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The most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that approximately 1 in 68 American children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), making it the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world. Autistic individuals have difficulty with communication and social interaction, which has historically hindered this group’s participation in the workforce. Social media and other computer-based communication technologies, however, are making it possible for people with ASD — almost 2% of the U.S. population — to enter the workforce more productively.
This presents an opportunity for companies to “do well by doing good” — that is, to gain valuable human resources by opening their doors to an underrepresented population. Many people within the autistic spectrum have rare skillsets that align very naturally with specific needs of some companies. People with ASD often have a propensity to excel at tasks that other people often find tedious and complicated. According to a Boston University study on autism in the workforce, ASD individuals have a distinctive ability to analyze data, pay incredible attention to detail, and excel in math and computer coding.
For these reasons, several large technology companies are intentionally tapping into this group of unique individuals in order to access valuable skills that are in demand in the marketplace. Software giants such as SAP and Microsoft are now actively looking to hire people with autism. SAP plans to have autistic employees make up at least 1% of its workforce by the year 2020.
Jose Velasco, the head of the autism initiative at SAP, elaborates: “They [individuals with ASD] have a very structured nature. We are looking at these strengths and looking at where those traits would be of value to the organization.” Luisa Delgado, a member of the SAP executive board, describes it another way — one that flips the idea of ASD as a “disability” on its head: “Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”
Recent gains in social media adoption are part of what makes this new perspective on ASD possible. While most companies apply social media internally to allow existing employees to interact better, its adoption has also opened up an opportunity to recruit new types of employees as well. Studies reveal that people with ASD actually benefit from using computer-based communication because it helps alleviate some of the challenges they face using regular social interaction. Social media platforms may allow companies to regard the neurological differences of people with ASD as an opportunity to leverage, rather than a challenge to overcome.
This switch in attitude could ultimately open the doors to new opportunities and interactions not immediately obvious. If managers keep an open mind and provide the opportunity for ASD candidates to thrive in this type of environment, it creates the opportunity for an influx of valued skills and alternative perspectives.
For example, people with ASD have difficulty reading facial expressions and picking up on social cues, making everyday human interaction challenging. According to a study conducted at the University of Glasgow on autism and social media, tools such as Facebook and instant messaging reduce the number of social cues the user needs to pay attention to in order to socialize and interact effectively. Instead of needing to read facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice, computer or mobile screens make it easier for autistic folks to identify social cues in an easy-to-process format.
It also makes social cues more explicit. While it may be difficult for autistic people to assess other people’s perceptions or relationships in offline settings, Facebook makes it clear when someone “likes” something, and overtly identifies when two people are “friends.”
People with ASD may also have heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and touch, which can lead to sensory overload in normal social situations. An article from Autism Digest explains how social media and computer communication allows people with ASD to socialize in a more quiet and controlled setting. Using computers allows autistic people to interact with others without the sensory overload they face in a typical social setting. The slower nature of the communication channels compared to offline settings also provides them more time to think about what to say and how to say it, allowing them to convey their thoughts more clearly.
Ultimately, by embracing digital tools for communication and collaboration in the enterprise, companies are unintentionally making their working environments more accommodating for people with ASD — with the side benefit that these companies can thereby put their unique mindset to good use. This trend may represent an opportunity for people with ASD to not only enter but also to truly thrive in the workplace.
It’s clear that not all people within the autism spectrum will benefit from these emerging opportunities. The process of bringing ASD individuals into the workforce will most likely not include members across the entire spectrum, nor is it a process that is entirely without difficulty or risk. Nevertheless, enterprise social media platforms create opportunities for a large portion of the ASD community and for companies to tap into novel groups of workers to deepen and diversify their talent pools in ways that are valuable for the digital transformation many companies and industries are currently experiencing.