Bringing Lessons from Autism IT Initiatives to Everyone

Photo of Jonathan Paul Katz

As an autistic adult who works on disability policy, I often receive articles from friends and professional connections about different efforts to employ adults on the autism spectrum. In fact, I have received many in recent weeks due to April being National Autism Month. I always appreciate this information, as it directly relates to my work as a member of the employer- and workplace-policy team in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. But over time, I have noticed a pattern with the articles in that most of them pertain to the information technology industry.

In recent years, many large IT companies — among them Microsoft, Google and Dell — have created successful autism hiring programs. Generally, each company engages in targeted recruitment, adjusts the assessment process to meet the candidates’ needs and provides support on the job through strategies, such as mentoring and peer support groups. As a result, each has recruited dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of candidates on the autism spectrum. These employees report that they are happy and fulfilled, and the companies benefit from their skills, talent and divergent thinking.

So how can policy play a role in spreading these benefits across the workforce? After all, inclusion benefits organizations across a wide range of industries, and at ODEP, we are committed to promoting effective policies and practices to advance it across the whole workforce. The success of autism hiring programs in the IT sector provides insight into what works and the potential for replication or adaptation.

As one example, we work with federal employers to promote and implement inclusive hiring practices for people with all types of disabilities. Our work in this area is guided by Executive Order 14035, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility  in the Federal Workforce, which mandates federal agencies expand the hiring and retention of employees with disabilities. Through our work to help agencies meet their DEIA goals, we have been able to highlight policies and practices, such as employee resource groups for employees on the autism spectrum as well as other employees with disabilities. These groups not only help new employees adjust to the workplace, but also provide employers feedback on their inclusion efforts.

The ODEP-funded Employer Assistance and Research Network on Disability Inclusion identifies and promotes promising practices from employers across the country and highlights autism initiatives. For example, in February, EARN hosted a webinar featuring FALA Technologies, a manufacturer that has created an apprenticeship program for people with disabilities that several autistic individuals have completed. Of note was FALA’s work with a local service provider to support its apprentices, another successful practice that many IT companies use.

We also are engaged in a long-term research project on employment for young adults on the autism spectrum aimed at learning about employment barriers and opportunities. Though the project is still in its early stages, its findings will inform what policies and practices we promote going forward. Once again, I expect many will parallel those that have bolstered success in the IT sector.

To inform these efforts, we engage with people on the autism spectrum and organizations representing them. Successful policies become well known quickly. In meetings, stakeholders often express the desire to emulate large IT companies’ inclusive practices, such as alternatives to the traditional interview process.

If disability employment policies and practices have already proven successful to employers and have support from the people they impact, that is a good thing. Those of us in ODEP appreciate the IT industry’s leadership on this issue because we can now apply lessons learned to benefit employers and employees across industries.

Jonathan Paul Katz is a policy adviser and Presidential Management Fellow in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.