I am not a unicorn: stop hiring autistic people for the wrong reasons

Believe me, I want you to hire autistic people.

As an autistic job seeker myself, I can tell you that it’s pretty tough out here. I’ve been searching for 2.5 years now with no success. The job market is a minefield of myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings for autistic people and our unemployment rate is abysmal. A recent study found that here in Australia, 31.6% of autistic people are unemployed — a rate that is 3 times that for people with disabilities in general and is almost 6 times the unemployment rate for people who do not have a disability. That said, hiring autistic people for all the wrong reasons is just as bad as not hiring us at all. I’d love to find a job, but the employment of autistic people has to be sustainable, meaningful and ethical. From my perspective as just one autistic voice — because I don’t speak for an entire community — here are three reasons that should not be driving your decision to hire autistic people.

Thinking we’re all savants who will come in and magically solve all your problems for you

One of the most irritating myths about autistic people is that we’re all super genius robots with magical powers. Fictional portrayals of autistic people in popular culture are exactly that — works of fiction. Very occasionally I’ll see glimpses of myself in these stories, however, there is so much diversity within the spectrum that it is impossible for all of it to be captured accurately and inclusively — especially through the lens of a non-autistic writer or actor, but that is a story for another day. My point is, no two autistic people are exactly the same. It’s called a spectrum for a reason! Some of us have a very high IQ and some of us are exceptionally talented people who will probably change the world, but that’s not true for all of us. Most of us are just people doing the best we can to survive in a world that wasn’t designed for us. We’re all individuals each with our own unique set of skills, experience and talents. Resist the urge to actively set out to hire autistic people because you watched Rain Man on the weekend. We’re not some silver bullet secret sauce that you can call in to solve your problems and toss aside when you’re done — we’re human beings.

Hiring one autistic person because you want to be seen to be doing the ‘right thing’

Organisations who hire a small number of us and pat themselves on the back for ‘doing the right thing’ and for taking a strategic hit for the team so they can shout from the rooftops about how inclusive they are, are not helping anyone but themselves. I’m not a cause for you to impose yourself upon and I’m not a vehicle for manufactured good publicity. Supporting autistic people is not a ‘one and done’ type deal. While you’re lighting things up blue and hoeing into your puzzle piece topped cupcakes in April, there’s a whole other layer that you’re completely oblivious to, but we’re living it every single day. Every day is a fight to be taken seriously. To be viewed as an actual human being with genuine worth and be recognised as capable of adding as much value to the world as anyone else. To be accepted just as we are. I don’t want your pity or self-serving idea of charitable behaviour, I want you to see me the way I see myself. I want and deserve equality. Treat all your candidates equally. Hire people because you found an amazing individual — autistic or not —  who can do the job you’re trying to fill. That’s how you be inclusive. That is the right thing to do. Truly inclusive people don’t feel the need to talk about how wonderful they are. They ask questions, they see and openly welcome the genuine value of different thinking. They unconditionally accept all forms of diversity. They embrace equality and they never stop trying to learn how they can do better.

Only hiring autistic people for the roles that you think we can do

You may have heard that autistic people are ‘well suited’ to specific role types — usually in technology fields. You may have heard organisations bragging about how they got a bunch of autistic people to do the jobs that their non-autistic employees didn’t want to do. Before you get too excited, I have some news for you: those very specific roles don’t work for all of us and we are not your suit and tie equivalent of a janitor. While I certainly believe that there are organisations that have observed autistic people performing well in specific roles types, it doesn’t mean — and they’re not actually saying — that we all will. Some of us love and thrive in these types of roles and some of us would rather gouge our own eyes out and eat them than be that bored or be forced to spend 40 hours a week in a role we honestly don’t love and never will. Autistic people come from all walks of life and exist in all professional fields. We can do any job. Role pigeonholing is inaccurate, exclusionary, unfair and in many cases, discriminatory. You do not get to tell autistic people which jobs they can and can’t do. I’m a user researcher and writer with a decade of experience but when I talk to people about the type of jobs that I apply for, they often struggle to understand how an autistic person could possibly have the social skills needed to do that job. Before my diagnosis, my social differences were openly joked about in the workplace — usually right in front of me like I wasn’t there — and I once got banned from running a research study because I wasn’t trusted to talk to users. If an autistic person applies for a role that you think they can’t do because of their autism, don’t just throw their application in the bin. Don’t be so quick to write people off and don’t think that it’s even remotely OK for you to discriminate against them. If they meet the selection criteria for the job, talk to the person, ask them about their professional experience, talk to people who’ve worked with them before — oh I think you know what this process is called.

So there are three wrong reasons to hire autistic people — if you’re looking for the right reasons, here’s seven of them.

This article was written by Ashlea McKay on behalf of Centre for Inclusive Design