’re going to build a stronger team,” says Rajesh Anandan, co-founder of Ultra Testing, a software testing company. “That diversity, and diversity of thought, makes you better.”

But how do you identify and assess individuals who are clinically unable to perform well by our traditional methods of sizing a candidate up? According to Guy Halfteck, games aren’t a bad idea.

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Halfteck is the founder of Knack, a company that wants to use games to quantify exactly what it is people of all stripes are good at—and it’s particularly well-suited for those on the spectrum

“Games are very nonthreatening,” says Halfteck. “Because there is no interaction with people… causing anxiety, causing all sorts of other fears. Not everyone is good at interviews, not everyone is good at social interaction.”

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Knack’s games, then, are designed to evaluate specific attributes and skills—both for the benefit of individuals via forthcoming smartphone app, and employers who will have a quantitative way of evaluating a candidate’s performance.

“We want to take out those biases, those prejudices, out of the equation, to remove those barriers,” says Halfteck. “Leave people with better opportunities. And games are the best, ultimate experience.”

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Both Halfteck and Anandan say they believe that the potential of job candidates on the autism spectrum is about to hit a critical mass, that their employment is going to gain serious momentum once the data proves unequivocally that there are environments in which individuals on the spectrum regularly outperform their neurotypical colleagues—and that there should be a greater effort made to recruit them.

“Now we are at a point where people are realizing that there are better ways to make those decisions, those tools are available, and if they are not adopting those tools, they are going to be left behind,” says Halfteck. “Because those companies that do adopt are going to be doing better than those who don’t.”

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“This is a way to bring people in, as opposed to leaving them on the fringes of society.”

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