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Guest column: Hiring capable people on the autism spectrum is good business

Florida Times-Union - 5/12/2019

May 12--It is hard to imagine individuals more diverse than these:

Vernon Smith, an economist who has taught at Stanford University and Brown University, was awarded a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work in experimental economics.

Clay Marzo, a world champion surfer, was profiled in a lead article for ESPN magazine.

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a popular public speaker, is respected for developing more humane animal husbandry techniques.

• While chief music critic at The Washington Post, Tim Rice was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his insightful analyses of opera.

Yet they share a common condition: autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify autism spectrum disorder as a developmental disability defined by diagnostic criteria that include deficits in social communication and social interaction, and the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities that can persist throughout life. The CDC estimates that 1 in every 59 children has been identified as having autism.

Because autism exists on a spectrum, individuals with autism may differ dramatically from one another. One person may have cognitive limitations and be unable to perform activities of daily living without assistance while another may be highly gifted, write persuasively, live independently and succeed in challenging and sophisticated employment.

Unfortunately, individuals with autism, who already face many challenges, have had to address yet one more challenge: the mistaken and harmful belief that those with autism are more likely to commit workplace or community violence.

When the media report on a violent incident, they typically note when the suspect has autism. They do not note when the suspect does not have autism. The implication is that the autism is a cause of the violence. This hypothesis has not been borne out by scientific research.

The largest study to date on this issue was a June 2017 study from Sweden published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The study, which analyzed data from almost 300,000 persons, concluded that autism alone was not associated with convictions for violent crimes. Instead, it was other, co-occurring disorders, such as conduct disorder, later-onset psychiatric disorders (for instance, schizophrenia) and drug and alcohol misuse that were the most important predictors of criminal violence in those with autism.

Importantly, this finding is not limited to persons with autism. "Neurotypical" persons without autism but with those same conditions were also more likely to commit crimes than neurotypical persons without those conditions.

The nonprofit autism advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, estimates that, over the next decade, 500,000 teens (50,000 each year) will enter adulthood and age out of school-based autism services. As many as 85 percent of college-educated individuals with autism are unemployed. This contrasts markedly with the general 2019 U.S. unemployment rate of 3.8 percent.

This high unemployment rate exists in part because of insufficient workforce education about autism. Those with autism, no matter how intelligent or educated, may perform poorly on traditional job interviews. They may have difficulty sustaining eye contact, reading body language and understanding ambiguous questions. Their otherwise admirable traits of truth-telling and modesty may make them reluctant to speak in effusive terms of their skills as a potential employee.

This is ironic, since studies of large corporations that have autism-hiring initiatives have shown that employees with autism are typically exceptionally reliable, responsible, hardworking, skilled and less likely to move frequently from job to job.

In the face of the employment challenges that even gifted, well-educated individuals with autism face, it becomes all the more important for the business community and the general public to have a sound, science-based understanding of what autism is and is not. Hiring a capable individual with autism is not a safety risk. It is, however, often an excellent business decision.

Karen Cole has been a circuit judge in this community for 25 years. She has organized free seminars on autism and other disabilities for judges and attorneys. Laura Bailet is a licensed school psychologist and a former member of the Governor's Task Force on Autism. Both are past winners of The Florida Times-Union's EVE Award for Employment.

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(c)2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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