What can we do to increase equity in our processes for autistic candidates?

6 mins

In 2023 creating a diverse workforce should be at the top of any business strategy or agenda. Diversity comes in many different forms, but ultimately, it can establish a more productive business full of people with differing skills, perspectives, experiences and backgrounds.

This results in benefits such as: improved decision-making, less groupthink, better innovation rates and increased creativity, to name just a few.

Neurodivergent candidates – i.e. people with or pursuing diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and/or dyslexia, make up an intrinsic part of the diverse workforce that so many businesses are striving to recruit. However, recruitment consultants and employers alike should take into consideration what reasonable adjustments these candidates may require in order to achieve this.

Sellick Partnership will be focussing on what can be done to create an inclusive approach, especially for autistic candidates, when it comes to seeking employment and the recruitment journey as a whole.

What is autism?

Autism affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. We will not be referring to autism as a disability, because autistic people often recognise it as a fundamental aspect of their identity – as a positive difference, rather than a disability.

Autism impacts people in many different ways. And, just like each person in society, autistic people have their own individual strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to recruitment, autistic candidates are often highly skilled and extremely employable, but are invariably at an immediate disadvantage unless those they speak to at the beginning of the recruitment process have either a prior understanding of the condition, or have received some targeted awareness training.

Autism and the workplace

According to I AM Autism, over 332,000 UK adults at working age have been diagnosed with autism, varying in type and severity. Of those, there are around 77% that are unemployed and wanting to work. In addition, 53% of autistic adults said they want help to find work, but there are only 10% getting that help, therefore still making up a significant percentage of the disability employment gap.

UK companies have made strides when it comes to increasing inclusion, but there is more to be done in order to ensure that the workplace is more neuro-inclusive. This begins with removing unconscious and conscious bias from the interview process, enabling recruiters or hiring managers to better understand autistic candidates. This provides a better experience for all – whether there is a positive placement or not.

Challenges faced

The challenges faced by autistic adults when it comes to the standard recruitment process are extensive, and the list below is only a snapshot of some of the more common issues when tackling the interview stage:

  • Finding the confidence to advise an employer they are autistic - knowing they may face bias rather than benefiting from the reasonable adjustments that they are entitled to under the Equality Act.

  • Differences in communication style - including both verbal and non-verbal communication (facial expression, body language etc), such as maintaining expected levels of eye contact.

  • Difficulties contextualising open questions - e.g. matching memories of previous career experiences to ‘tell me about a time when…’ questions.

  • Responding effectively to non-specific/abstract questions - especially those phrased in hypothetical ‘what if…’ terms.

  • Feeling acutely pressured by unfamiliar people and environments which they haven’t been able to ‘model’ effectively in advance - trying to respond to questions while having to process a lot of new sensory information.

  • Ability to engage in ‘impression management’ – the majority of autistic people aren’t disingenuous, and don’t dissimulate.

  • Intuiting whether to give more or less information to suit the interviewers’ style.

Recruitment Consultants, Talent Acquisition Managers and Interviewers need to take into consideration the many variations of autism and treat every candidate as unique. We need to understand the challenges for each individual, and consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to build equity into the process.

Creating a more inclusive approach

Building a recruitment process that involves all candidates fundamentally stems from the employer, their culture and values, and how these are projected to potential employees searching for roles both on the company website and via external job advertisements.

For example, if a skill such as ‘excellent communication skills’ is included on a job description, some autistic candidates may decide that the role is not appropriate for them (their strengths will typically be technical rather than communication skills).

However, the job advertised may not actually require excellent communication skills at all – this is one of those criteria that tend to be added reflexively. Therefore, it is worth taking into consideration what you really do need from a prospective employee before writing the job description.

Alternatively, take some time to figure out what is meant by ‘excellent communication skills’. What is the context for this requirement? This is such a broad term, it could be worth breaking this down into tasks, for example: emailing customers, managing conflict, motivating peers.

Another simple but effective addition to a job advertisement is opening up the conversation around adapting processes to meet candidates’ needs. A clear declarative sentence which lets candidates know that you are open to discussing what they may require from you can go a long way to making someone feel more comfortable, increasing the likelihood that those with autism will apply and consider your business as an employer of choice.

Reasonable adjustments

As noted above, reasonable adjustments for those who are neurodivergent will vary from individual to individual. However, common alterations to consider are likely to include:

  • Offering a trial week or working interview, to assess their ability to perform the role and skills required.

  • Providing a written assignment to assess their skillset outside of a pressurised environment, giving you an insight to their likely quality of work in the role.

  • Having an initial introductory call, before an on-site face-to-face meeting, to familiarise them with the interviewer. If this is not possible, then a good alternative is to circulate a photo and brief biography of each interviewer in advance in order to reduce the level of unfamiliarity on the day.

  • Providing the questions in advance: unfamiliarity/surprises will impact performance, whereas questions-in-advance will enable you to receive considered responses rather than off-the-cuff replies.

  • Offering a visit to site, a few days before the interview, allowing an autistic candidate to familiarise themselves with the environment and understand what adjustments may be necessary (e.g. subdued rather than harsh/bright lighting). Alternatively, you could offer directions or maps, including pictures of the entrance to the building.

  • When asking questions, provide clarity in what you are looking for and use follow-up questions as necessary for further clarification.

  • Providing a clear timetable of the interview, for example ‘the first 30 minutes will focus on X, while the second 30 minutes will focus on Y’ – stick to these during the interview.

  • Politely interjecting when a candidate has explained enough to you (“Thank you: you’ve given us enough information on this topic”), and moving on to the next question.

  • Being aware that a candidate may take a question literally. For example, in response to ‘how did you find your last job?’, the candidate may reply that they used Google Maps on their first day and remembered the journey from there on out, or ‘found it’ on LinkedIn, rather than how their experience of the role/company was.

Through understanding autism and neurodivergence as a whole, companies have the ability to make reasonable adjustments to an interview process which, while often small in themselves, can greatly reduce the impact on autistic applicants and make the process accessible to them.

This will in turn provide greater access to work for autistic jobseekers. Companies will see an expansion of the candidate pool, with more individuals who possess the skillsets they often find so difficult to acquire. Not only will employers benefit directly from these particular skillsets, but neurodivergent individuals tend to thrive in workplaces where they are understood and can perform to their potential (and note: such workplaces tend to be better for all employees, neurodivergent or not).

The employer therefore benefits from increased longevity of employment, enhanced productivity, and a stable workforce within key roles in the business.

Sellick Partnership has worked with AS Mentoring to produce this article. Find out more about the services they offer here.

If you have any questions, then feel free to contact us here