Investing In Tech Can Change The Future For People With Autism
Dr. Robert J. Szczerba
Monday, April 2, 2018 is designated World Autism Awareness Day. Many world monuments will be lit up in blue lights to show support for the cause. Colorful ribbons and pins will be worn and emotional sentiments will be plastered all over social media. While the gestures themselves will likely be moving, the concept of autism “awareness” is simply not enough. Without autism “acceptance and inclusion”, none of this actually makes a difference.
As the father of a wonderful 13-year-old boy with autism, every day is Autism Awareness Day for us. Much of my time is spent worrying about what career opportunities will be available to him once he reaches adulthood. Will he be able to transition his special abilities into meaningful employment, or will he face a constant struggle for acceptance?
All of us possess special talents. However, while many have proclaimed the benefits of diversity, society has created stereotypes and cultural obstacles that make it difficult for “neurodiverse” individuals - those with different thinking styles - to lend their voice to the global chorus. One of the areas where change is desperately needed is in breaking down the barriers to employment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
This leads to an age-old question: How should a society recognize and encourage the strengths of an individual, while not overly penalizing their weaknesses? How do we tap into the unique abilities of a severely underrepresented, yet very talented, segment of the workforce – individuals on the autism spectrum? Current approaches don’t seem to be working very well. Consider these three disturbing statistics:
(1) Technology companies have a critical need to fill STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs, and that need is expected to grow substantially over the next decade. Consider that more than 100,000 STEM jobs just in the NYC & San Francisco Bay area alone remain unfulfilled.
(2) The skills needed to be successful at STEM jobs include visual learning skills and the ability to recognize patterns, strong attention to detail, concentration and perseverance over long periods of time, high diligence and low tolerance for mistakes. Many times these traits are similar to those exhibited by individuals on the autism spectrum.
(3) Individuals on the autism spectrum are in desperate need of employment. About 50% of people with autism do not have a cognitive impairment and still 85% of people of working age with autism are unemployed.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that companies need to tap into this underutilized talent pool if they’re going to maintain their competitive advantage, or even survive.
ASD and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and possible repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),
While much attention is paid to rising autism rates in children, the number of adults on the autism spectrum is increasing rapidly and the nation is not prepared to provide appropriate support and opportunities for these individuals. The cost of autism to the U.S. is approximately $250 billion per year, with that number expected to rise significantly over the next decade.
More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. And these individuals are in desperate need of employment. About 50% of people with autism do not have a cognitive impairment and still 85% of people of working age with autism are unemployed.
Many individuals with autism have the skills frequently desired by employers, including visual learning skills and the ability to recognize patterns, strong attention to detail, concentration and perseverance over long periods of time, high diligence and low tolerance for mistakes. Their job attrition rate is far lower than typical employees. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor is requiring federal contractors to ensure that 7% of their workforce will be individuals with disabilities. If all this is true, then why is it so difficult for these individuals to find jobs?
One significant challenge is that many employers don’t see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or have poor communication skills. New approaches are needed that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. New technologies and innovative employment programs that focus on individuals with special needs can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees. It sounds good in theory, but how do we get there? And what role can technology play in this much needed cultural change?
There are many individuals and organizations spending large sums of money trying to address issues related to autism. However, few of them are actually effective in significantly improving the quality of life of individuals on the spectrum. Some of the problems with these initiatives include:
· Organizations with an interest or responsibility to improve the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum are decentralized and disconnected. Government agencies, hiring companies, advocacy organizations, and job candidates have no centralized infrastructure to collaborate and share information.
· Local best practices have no efficient method of dissemination and acceptance at a state or national level. Every local community seems to be reinventing the wheel – wasting precious resources and duplicating efforts.
· Companies that have an interest in hiring individuals with special needs might already have the appropriate accommodations in place, but they have no training and no way to know how to reach these unique candidates.
