Autism At Work Summit 2018: Neurodiversity Programs Benefit All Employees

Employee Benefits, company benefits, Cognoa Updates

Posted by Michele Bell on May 3, 2018

“I wouldn’t change my son for the world, but I would change the world for my son.”

Holly Robinson Peete captures a central theme of the Autism at Work movement perfectly: when companies implement clear processes, systems, and support that create environments in which autistic people thrive, all employees shine. The benefits of incorporating neurodiversity as part of inclusion programs can be felt company-wide. Stigmas are recognized and overcome, productivity and job satisfaction increases, brand and competitive advantages strengthen.

Holly, and those gathered at Microsoft’s headquarters last week for the Autism At Work Summit, already recognize the value and talent autistic people bring to the workplace. Attendees were there to learn from each other: to share, develop, and grow their existing neurodiversity programs and results.

This was the third Autism at Work Summit, an annual conference that grew out of  SAP’s Autism at Work program. Diversity and inclusion managers, HR and hiring professionals, internal champions, and autistic hires themselves from leading global companies participated. Nonprofits partnering with employers and research institutions also contributed (watch NBC video of Autism Alliance of Michigan helping Ford start their Autism at Work program).

We heard amazing stories of successes and challenges from leaders as to how they are helping their organizations focus on what it takes to infuse and build neurodiversity into inclusive workplace programs and culture. Different companies are at different stages of maturity with their programs. Microsoft’s Inclusive Hiring Program started in 2015. SAP’s Autism at Work program launched in May 2013 with a goal to have 1% of its global workforce represented by autistic employees. In 2016, EY launched its neurodiversity pilot program (PDF), hiring four individuals to work in its Philadelphia Neurodiversity Center of Excellence. JPMorgan, Travelers Insurance, and DXC Technology also have programs in place.

Neurodiversity Creates Business Value

The theme that repeatedly emerged over the course of the 3-day Summit: the thinking, systems, and processes that are put into place to launch and grow neurodiversity and Autism at Work programs can enlighten and improve standards across the company. Hiren Shukla, leader of EY’s NeuroDiversity Center of Excellence, explained that what was designed for autistic employees proves valuable for all, increases morale and job satisfaction, and makes for better managers. Tap into the #AutismAdvantage – company-wide – was an overriding message.

We can draw the connections here. For example, imagine if every employee feels understood and supported. Every employee knows they can be who they really are at work and share their struggles. This can create an enormous amount of growth, thriving, and job satisfaction. And this can translate into competitive advantage. Employees feel that they belong, every day, when companies create an inclusive, supportive environment that empowers each individual person.

Tom D’Eri reinforced this message. He his family created Rising Tide Car Wash as a way to create meaningful, sustainable employment for autistic people. His hard metrics – high employee morale, high customer satisfaction – demonstrate not only business success, but also true competitive advantage.

 Engaging Employees and Communities: A Support Circle

SAP’s Jose Velasco, head of the company’s Autism at Work initiative, emphasized the importance of a support circle at work: job buddies, internal mentors, community support and partnerships with local nonprofits. In 2014, SAP partnered with Specialisterne USA (who recently co-produced the UN’s Autism Advantage event) and The Arc to develop an IT Training and onboarding program in the US. Velasco also spoke to the need to move beyond the bias that autistic people may be best suited for tech jobs: their talents and skills can contribute across functions, across the board. There are many opportunities to tap into often overlooked gifts and skills of autistic individuals. This is yet another example of how programs designed for the careers and employment of autistic people can - when applied broadly - serve all employees.

For a thorough account of each day at the Summit, read the excellent reports by Paul Austin of IBM: day 1, day 2, and day 3.