Sesame Street is adding a new character--Julia, a Muppet who has autism. Sesame Street realizes that, for whatever reason, the percentage of children with autism has risen from what it was when the show began more than 40 years ago. The thing is, children with autism don't stay children. They grow into adulthood, and as they do, most will need jobs.

So let's talk about diversity. We HR types love to talk about diversity. We have "diversity officers," and we post all our job descriptions with "Company X is an Equal Opportunity Employer." But then we write articles like this one: Job Seekers: Avoid These 7 Nonverbal Mistakes in Job Interviews. Now, Quast's ideas are good ones and you should pay attention to them, but note how they would affect the chances of a person with autism getting the job.

Unusual handshake
Poor or too much eye contact
Out-of-control gestures
Lack of facial expression
Poor posture
Odd attire
Too much cologne/aftershave/perfume

It's practically a check-off list for people with autism. And yes, you need your public relations person to make the right amount of eye contact, and you need your salespeople to dress like salespeople, but your statistician?

One of my statistician friends described his fellow attendees at a conference as people "wearing clothes that their mothers bought for them in 1992." I'm not saying that they were autistic (although some may have been), but if you're crunching numbers all day long, your odd attire doesn't matter, and a recruiter or hiring manager that puts too much of an emphasis on that will miss out on quality candidates. Do all statisticians have odd wardrobes? No. Does a shirt from 1992 mean that the person will be a poor performer? No.

If you want true diversity in employees, you want diversity of ideas, opinion, experience, and thought, not just skin color. That means that your "perfectly reasonable" expectations might be inadvertently screening out diverse candidates. Let's talk about out-of-control gestures. Stephen M. Edelson, PhD, wrote about behaviors associated with autism. They include:

Visual: staring at lights, repetitive blinking, moving fingers in front of the eyes, hand-flapping
Auditory: tapping ears, snapping fingers, making vocal sounds
Tactile: rubbing the skin with one's hands or with another object, scratching
Vestibular: rocking front to back, rocking side to side
Taste: placing body parts or objects in one's mouth, licking objects
Smell: smelling objects, sniffing people

None of this behavior is appropriate in a job interview, but do you really want to exclude someone who could do the job and do it well because of these behaviors? We've decided it's not appropriate because most of us don't do that sort of thing, but many people with autism do. Think long and hard about that before you get too judgmental about the job candidate.

Sesame Street is making a good start by introducing a person with autism to its cast. Hopefully, today's children will grow up thinking of autism as a variation of normal and not something to be excluded.

Published on: Oct 23, 2015
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