· Resources are focused on research to find an environmental or genetic cause for autism or developing methods to find a cure. Unfortunately, these efforts do little to help individuals already living with the condition.
· Technology development is very limited. Development, if any, is limited to software “widgets” which provides limited value but does not integrate across a larger platform of information systems for education, employment, and other adult services such as housing, transportation, etc.
Several forward thinking companies, such as SAP, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, have initiated innovative autism hiring programs to better diversify their workforce and to tap into a powerful and underutilized demographic. However, with more than 50,000 individuals with autism turning 18 every year in the U.S. alone, these efforts unfortunately represent only a drop in the bucket of what is needed.
Consider the fact that technology is being used to create the “next generation” of many industries, including manufacturing, finance, and even healthcare. But the approach to employment for individuals with special needs is still a manually intensive, expensive, and relatively ineffective process. Why hasn't technology yet make an impact in this space?
Regardless of the type of job desired, the employment process is essentially the same for typical individuals as for those with special needs. An individual needs to have their interests identified at an early enough age to be cultivated and nurtured into useful skills. These skills then need to be assessed and matched to the needs of a particular company. An interview process occurs and, when a job is offered and accepted, the individual then must be integrated into the new company culture.
However, while most neuro-typical individuals can usually force their way through this pipeline and eventually find a meaningful job, most people on the autism spectrum cannot. This is where the smart use of information technology can help level the playing field. Below are several areas where technology can have the greatest and most immediate impact on the employment environment for people on the autism spectrum.
Early Identification and Nurturing of Special Abilities: Creating intelligent and interactive tools to identify and nurture interests in the arts, science, and technology fields. Individuals should be allowed to find their own strengths and interests as opposed to being forced into templated activities.
Virtual and Personalized Training: Constructing intelligent and adaptive training programs that help individuals overcome identified challenges in academics, social interactions, and general life skills. The training would be available as needed, in a variety of modalities, in a virtual and personalized environment.
Intelligent Search and Matching: Developing artificial intelligence algorithms that match individuals with appropriate jobs across a wide variety of industries. Why do online dating sites have more intelligent software than almost every employment site? I guess some companies feel that people need a date more than a job.
Interviewing and Onboarding Technologies: Deploying novel approaches for interviewing and assessing potential candidates in neutral, non-threatening environments. A company and a candidate should be able to get to know each other and assess each other's strengths and weaknesses in settings that are mutually accommodating. Virtual tours and online interactions with future co-workers should be used to ease the onboarding of individuals to new workplace environments.
Cloud-based Integrated Information Systems: Systems integration practices should be utilized to coordinate information from candidates, employers, advocacy organizations, state and local governments, and service providers. The data should be accessible from anywhere as well as being able to generate actionable insights to make the overall system more effective and cost effective.
From a technology perspective, none of these recommendations are revolutionary in nature. Machine learning, virtual environments, and systems integration concepts have obviously been around for years. Many of these concepts have been successfully developed and deployed in other industries, but have never made the transition to the areas of special needs or employment. The entire system needs to be addressed holistically. Simply fixing individual pieces, without addressing the whole enterprise, is unlikely to make much of a difference.
Technology investment has spurred innovation in so many other industries. If investors and philanthropists would simply refocus a fraction of their investment dollars to technology development and implementation related to individuals with autism, the impact would be monumental. It could quite literally create a new world of education and employment opportunities for the autistic community.
Acceptance and inclusion for individuals with disabilities are simply the next steps in a never-ending struggle for those who are viewed as “different”. This is the same as the societal struggles surrounding diversity of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. However, when the issue of diversity is discussed, people with disabilities are often forgotten.
Hopefully the times are changing and the intelligent use of information technology can level the employment playing field for those with special needs. As a society, we need to value these individuals because of their differences, not in spite of them. Now that the blue light of autism awareness has illuminated many of the challenges, let’s move forward together and put aggressive technology investment plans into action. Changing the world isn't as complicated or expensive as some may think.